Printer-friendly version

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Ingram, Claudia


Twentieth Century Literature (2005)


Materialism; Never;

Full Text:

In July 1947 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that the doomsday clock, predicting the time left before the end of human history, stood at seven minutes before midnight (169); by January 1981 it stood at four minutes to midnight (1). In 1993 the Union of Concerned Scientists issued its Warning to Humanity, predicting that "it not checked, many of our current practices . . . may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know" (1). Poets took note of these predictions. Early in the trilogy of works that became The Changing Light at Sandover, in a meditation on power, James Merrill wrote:

Plutonium waste

Eking out in drowned steel rooms a half

Life of how many million years? Enough

To set the doomsday clock—its hands our own:

The same rose ruts, the red-as-thorn crosshatchings—

Minutes nearer midnight.... (55)"*

Twenty-five years later, Jorie Graham wrote: "[this book] is written up against the sensation of what is now called 'ecocide.' I was also influenced by, among other texts, the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity" (Never 111). In the face of dire evidence of the destructive potential of human thought, or of its unspoken, unconscious assumptions, each of these poets has engaged in a prolonged examination of the linguistic imagination—an urgent undertaking if language constitutes the worlds of our experience, the worlds in which we act and react. In 'The Changing Light at Sandover Merrill celebrates the metaphoric imagination, dramatizing especially the transformative contact it enables among compartmentalized selves and relations to the world; such contact, he suggests, produces a more conscious and flexible response to perils without and within, in much of her recent work, but particularly in Materialism and Never, Graham struggles to find a language in which to register the world as plural and disjunct, with the human speaker as a marginal rather than a central and ordering figure. Because metaphoric condensation and superimposition tend to efface disjunctions she would save, she dramatizes a critical vigilance toward those gestures even as she is performing them, and deconstructive turns abound in her late poems. In sustained but contrasting ways, both poets thus explore the ethical effects of linguistic production.

The Changing Light al Sandover stages the metaphoric imagination in its unending elaboration of forms of life—with "forms of life" extending beyond selves to relations, discourses, and structures of time and memory (see Johnston 121-22). In Lewis Thomas's essays, Merrill had found life itself described as an astonishing anomaly:

The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe

is randomness, a relaxed sort of equilibrium, with atoms and

their particles scattered around in an amorphous muddle. We, in

brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures, squirming

with information at every covalent bond. (141)"*

Merrill aligns transformative metaphoric processes with those biological forces that resist dissolution by elaborating complexity, and he dramatizes that alignment at many levels in the trilogy. Within a few years of Sandover's completion, Julia Kristeva introduced Tales of Love with a related perception, analogizing the metaphoric process of transference, which reorganizes subjectivities in the direction of greater complexity, to the mutual reorganization of biological "open systems" (14—15). The openness of a biological "open system"—and by analogy, of a psychic one—is, she argues, double. Each such system opens its boundary to an other, and the resulting process of reorganization, by destabilizing previously existing structures, "[opens up] each system to its heterogeneous components" (15).

Sandover vividly dramatizes the opening of the authorial self to relations, systems, discourses, and forces that exceed it. Indeed, in words that W. H. Auden speaks from beyond the grave, the authorial self is explicitly presented as a bit performer in the larger drama which is the work: "THINK WHAT A MINOR / PART THE SELF PLAYS IN A WORK OF A R T " (262). The opening up of the self to forces that exceed it works on two levels as a response to the threat of annihilation. As the poem overtly claims, the elaboration of more complex life forms is a way of affirming and participating in resistance to dissolution. In addition, if such an opening of the self renders subjectivity less compartmentalized (opening "each system to its heterogeneous components"), it reduces the possibility that apocalyptic danger will be denied, or that apocalyptic powers will be put in service of emotions no less powerful for being repressed.

Graham's implicit resistance to apocalypse takes a different turn. If it is through linguistic, figural processes that we organize cultural practices, and if the practices we’ve elaborated to date have endangered life on the planet, then the assumptions and formal tendencies of our language must be critically examined, a project to which Graham made reference as early as 1987 in her interview with Thomas Gardner: 

the way the sentence operates became connected, for me, with notions like ending-dependence and eschatological thinking. With ideas like manifest destiny, westward expansion. Imperialisms of all kinds. I began to notice how the forms our Western sensibility creates .. . give birth to historical strategies . . . the  idea was that if you create shapes of a certain kind which govern human imagination, they become the shapes by which people experience time. (218)

In Regions of Unlikeness Gardner argues that Graham's work foregrounds the limits of language, thus drawing us into a fresh encounter with linguistic possibility and a crucial experience of responsibility for our lives in language (13, 196). I will argue that in contrast to Sandover's celebration of metaphoric imagination, Graham's recent work interrogates figures that condense dispersed times into significance, figures that she treats as effacing genuine plurality', genuine otherness. Like actors in a Brechtian drama, her own tropes and metaphors call attention to their peculiarities and failures: they hesitate and backtrack, they fall flat, they "stand like madmen facing into the wind" (Never 30). These defamiliarizations of figure, in turn, make readers conscious of an urgent desire for the very closures the poems resist—for discourses that efface their provisionality, whose coherence and authenticity underwrite our own. Graham's work suggests that this reductive desire, by discursively effacing otherness, may actively threaten it.

Even as they strategically resist figural closures, the poems in Never offer odd, unresolved images of encounters between language and the world's shifting and multiple processes. These are not images of smooth translation or easy interchange; instead they register, as awkwardness or disharmony, an intuition of irresolvable otherness. Never's first version of "Evolution," for example, restates the West's traditional story of poetic vocation, analyzed in detail by Allen Grossman in The Long Schoolroom. It bestows putative presence on Grossman himself (who has argued that bestowing acknowledgeable presence is poetry's function), the better to dissent from a poetics centered on reinscribing the value of the human person; and it imagines a vocational call coming from the intricate and shifting dispositions of water upon the shore, rather than from deep memory of the origins of human significance (see Long Schoolroom 8). Its title may thus allude to the possibility of mutation in poetic practice itself and in the relations to the world that it sponsors; crucially, however, it stages this possibility as a call for a discordant singing, a singing that disagrees (Never 25).

