The Changing Light at Sandover

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Front cover of "The Changing Light at Sandover", showing the ballroom of James Merrill's childhood home in the 1930s

"The Changing Light at Sandover" is a 560-page epic poem by James Merrill (1926–1995). Sometimes described as a postmodern apocalyptic epic, the poem was published in three volumes from 1976 to 1980, and as one volume "with a new coda" by Atheneum (Charles Scribner's Sons) in 1982 (ISBN 978-0-689-11282-9).

Already established in the 1970s among the finest lyric poets of his generation, Merrill made a surprising detour by incorporating extensive occult messages into his work (although a poem from the 1950s, "Voices from the Other World", was the first to quote such "otherworldly" voices). With his partner David Jackson, Merrill spent more than 20 years transcribing supernatural communications during séances using a ouija board.

Merrill published his first ouija board narrative cycle in 1976, with a poem for each of the letters A through Z, calling it The Book of Ephraim. It appeared in the collection Divine Comedies (Atheneum), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1977.[1]

At the time he believed he had exhausted the inspiration provided by the ouija board. The "spirits", he believed, thought otherwise, however, "ordering" Merrill to write and publish further installments, Mirabell: Books of Number in 1978 (which won the National Book Award for Poetry)[2] and Scripts for the Pageant in 1980. The complete three-volume work, with a brief additional coda, appeared in one book titled The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982. Sandover received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983.[3]

In live readings, Merrill was able to impersonate the narrating voices of (deceased) poet W. H. Auden and late friends Maya Deren and Maria Mitsotáki. He also claimed to give voice to otherworldly spirits including a first-century Jew named Ephraim, and Mirabell (a ouija board guide).

Merrill and his last partner, actor Peter Hooten, adapted the poem for a live ensemble reading at the Agassiz Theatre at Radcliffe College in 1990, a performance filmed and released as "Voices from Sandover". Acclaimed Polish actress Elżbieta Czyżewska played the role of Greek socialite Maria Mitsotáki.

James Merrill and David Jackson at home in Athens, Greece, October 1973. With the help of a ouija board, they would complete most of "The Changing Light at Sandover" over the next seven years. (Photo: Judith Moffett)

Writer Alison Lurie, a longtime friend of Merrill and Jackson, described her feelings about the creative genesis of the poem in her memoir Familiar Spirits (2001).

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Poetry". Past winners & finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-04-06.
  2. ^ "National Book Awards – 1979". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-04-06.
    (With essay Megan Snyder-Camp from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog—one "Appreciation" covering both Merrill's 1967 and 1979 Poetry awards.)
  3. ^ "All Past National Book Critics Circle Awards Winners and Finalists". National Book Critics Circle. Retrieved 24 April 2012. 

External links[edit]