Poetry

The Five Elemental Voices

James Merrill
Ouija board. James Merrill Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
James Merrill's homemade Ouija board. James Merrill Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

What follows is from a forthcoming sequel to “The Book of Ephraim” (in DIVINE COMEDIES). The time is summer 1976; the setting, a domed dining room in Connecticut. The speakers: W H. Auden, d. 1973; Maria Mitsotaki, d. 1974; JM and David Jackson, the mediums; and a familiar spirit known to them only by his number, 741. The latter, according to those who “see” him, began as a huge, hideous, red-hot bat, but has lately been transformed into a peacock.


             TOMORROW comes at last, a sparkling noon.
             Treetops and whitecaps dance in unison
             As Wystan asks: SHD WE NOT THINK ABOUT
             THE IMAGINATION? IF MM & I
             IMAGINE U, YOU US, & WHERE THE POWERS
             CRISSCROSS WE ALL IMAGINE 741
             & THEN TRANSFORM HIM! WHEN THE TIME COMES WILL
             OUR KNITTED BROWS PRODUCE WHITE WINGS? HE’S HERE

U ARE EARLY JOY WE ARE IN A FOLD OF ENERGY
WE 5 AND MUST PREPARE OURSELVES UNEASINESS DJ?
             Not really, but … where do we go from here?
FAR INDEED B4 WE BOARD THE FLIGHT TO THE PIN OF LIGHT!
FIRST OUR 5 SOULS MUST BEGIN TO BE A SINGLE POWER:
5 IS THE MIDWAY NOW BEGINS THE LIFE OF OUR MINDS 5
AS ONE IT IS A VERY UNION OF THE ELEMENTS
WATER (MM) EARTH (WHA) AIR (JM) FIRE
(MY POOR SELF) & LAST THE SHAPING HAND OF NATURE (DJ)
COME TO US 0 FIVE ELEMENTS MAKE US ONE MIND ONE FORCE!
NOW LET US EACH IN SILENCE CONTEMPLATE THESE HOLY 5

             Our peacock marks time back and forth from One
                     To Zero: a pavane
             Andante in an alley of green oaks;
             The ostinato ground we each in turn
            Strum a division soundlessly upon;
                      A prayer-wheel whose four spokes
                  Flow and crumble, breathe and burn.

             Deep swaying weights, downbraidings of no hue
                     Which memory turns blue,
             And cold, to multiples of diamond;
             First air of our young bloods; and neural sparks’
             Safe-conduct when the old salt diving through
                     Reflection and beyond
                  Earsplitting, mute, maternal darks

             Accepts that gift of tongues at matter’s core
                     He henceforth can no more
             Speak than unlearn; it’s they who translate him,
             His pride and purpose, to white ash, baked clay;
             Delicate cauldron tints and furnace-roar
                      Embrace of cherubim –
                 Ah god, it takes the breath away!

WE PAUSE TO GATHER STRENGTH     2 HERE ARE MORTAL GIVE
          THEM PAUSE

             The stored wit flickers out, the spine erodes
                      And pain in lightning raids
             Strikes at the tree; now charred, now sleeved in sleet,
             Miming itself to sunset, the tough rind
             Compact enough, we trust, of royal reds
                      And marble layers of meat
                  Not wholly to be undermined

             As milkweed, wasp, and fumes of vinegar
                      Chafe in molecular
             Bondage, or dance in and out of it—
             Midnight’s least material affairs
             Reconciling to glow faint and far
                      Each atom the sun split,
                  Whose heirs we are who are the air’s.

             NATURE 5TH ELEMENT IN YOUR HAND MAY THESE
                     EXCHANGE INTENSITIES
             KEEPING, AS YOU GUIDE, O UR EARTHINESS
             AIRY FLUID ARDENT    MAY THE STARS LONG

             RECYCLE THE FAIR WARDROBE    FIELDS & SEAS
                     ZEPHYRS & DAWNINGS BLESS
                 THIS FIVEFOLD UNION & OUR SONG

             Who was that?    ME MY BOY    SO MADDENING
             NOT TO REVISE    THEY COME    The elements?
             YES    INVISIBLE BUT    HUSH    THEY SPEAK