Both Merrill and Graham thus dramatize productive powers of language— Merrill by elaborating, Graham by interrogating figures.' Discussing metaphor and the skeptical resistance to its transformative processes, Richard Kenney has suggested that "fission and fusion both liberate energy, but by different means. . ." (Meyer et al. 168). Despite their manifest and profound differences, these two poets do mobilize versions of the same energy. For neither of them do figures or discourses arrive, resolve, become finished or static. Shifting with context and encounter, overcoded, provisional, figures fall open or fall apart, acquire meanings, incarnate improbable connections ripe for deconstruction. Meaning is, in other words, always visibly in the process of being made. If these poets have been called—-Merrill by his bats, Graham by the Union of  Concerned Scientists—to a poetic making somehow responsive to the dangers humanity has created, they face and pass on to their readers a paradoxical challenge. They differently dramatize the making and unmaking of meanings, and thus of worlds, as a mobile negotiation of otherness; we must somehow participate responsibly in a process that necessarily exceeds us and is always happening, always unfinished.

Given the affinities that Merrill himself and many others have noted between his work and Proust's, it is not surprising that Kristeva's analysis of the effects of metaphor in Proust's giant novel should cast light on Merrill's somewhat different procedures in The Changing Light at Sandover. Proust's artifice, Kristeva argues, does not reveal a real and preexisting unity in the world but rather incarnates relations between experiences scattered across time and compartmentalized in consciousness. His "involuntary memory," she contends, is a generative metaphoric process whereby intermittently occurring sensations come to be associated both with each other and with discontinuous and crucial moments of subjective "experience." "Experience," in this context, has a specialized meaning, referring to those experiences of otherness that produce subjective change: Kristeva describes it as "an opening-up to the other that serves to exalt or destabilize me" {Time 193). To the extent that experiences of otherness successively reorganize one's psychic map, personal history becomes a history of multiple selves that are both discontinuous and complexly implicated with each other. By attending to intermittently repeated sensations associated with disparate subjective moments, Proust is able to draw such experiences and the changes they generated into relation with each other; a world created from such sensations became "a volume [both book and three-dimensional spaces in which the drama of the selves can be played out" (190; italics in the original).

Disjunct senses of self and possibility are not only produced by time and change but also by competing discourses, which structure distinct subject positions for those who engage them. Kristeva suggests, for example, that "the infantile regression of rioters, the futuristic breakthroughs of rappers, and the learned explanatory discourses (offered by newspapers or universities, which have time frames of their own)" occupy diverse temporalities, belying their apparent simultaneity (168—69). Her analysis of Proust's achievement assumes that we can't experience relations among our fragmented times, our plural and divided selves, simply at the level of conceptualization, by calmly theorizing their relations. When we do so—as I have been doing in this summary—we occupy one of our multiple subject positions: the calm, explanatory position of a certain cultural authority within the temporal horizon—the imagined possibilities—of a specific academic discourse. While other subjective moments and possibilities may be mentioned, they are not activated; arguably it is a limited shuttered, compartmentalized portion of my lived experience that I bring to this page as writer and that you bring as reader. Proustian metaphor brings a wider range of subjective experience into play The association of sensations, aleatory and intermittent, by means of which Proust brings disjunct selves and times into contact with one another cuts across logical connections and reaches into the unconscious, with effects analogous to those of free association (305, and see Macdonald 160).

The narrator of Remembrance of Things Past foresees, Kristeva reminds us, that

[my readers] would not be "my" readers but readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician at Combray used to offer his customers— it would be my book, but with its help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves. (Proust 3: 1089)

For her part, Kristeva suggests that to the extent that a reader opens herself to the otherness which is Proust's text, she will glimpse "the way a psychic life can possess and expose its own unprecedented complexity" (Kristeva, Time 198). Proust's construction of a meeting place of lost times and selves may thus make the reader's plural selves and worlds more vividly imaginable and hence more real, countering, to some extent, the blinkering effects of repression and denial.

James Merrill’s incarnation of a world 

In a poem that consists of real-time conversations with the dead (mediated by a Ouija board), it requires little insight to discern a preoccupation with time and an undertaking to incarnate a world from disjunct times." In producing the trilogy,'' Merrill found a different channel than Proust's for the contribution of the aleatory and a different device for bringing diverse selves and disjunct times into encounter with each other. While the Ouija board apparatus is both more cumbersome and more campy than Proust's involuntary memory, both are generative metaphoric processes— the Ouija board mobilizing the most metaphoric of intersubjective relations, namely transference, to generate words and, in the case of JM and DJ, a world.'" Critics, including Yenser, who were acquainted with Merrill attest to his belief that something outside his conscious control "spoke" through the Ouija board, although he remained, famously, of two minds about whether the "voices" were from "the other world" or represented a kind of unconscious collaboration between himself and his fellow medium, David Jackson (Meyer et al. 165; Merrill, Sandover 3 \~32). Since the Ouija entails a letter-by-letter spelling out of conversations, and the pointer that designates the letters will move only if both mediums have a hand on it, unconscious collaboration must require a very subtle

exchange of active and passive roles (in moving the pointer), and/or the ability of one collaborator unconsciously to note the linguistic direction taken by the other and to adopt and transform it. hi other words, collaboration by this means would necessarily involve a subtle and continuous transformative mirroring—as, indeed, the large mirror that sat at the Ouija board with JM and DJ suggests.

The transferential relation makes difference and disjunction precisely an occasion for a transformative mirroring, linguistically enacted, so that each participant internalizes and modifies the signifying practices of the other. Subjectivity, understood as an effect of signifying practice, is thus regenerated. And this relation is the subjective analogue to metaphor, whereby distinct discursive fields mirror and transform each other (see Kristeva, Tales 267-69; 273-76). In both transferential and metaphoric relations, disjunct discourses affect and modify one another, producing a new elaboration of discourse—and since each relation involves transgression of preexisting discursive logics, each also functions to bring unconscious material into play.

Transference appears to be the trope that generates the world of The Changing Light at Sandover, as involuntary memory may be said to generate that of Remembrance of Things Past. Not only is the Ouija board apparatus itself a startling image of transference but that relational process is also dramatized in the Ouija-mediated conversations with W. H. Auden, Maria Mitsotaki, George Cotzias, and others. Several critics, notably Lynn Keller and Piotr Gwiazda. have noted how, in the Auden of the trilogy, the voice of the older poet is both recreated and significantly modified, and Gwiazda sums up the trilogy's Auden as "the target of the younger poet's subconscious projections of what he's meant to him as a person and a writer" (444; and see Keller 188, 221-22).This dramatizes precisely the transferential relation, which is not a merging or seamless identification with an other, but an internalizing and reorganizing of that others signifying practices." This relation is dramatized again in individual poems notably, although by no means exclusively, in "Samos," wherein Merrill employed the canzone form with Auden’s modification of it (Keller 217), but with tone and content that elaborate and significantly modify both those of Auden in his "Canzone" and those of the trilogy's WHA in the poem that immediately precedes "Samos." The trilogy's dramatization of the transferential relation is further signaled by the fact that nearly all of the many speakers from the other world are recognizable when they appear—both to the mediums and to the readers—because of the distinctive terms of address that each uses ("mes enfants,""my dears," "my boy," "young poet," "Jimmy and Dave," "Sirs," and so forth.)'- In other words, each speaker is most recognizable by way of his or her addressive transformation of the spoken-to, namely JM and DJ.

In the psychoanalytic context, transference is described as a process that enables elaboration and, ultimately, change. It destabilizes fixed identities, potentially transforming them, rather than providing assurance of their fixity. It also renews discourse by libidinizing it; in transference with the other, I use the other's discourse to articulate my desire. In Sandover, its effects are vividly dramatized in the progressive destabilization and revision of identities and correlative worlds.'-'

A meeting place in artifice

The trilogy, then, enacts the self as constituted in multiple signifying practices and relations that it dramatizes as arriving together in the temporality of conversation and collaborative mediumship. The temporality it thus constructs is one in which fragmented dispositions of the living speaker can encounter one another—in which, for example, culturally authoritative but unassimilated and therefore "futuristic" information from the sciences may be set in metaphoric relation to angels, those idealizations of father and lover. The crucial effect of the "poems of science" is to give imaginative reality to  scientific ideas by bringing them into dramatic relation with other dimensions of imaginative life (see Zimmerman 182—88; Materer 90). Even comparatively mundane news from the biology lab is difficult to assimilate to our other imaginations of the world, a difficulty JM whimsically invokes in the following lines:

I lolled about one winter afternoon

In Stonington—-rather, a whole precarious

Vocabulary of each different cell.

  Enzyme, ion, what not, millionfold

(Down to the last bacterial organelle)

Particles that "show a tendency"

To form the person and the moods of me

Lolled about. We were not feeling well. (110)

But the trilogy is less preoccupied with assimilating news from the biology lab than with creating a temporality in which the awe-inspiring powers tapped by physicists might play a part in the subjective imaginary. As Zimmerman argues, this project has political and ethical effects; the cost of not realizing these powers, JM suggests, is that they will be repressed or denied. Early in "The Book of Ephraim," Ephraim describes the air above Los Alamos as 



—Meaning the nearby nuclear research 

Our instinct first is to deplore, and second

To think no more of . . . (33)

This instinct must be the result, at least in part, of a disjunction between the mediums' "knowledge" of nuclear power and the other fragments of their imaginative lives, a disjunction that becomes the occasion of the poem's most sustained and varied metaphoric elaborations. Both bats and archangels, the voices that most consistently tutor JM and DJ in the trilogy's second and third books, purport to speak for and from the power bound in the atom. Early in "Mirabell" JM repeatedly expresses frustration that atomic power doesn't speak in what might be called its own proper voice—that it appears on the Ouija board stage in the form of a bat and elaborates metaphoric relations to other powers. So ultimate a power, he implies, should clear the boards of other players and speak truthfully, without artifice, in mathematical formulas if need be (122). And JM's frustration may be a staging of the reader's. If, as Einstein observed, "the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe" (376), shouldn't scientific discourse displace all other discourses, rather than performing with them on a stage that relativizes the truth claims of each? The trilogy's procedure, however, is to bring scientific models onstage in order to test or display their predictive accuracy but to incarnate relations between them and other discourses, other dimensions of experience— relations themselves provisional, given the fictiveness of the models. Thus, for example, section P of "Ephraim" elaborates relations between atomic power, eros, and art, using images from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, from Wagner, and from Grimm; in sections P and W, both radioactive plutonium and obscure works of art appear momentarily as the drowned Rheingold from which world-conquering (or heavendestroying) power may develop. The trilogy elaborates, in other words, an imaginative temporality in which "news" from the sciences may encounter tradition, memory, erotic play, and joking—the conscious and unconscious dimensions of the mediums' heterogeneous lives—and the encounter itself is the poem's contribution toward changing what Einstein called "our modes of thinking."

Arriving together on a linguistic stage The transferential encounter between new and authoritative scientific information and other strands of imaginative life is played out not only in Sandover larger structures but also in the material of its language, as an examination of the pavane,' a poem that occurs early in "Mirabell’s Books of Number," reflects. Arguably the pavane presents itself as an exemplary "poem of science." Merrill does, of course, render in verse all of "Mirabell’s Ouija board exchanges on scientific themes, and the whole book may thus stand as such a poem. But the pavane is the first of Sandover's "arias,"—lyric reflections on the conversations with bats and angels—to follow the command that JM write poems of science, and it indirectly invokes the qualities of language that JM believes that bats have ordered him to heighten. An examination of the procedures that it both thematizes and enacts may thus bring Merrill's "scientific" enterprise into focus.