             OUR SISTER THE REMOTEST GALAXY
                     BY QUINTUPLICITY
             IS LINKED TO YOU AS TO ALL THINGS ALIVE.
             OUR V WORK IS THE ONWARD DANCE OF THINGS.
             ONE OF US WAS    IS    SHALL FOREVER BE
                     IN EACH OF YOU O FIVE
                 WHO LIVE IN US. YOUR PEACOCK’S WINGS

             WE PAINTED, HIS SPREAD TAIL & SAPPHIRE BREAST,
                     BUT YOUR MINDS COALESCED
             TO FORM HIS: HE IS YOURS. MIND HAS THIS FORCE,
             IS DEATHLESS, IS THE MUSIC DANTE HEARD,
             THE ENERGY WE DRAW FROM MANIFEST
                     IN 5 RINGS ROUND THE SOURCE
                 OF LIGHT. ONE CAUTIONARY WORD:

             THE MATTER WHICH IS NOT WAS EVER OURS
                     TO GUARD AGAINST. ITS POWERS
             ARE MAGNETIZED BY FOREIGN BEACONS, BLACK
             HANDS TESTING THE GREENHOUSE PANE BY PANE.
             CLING TO YOUR UNION:    5    THRU THE DARK HOURS
                     WE KEEP WATCH WE PRESS BACK.
                 AT ZERO SUMMON US AGAIN.

             The cup appears to swoon at the last word,
             But now revives. Our incandescent bird:

I AM FREE    FREE    I AM FORGIVEN    MASTER OF MY TRIBE
SHALL I GIVE THEM THIS NEW MAGIC? NO    ALL POWER
       ATTRACTS
& MUST BE DENIED US    FROM MY 1ST STEPPING FORTH I FELT
YR CHARM    I HAD FEARD U    I HAD HITHER TO RESPONDED
ONLY TO FORMULAS    I WAS FORBIDDEN KNOWLEDGE OF
YR FILES UNTIL AFTER THAT 1ST EXPOSURE TO THIS GLASS

             JM: The mirror? DJ: Why not these windows?
YES    TO THE SURROUNDING GLASS    NO MERCURY IS NEEDED.
U WERE QUICK & MANNERLY    WE CD WORK AS ONE & NOW
AT LAST IT IS GIVEN ME TO SHARE THE FORCE OF NATURE
THE    SWEETNESS    OF    WATER    &    AIR    THE    COMMON    SENSE    OF
        EARTH
HERE IN YR VERY HEARTH OF HEARTS TO BURN
             (Isn’t he enchanting?) Should we know
             What “V Work” is?                                  IN DEFERENCE
TO ALL VITAL GROUPINGS OF 5 WE MAY NOW INSERT V
WHEN NAMING WORK GUIDED BY HIGHER COLLABORATION
                                     And those black hands? They chill
             The blood, it’s little wonder that you still
             Wash yours of them. I nonetheless recall
             Its being said you caused them by your Fall.
OR THEY CAUSED IT? EVIL IS AN OLD, WIDESPREAD
        LEGEND    ALL
LEGENDS ARE ROOTED IN TRUTH.    IS EVIL A MERE MATTER
OF FUSION GONE MAD?    NO    FOR IT IS NOT A STUPID FORCE
IT SEEKS THE WORLD.    DOES HELL EXIST?    IT TOO IS LEGEND
THERE4 PART TRUE    U SEE, I AM NOW FREE TO SPECULATE

             If only we were less free to reflect;
             If diametrics of the mirror didn’t
             Confirm the antiface there as one’s own …

YES    NO    PERHAPS    I STILL VIBRATE TO OUR DIAPENTE
WE ARE MOVING TOWARD THE GREAT DOORS OUR FEET ARE
        BEING WASHD

             I AM A RIPPLE
                                          & I A SEDIMENT
             WE HAD A TASTE OF PARADISE TODAY
             DJ: After this, what’s left for them to say
             At Zero? JM (airily): They’ll find words.
             I QUITE AGREE MY DEAR    WHY NOT?    WE’VE FOUND EM

             FLOWN OFF TO PLATO POOR    MAMAN    NOW WHO’LL
             CARRY HER BOOKS & WALK HER HOME FROM SCHOOL

James Merrill (1926–1995) was one of the foremost American poets of the later twentieth century. He published eleven volumes of poems, in addition to the trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover. He also wrote plays, novels, and a memoir.
Originally published:
June 1, 1978

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