Transference is a therapeutic trope because it is a transformative one, and the pavane, a poem that showcases that trope, comes at a suggestive moment. JM, accepting the commission to write "poems of science," has consulted scientific popularizations, and one of the speakers from within the atom has transformed himself into a peacock—an oddity that, together with the stanza form of the pavane, works to remind us that one of Merrill's very early poems was called "The Peacock." Yenser points out that the rare birds evoked in the early poems are figures of the poet (Consuming Myth 38): early in "Mirabell," thus, the physics instructor is transformed by his relation to the poet. The pavane itself is introduced as a meditation that will make "ONE MIND ONE FORCE" of WHA, MM,JM, DJ, and the voice that speaks from within the atom. To make one force of human minds and atomic power could mean simply that the minds understand the power well enough to manipulate it and channel its force. This is the unity of mind and power to which Laura Fermi alludes in the remark that is placed before "Mirabell's Books of Number" as an epigraph: "The scientists operated their pile for the first time on December 2, 1942. They were the first men to see matter yield its inner energy steadily, at their will. My husband was their leader." But the pavane accomplishes something very different. It engages the energy bound in atoms imaginatively and puts that engagement into dramatic contact with a range of other human relations and times within the constructed temporality of the poem. Poetry and physics,"[f]ather of forms and matter-of-fact mother" (Sandover 135), the dead and the living, join a dance in which they transform each other and exchange attributes, as WHA announces in an improvised sixth stanza: 




AIRY FLUID ARDENT . . . (16-61)

Before making a closer examination of this transferential encounter of disparate times and selves, it is worth considering JM's commission to write poems of science a bit more closely. His consultation of the popularized scientific literature produces a complaint: 


Words like "quarks" or "mitochondria"

Aren't words at all, in the Rilkean sense of

House, Dog, Tree—translucent, half-effaced.

Monosyllabic bezoars already

Found in the gullet of a two-year-old.

Whereas through Wave, Ring, Bond, through Spectral Lines

And Resonances blows a breath of life.

Lifting the pleated garment.... (110)

Bezoars, we remember, were thought to have magical properties. Words themselves-—especially those that are venerable, half-effaced—embody accidental transformations of past words, past meanings, a dimension of language to which Merrill is unusually attentive.'^ Asked whether he used a dictionary in the process of writing, he responded:

Indeed . . . I used to be furious with the OED for never taking the etymologies back far enough. But now that I've found the American Heritage Dictionary with that splendid appendix of Indo-European roots a serene sort of ménage a trois has been set up. I expect it will go on for years. {Recitative 60)"* 

This "splendid appendix" offers a root for ware that means "transport in a vehicle," suggesting the word's hidden affinity with metaphor. Indeed, each of JM's "living" scientific words may be read as invoking poetic referents, a reading that seems particularly indicated by "Spectral Lines / And Resonances." These double meanings suggest that JM seeks a transferential language capable of reflections between discursive fields. And he has the following exchange with the voice that commissions him: 



Don't I use it? Oh. Then you mean language

Of such a depth, shimmer and force that, granted

I could sustain it, it would be above

Everybody's—even the thinker's—head. (118)

"Shimmer" implies a movement or vibration of reflected light. In the pavane, a poem that formally reflects Merrill's earliest published work, multiple patterns of meaning, some of them not overtly announced, play—or shimmer—across the surface.

The five stanzas of the pavane authored by JM—further stanzas are authored, ostensibly, by WHA and by the elements themselves—begin and end with a dance. In the first stanza, the peacock moves the Ouija board pointer in a "pavane andante;'" the last stanza invokes the molecular and atomic dance. The two figures are, of course, transformations of one another. Since the peacock speaks from within the atom, his is a dance at the atomic level, albeit performed among the Ouija board's linguistic elements; and since the poem's form ensures that we will remember "The Peacock," a figure of the poet, the peacock's dance is also the poet's. The last four lines of the poem, too, represent a dance of atomic and poetic motifs:

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. (160)

"Split atom" immediately evokes fission, the atomic chain reaction that Fermi was able to produce, thereby inaugurating the atomic age (Asimov 439). But it is important to note that the !969 appendix offers a root for split that also means splice. If "splits" and "splices" are treated as transformations of each other, this line may be read as referring to solar energy in a number of forms: the sun's release of life-giving energy by way of fusion reactions (Asimov 447-48); the splitting off of hydrogen ions in photosynthesis, releasing oxygen gas; the release and rearrangement of electrons and the various combinatory effects enabled by the energy of sunlight, arguably leading toward the initiation of life. But the poem's final line folds in half; we are heirs, not only of these reactions, but of the air. Air, designated by the peacock as JM's element, has a musical meaning and, in fact, is cognate with aria; the self-mirroring final line also sets up a mirroring between physics (and physical chemistry) and poetry. 

Asimov also explains that light waves of different lengths and hence of different colors carry different quanta of energy (353), and those passages in Sandover that reflect on solar energy also invoke patterns of color. An early such passage occurs in Book 1 of "Mirabell": 


Through the eyelids, a veined Rose


Sun yellow, aquamarine.

Cradle of pure repose




Each of the five stanzas of the pavane (which are associated with the peacock, MM, WHA, DJ, and JM) also names a color: green, blue, white, red, and yellow (although yellow is disguised in the atom's glow, glow and yellow being cognate.) These colors join the dance again, notably, in "Scripts for the Pageant" (356-57).They are the "elements" that make up light, the sun's radiant energy in visible form, God B himself.

The peacock's dance—the atom's, the poet's—is "The ostinato ground" for each of the other participants to "Strum a division upon." While each devises a performance. together they are a wheel’s four spokes, which "Flow and crumble, breathe and burn." Each of these verbs evokes one of the four elements; semantically, though, they may be read as transformations of one another, as in WHA's '*AIRY FLUID ARDENT" earthiness (159—61). According to the 1969 appendix, breathe and hum are derived from the same root, bhreu; some of flow's cognates are associated with air, and one of crumble’s with water. The elements are thus subtly dramatized as transformations of each other. The peacock bas announced MM's association with water, and water, identified as the maternal element, is immediately implicated with the other elements. Memory turns water to diamond, a stone Merrill described elsewhere as "linking star to pang. / Teardrop to fire" {Collected Poems 342). In this stanza, water is also "First fl(>of our young bloods" and, in memory, turns blue (the color word for this stanza, whose root means "to shine, flash, burn").The narratives, too, that emerge and resubmerge in MM's stanza involve the paternal and the young bloods, earth and fire, evolution and poetry.

The description of water as "First air of our young bloods" invokes, briefly, the distant predecessors of human life, echoing one of the atomic voices: after a first, prehistoric nuclear holocaust, "GOD  / GAVE US A 2ND CHANCE MAN FROM THE COOLING SEA EMERGED / & THIS TIME SAT CHASTEND & ATTENTIVE ON HIS THRONE . . ." (116). And the link between "neural sparks' / Safe conduct" and "the old salt diving through" dramatizes simple neurochemistry: WHA bas just participated in teaching JM and DJ about the role of salt in maintaining the electrolyte balance in the human body, allowing nerve impulses to function (14(1—41). But a highly condensed drama of subjective translation is suggested as well. WHA, "father of forms," prominent in the conversation about salt, is evoked as the "old salt," sailor of maternal waters. The association of "safe conduct" with his plunge through the maternal darks—which, as "earsplitting, mute," are both crushing and wordless—suggests the Freudian father's intervention in a too-engulfing mother-child relation, an intervention that ultimately translates the child to his separate symbolic position. But a further translation is suggested simultaneously. The "old salt" dives past his reflection—his own image—to accept a "gift of tongues at matter's core." Many of the voices on the board ostensibly come from the atom's core, and they articulate radical translations of matter by modifications of its energies; to accept this "gift of tongues" ultimately implies acceptance of a self-loss far more radical than that entailed by maternal engulfment. Much of the emotional drama of "Mirabell’s Books of Number," in fact, is tarnished by JM's and DJ's resistance—a resistance WHA does not appear to share—to the notion that lives as well as substances are subject to radical translation. If, on the other band, the "old salt" is an avatar of the "young blood," the stanza may portend the mediums' own  acceptance of the board's disclosures; and by referring to "young bloods" and "sparks," the lines may also allude to the Ouija adventures roots in their affectional life as the trilogy's romantic "boys." 

Bright, varying possibilities of meaning play similarly across the surface of stanza 3. If "they" who translate the "old salt" to "white ash, baked clay" are the powers within the atom, then the translating force of atomic energy may be the "embrace of cherubim" that indeed "takes the breath away." On the other hand, if "they" are the "young bloods" and living mediums, JM and DJ, then the lines may describe WHA's metamorphoses through the Ouija board conversations and the poem that translates them: WHA will ultimately return to earth, his element, via transforming forces that will include fame's furnace (mentioned in connection with the principal's elemental affinities on page 142) and the embrace of cherubim. In either event, the translation of the living organism to ash in a blaze of energy is a daunting prospect, if a breathtaking one; the peacock interrupts:"


PAUSE." Among the words distributed throughout this poem whose root meanings evoke friction—turn, erodes, strike, sleeve, rind, undermined, milk, gnat, chafe (and see Kalstone 137)—is mortal, which shares with mortar the root mer, one of whose meanings is "to rub away." These words, flashing up and reflecting one another, evoke a theme that runs through "Mirabell" and "Scripts": that matter evolved out of a kind of friction (see for example 458) and that the great power of man himself is a power of resistance (202).The odd last phrase of the peacocks interruption invokes this power: "GIVE THEM PAUSE." TO give pause is to give a reason for hesitating. To give mortals a reason to hesitate, to reinforce their resistance to the ongoing translation, may be precisely to allow a space for mortal life.

And the pause given to mortals shimmers across the face of stanza 4. The stanza evokes a dying tree (presumably an elm; in the conversations leading up to the pavane, the peacock notes the elm dying outside JM and DJ's window and explains that in the "wars" of plant evolution, oaks survived but elms were weakened.) Both because it is dying and because it represents a weakened species, the elm foregrounds life-forms as fleeting, as a pause in an ongoing translation. Varying images of mortality glint in the stanza's diction. Line 1 's "wit" is derived from weid, a root that means "to see"; wit itself denotes an ability to connect seemingly incongruous things and thus is a version of metaphoric imagination. In both meanings, the "stored wit flicker[ingj out" appears to anticipate the Archangel Michael's first revelation when he appears in book 9 of Mirabell"; be describes God and man in terms of vision and of stored intelligence:



[. . . . . . . ]







[ . . . . . . . . ]





[ . . . . . . . .]







In Stanza 4 of the pavane a site of stored intelligence "flickers out." The mortal, eroding spine has a hidden affinity with stanza 1's spokes, since according to the 1969 appendix, spine and spoke are cognate. The spine's erosion may, in fact, be read as a single spoke's perspective on the four's mutual transformation in the first stanza. The dying tree "mim[es] itself to sunset," a phrase that suggests that its apparent steadfastness is merely a performative moment. And the ongoing transformation of which the tree is a part is itself mimed in progressively altered syllables: erodes, raids, rind, reds. Again, the tree's toughness is simultaneously affirmed and undermined. The "rind" of wood, removed in squaring off lumber, is sometimes called "the slab," but "marble slabs" also evoke funerary monuments; "marble slabs of meat" is an incongruous, slightly abject image of sustenance, so that cutting away and resistance, nourishment and death are braided closely together and the apparently steadfast tree is revealed to be, itself, a complex dance. 

Ten pages after the pavane JM reflects on the elm's embroilment in the linguistic dance of metaphor. The peacock accuses JM of personification as an error in thought—"HAVE PEOPLED NOT IDEATED WHAT HAS BEEN & IS"—and JM responds with a sonnet about his metaphoric transformation of the sick elm outside his window. This poem uses tree's rhyme sound six times, troping the spread of trees, via metaphor, through


This window overlooks a sick elm tree

[ . . . . . .]

Reflections that in most lights interfere

Take on despite themselves a quiddity

Sallow, tall, branching . .. Putting it into words

Means also that it puts words into me:

Shooting ringing ramify root green

Have overtones not wholly for the birds,

And I am nothing's mortal enemy

Surrendered, by the white page, to the scene.

(172; italics and second ellipsis in the original)

"Reflections that . . . Take on despite themselves a quiddity" describes metaphor; JM then evokes its transferential, transformational quality. If he metaphorizes the elm, the elm (the italicized line implies) transforms language; each of the italicized words may be related, by root or longstanding metaphor, to trees. (Note that ramify, like root, comes from werad, which means "branch" or "root"; green comes from a root meaning "grow.") When these few words are considered with the word JM does not bother to italicize—tree itself, deriving, as noted above, from deru, which means "firm, solid, steadfast" and has as cognates truce, true, trust, and endure—the amassing of overtones suggestive of trees becomes quite startling.'*' Shaped by, and shaping, the cultural imaginary embodied in language, the tree has acquired a meaning for culture. In the pavane, and throughout the larger dialogues and structures of “Mirabell” and "Scripts," atomic energies and powers are engaged in this transferential way so that they too may enter into language, imagination, and culture—and so that we will not continue to disregard them. Thus the pavane, which braids meanings and moods elaborated from psychological, elemental, religious, poetic, linguistic, planetary, and species history, ends by specifically invoking the atomic and molecular dance. Following on the dying elm's resistance, the first lines of stanza 5 present the molecular dance in pungent images of friction: "milkweed, gnat, and fumes of vinegar / Chafe in molecular / Bondage, or dance in and out of it...." In stanza 4 the dying elm was "miming itself to sunset;" in stanza 5 midnight has arrived. The elm tree may have given up the ghost, but even so the atomic dance continues: "Midnight's least material affairs / Reconciling to glow faint and far / Each atom the sun split .. ."At the same time, the resonance between maternal and matter remains m the air, so that "Midnights least material affairs" seem the affairs furthest from mother. Briefly, there flashes up a homology between the powers in the atom and the power of JM and DJ's affair, a relation the peacock has told us, several pages before, is of such a kind as to "produc[e] only light" (1 56).

The encounter of these multiple levels and kinds of relation is not a tight fit, a merger, a monolithic identification. It is a transformative encounter among multiple, elusive, shimmering relations—relations otherwise disjunct and diffuse in time—within the constructed temporality of the poem. In its incorporation of news from the sciences, the pavane thus dramatizes in small Sandover's overall project: to resist a kind of imaginative entropy that leaves us inattentive to profound risks and real hopes. 

Time discarnate 

In Materialism and Never Jorie Graham does not, like Merrill, celebrate the mutually transformative relation between unassimilated twentieth century "news" and the subjective or cultural imagination. She appears concerned not to rescue a complex world from entropy but to rescue some genuine plurality, genuine otherness, from linguistic reduction. Her invocation of the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity in notes to Never suggests a connection between this project and the Concerned Scientists' call for a new ethic: 

[A] great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it

is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global

home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated A new

ethic is required—a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility

for caring for ourselves and for the earth. We must

recognize the earth's . .. fragility. We must no longer allow it to

be ravaged.. . .We require the help of the world's people. (2-4)

As I will argue below, Graham particularly interrogates tropes of meeting, synchrony, coincidence, fit—the very figures that enable the imaginative incarnation of what is dispersed in time, divided by difference. Her writing is by no means simply deconstructive—she is herself a highly figurative writer—but she is implicitly wary of the tendency of figures to become substantives, to become screens against the differences that constitute them and against the risk and possibility of new differences. Her poems repeatedly disrupt such stases, evoking a diffusion, an otherness, that they elide.

Thus, while Merrill elaborates an imagined temporality' of encounter, in Materialism Graham works to heighten a sense of disjunct temporalities. Asynchronicity is treated thematically in Materialism's second version of "Notes on the Reality of the Self," a poem that recalls a passage from the thoughts of Nabokov's notorious solipsist, Humbert Humbert: 

Radio music was coming from [the gas stations] open door, and because the rhythm was not synchronized with the heave and flutter and other gestures of the wind-animated vegetation, one had the impression of an old scenic film living its own life while piano or fiddle followed a line of music quite outside the shivering flower, the swaying branch. The sound of Charlotte's last sob incongruously vibrated through me as, with her dress fluttering athwart the rhythm, Lolita veered from a totally unexpected direction. (211-12)

This passage conies amid a sequence of intimations that the world at large is not synchronized with the vision Humbert Humbert is determined to impose upon it; as. unbeknownst to himself, he loses control of events, he is tormented by the failure of his orchestrating consciousness to dissolve all incongruities.

Indeed, Lolita may be read as a comic dramatization of the Lacanian version of death drive, wherein investment in a fantasy, endlessly repeated, screens the subject from life-bringing change and, one might add, from any saving awareness of the effects of this fantasy on the world conscripted to support it. In her second "Notes on the Reality of the Self" Graham elaborates Nabokov's image of asynchronicity, figuring a world resistant to the orchestrating consciousness and implicitly challenging static figures that screen out otherness. The poem's speaker dwells on the failure of visible natural processes to synchronize themselves either with the stirring music of an adjacent marching band or with each other: 

For there is not a sound the bushes will take

from the multitude beyond them, in the field, uniformed—

(all left now on one heel) (right) (all fifty trumpets up

to the sun)—not a molecule of sound

from the tactics of this glistening beast,

forelimbs of silver . . .

[ . . . . . . ]

screeching, rolling, patterning, measuring—

scintillant beast the bushes do not know exists

as the wind beats them, beats in them, beats round them,

them in a wind that does not really even now

exist... (Materialism 11)

While syntax in this poem does not finally break, it expands awkwardly to make room for second and third thoughts—backtracks on itself, strays, seems scarcely to close. Language that proceeds more crisply, the poem implies, may, like the music of a marching band, appear deceptively to provide a score that unifies the moment's vagrant processes, as the noun "wind" makes an entity of transitory processes.

In "Event Horizon" reified figures that screen out diffusion and heterogeneity are expressly linked to mystifications of time. The tide suggests this: an event is an occurrence considered as a discreet unity, and a horizon is the circumference of the visible. Both terms propose that the extended and multiple be conceived in terms of unity and closure. The poem dramatizes a search for a temporal horizon that will contain its materials but returns again and again to the perception of multiple, un synchronized temporalities. Our unified, synchronous figures of time arc superimposed, the poem implies, on gaps and cracks, failures of meeting, which are represented by two lines quoted from the Chinese poet-in-exile Bei Dao: “A crack has appeared between day and night, writes / Bei Dao, / and you did not get hack at the time we I appointed" (52; italics in the original.)'"

In "Event Horizon" the speaker is washing a stain out of a red dress while a newscast of the events occurring at Tienanmen Square plays on television. Idly, surreally, the speaker sees the crowds on the square reflected in the soapsuds in her basin, sees them as a pregame crowd in the sun, a condensation of several times that loses the urgent specificity of each. This provokes a meditation on the disparate temporalities of idea,

physical process, and desire:

There is history—the story of the man carrying his father on his back—

that stairway—

narrowing helplessly on the way down.

There is the wind trying to enter the aspen tree—

[ . . . . . . ]

And there is the girl with her dancing red shoes,

and how she loved them too much, beware,

how her dancing took her away to where the wind

goes, to where the man and his father came from,

that burning place. Imperial, faces among the flames,

towers (before they fall) like the exposed rays

of some other star

deep in the earth,

star made of bricks, piled stone, mortar,

of rocks being carried thousands of miles

by the backs of creatures some of them human,

star of work—-things piled on other things—

a blueprint somewhere down there on a scrap of paper,

an idea down there somewhere in the mind

of the one looking up, squinting, figuring.. ..

Cloud-cover. Wind.

(50-51; italics and final ellipsis in the original)

The speaker tries to imagine history, the wind, and the artist's desire being traceable to a single event, an event called "Imperial" because it is imagined as the origin and endpoint of diverse temporalities. The catastrophe at Tienanmen Square is implicitly compared to the fall of Troy, a founding point simultaneously for history and the artistic imagination. Yet neither Troy nor, implicitly, Tienanmen Square can be imagined as the point of origin, the event that would provide a horizon to and therefore unify subsequent times. Each of them is the visible dimension, the "exposed ray," of diverse processes: "rocks being carried thousands of miles / . . . / a blueprint somewhere down there . . . / an idea somewhere .. ."The mind of the speaker, baffled in its search for a unifying horizon, bounces back to the middle of its own temporality, its situated perception: "Cloud cover. Wind. Shade like a / / searchlight ..." Indeed, the poem implies, the seemingly unproblematic meeting of the gaze with the visible grounds our sense that diverse times may be mapped on a single set of coordinates.^^ "Event Horizon" thus interleaves illusions created by light with images that accompany the news broadcast. Despite breaks in transmission, the broadcast feeds the viewer an unbroken sequence of faces—the animated face of the news anchor, a close-up of the faces of the "young troops:" (52; the italics calling the anchors group noun into question).The face we strain nervously to see in the flames, the speaker tells us, is the face of the most beautiful woman in the world, a visible and universally recognizable cause for this event. ("How to see her this foreign girl?" [51]) We thus seek, as Karagueuzian argues, to see something that would "render meaningful such ruptures in history as Tiananmen . . . " (227). But in the end, our gaze nervously probes the empty garment of the visible; in place of the urgently sought meeting of gaze with cause, the poem evokes the noncoincidence of two emptinesses:

the orphaned gaze still sloshing out

onto the smoky upslanting void – 

no image there and the gaze remains—

no place there and the gaze remains— (54)

The crack that has appeared between day and night is thus both a break in an orderly temporal sequence and a break in the smooth assumed relation between the gaze and the visible. Because Graham is writing about a Westerner watching another culture's political crisis on television, the poem's interrogation of the reductive powers of language, vision, and imagination has an urgent ethical force, which is also announced by the title of Materialism's "Manifest Destiny." An earlier poem by that name appeared in Region of Unlikeness, and epitomized a theme of that book: that our impulse, and the overwhelming tendency of our language, is to bring whatever is open to closure, to narrow the countless possibilities of formlessness by a rush to form, to be terrified by chaos's fruitful matrix. Materialism's tension, on the other hand, is between worlds irreducible to a single coordinate system and strategies of manifestation that blandly reduce them. In Region, as Longenbach argues, both sides of the tension had live appeal (107-10); Materialism offers a more pointed criticism of representation. Materialism's. "Manifest Destiny" begins in a museum, its short, unenjambed, simple-present-tense lines establishing an institutional present. The curator proffers a bullet with teeth-marks on it, an artifact of "the battle at Shiloh," a copula between two times. "Earlier it was / / muzzleflash, dust . . ." the speaker says, and that "was" is also a copula between two present tenses—the present tense of the museum and that of the imagined contusion of "the battle." And yet the bitten bullet’s "little consequence, firmer than the cause," a figure of speech literalized—is an incongruous remainder, and the "was" too fails to contain a past:" [w]hat's real slides through" (97).

Like "Event Horizon," the poem estranges the condensation of times, implicitly criticizing the fabrication of "an event" from indeterminate, multiple, uncoordinated processes. In the face of blandly reductive strategies of memorialization, it evokes a confusing mass of boundary-blurring occurrences (and see Paretti 165), thereby suggesting that to render them as a single substantive, like "the battle at Shiloh," amounts to a serious misrepresentation:

Tents that way or is it fog?

Or is it freedom?

A horse with his dead man


The line is where that bas to be maintained at all


Smoke clears and here's

a thousand peachtrees.

a massacre of blooms, or is it smoke?

The fire is let go, travels into the blossoming {not as fast

as you'd

think) enters a temple then a thigh.

Carrying one body into the other. (95-96)

It seems improbable that a process in which so many "entities"—territory, freedom, tents, smoke, human bodies—lose their boundaries should be representable as an event, a crisp substantive that sums up articulable relations and meanings. And indeed, the poem dwells on the incommensurability between "marks" and the processes they are treated as memorializing (Paretti 166-67,209). Considering the scream of a man operated on without anesthetic, the speaker says: 

Hear his scream go into the light.

See how the light is untouched

by the scream that

enters it.

Dust motes.


Where shall the scream stick?

What shall it dent? (97)

The imperatives mimic the museum's strategy of "obstinate illustration," but they also echo the imperatives of primers of the "sec Dick run" variety, which teach the correlation of simple syntactic structures with simple illustrations. Yet the words themselves undermine that correlation. The scream is incommensurate with the light; invisible itself, it neither disturbs the light nor translates itself into a mark (Paretti 209), and thus its translation into syntax, with its structural requirements of subjects, objects, and closure, suddenly appears profoundly strange. Graham, like Merrill, foregrounds connections apparently inscribed in the material of language, but to different effect. "Manifest Destiny’s” meditation on the failure of a scream to mark the light is reworked in a passage in which the light also fails to mark a stream, and in which light (gendered male) and stream/scream (gendered female) repeatedly miss encountering each other sexually. In this passage, stream and scream share a processual evanescence, but they also, more obviously, share five of their six letters. In context of the poem's thematics of dislocation, the passage from one figure to the other by way of this near-homophone suggests not a magical intersection of meanings and sounds but the dislocating arbitrariness of their correlation. 

Elsewhere, too, linguistically produced epiphanies obscure the dark

diversity of occurrence:

Flashes of lightning showed hogs feeding on the dead says the

captain who bears the wounded rebel under him say "oh

God what made You

come down here to fight? we never

would have come up there."

Look, be lives to write it down.

Here are the black words photographed and blown

up wall-size behind

the guide.

Do you think these words are still enough?

And the next thing and the next thing?

Where is the mark that stays?

Where is what makes a mark

that stays? (96-97)

In the apocalyptic horror of the scene, the captain bears the wounded rebel's words as addressed to God instead of to himself, a Northerner engaged in battle in Tennessee. The words of a dying soldier from the losing side are given the victors meaning and become wall-size black letters for posterity; the capacity' of words to bear plural meanings becomes a means of conscripting them to the interests of the powerful, or of covering actual dislocation with plausible linguistic connection. Similarly, while stream, scream, and light are insistently described as failing to meet, the poem coordinates them syntactically: 

he's clawing for a foothold the river won't take his mark—

Where she eddies its brighter for an instant—

Where the scream is, the light is broken for

the instant—

Where the light is brighter the scream is

the instant—  (99-100)

Syntax then begins to fragment, precisely at the point of attempting to articulate the space/time of an encounter (Paretti 210):

Where they thought they could marry—

In which they thought they could touch

each other—

The instant; they can't see it: a scent: in it

the place maybe something took

place but what— (100)

"The instant" proceeds, by means of several colons, to "scent: in it," a sort of disintegrated anagram for "instant," undoing the smooth closure of language even at the level of the word. And the repetition of "place" in "the place maybe something took / / place but what—"substitutes simple linguistic tautology for adequacy, coincidence, meeting. The passage, itself highly figurative, particularly interrogates metaphor: "How can they cross over and the difference between them swell with existence?" the speaker asks, troping the failure of sex as adequation or meeting and simultaneously evoking metaphor's essential strangeness. That strangeness is further dramatized as, in an aside, the speaker incarnates "nothing," an oxymoronic entity "vastly limbed and eyed.” The process of figuration thus appears not as stably representational but as an unlikely emergence at the site of differences it does not overcome. As Merrill's pavane intensifies and foregrounds the processes of condensation and incarnation inherent in language, "Manifest Destiny" enacts, in its deconstructive gestures, a critical vigilance toward them, returning the reader to the uncertain place that Gardner describes as "a region where likeness will not hold" (Regions 194). Mobilizing tropes that shift and interrupt one another, the poem, as its title suggests, criticizes facile closures as imperialist in tendency. 

Voices to and from the other worlds

Many of Never's poems register encounters with nonhuman processes— processes unclosed, multiple, and shifting. In these poems. Graham continues to estrange figural condensations, thereby defamiliarizing—de- assimilating from finished significance—the worlds the poems invoke. At the same time, and in strange ways, the poems dramatize the search for a language that might register process without totalizing it, a language able to relativize itself, so as to emerge as one among a variety of noncoordinated processes. In implicit response to the call from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Graham struggles, thus, to reimagine language and thereby to reimagine the relations to the world that it sponsors. "Gulls," for example, sets up gulls and words as categories somehow parallel but also awkwardly disjunct from each other. The poem's first section meticulously evokes birds by their actions—the passage is full of gerunds—and by their relations to waves, their shadows, the flock, something they gather over, the sun, their cries. The final section of the poem describes "my words" in terms oddly reminiscent of the description of the gulls-—"my words" perform various actions on a beach and are set in relation to wind and waves—but these words are also weirdly different both from conventional notions of words and from the gulls that open the poem:

The wind swallows my words one


one. The words leaping too, over their own


Oceanward too, as if being taken


into splash— . . .

[ . . . . ]

And yet how they want to see behind themselves—

[ . . . . .]

twisting on their stems to see behind—as if there were a


back there . . . (28-29)

Both gulls and words are in motion on a beach, but the effect of the "comparison" is defamiliarizing; we struggle to see them together, and sense most strongly the gap between them. The obscurity of this implied comparison puts the process of reading into question. The poem is, of course, made entirely of words; if there is an awkward figural fit between grills and words, we may infer a similarly awkward fit throughout between language and the natural processes it purports to represent. And the poem's structure materializes this gap. Between its evocations of gulls and "my words" there intervenes an image of white foam transmitting and distorting the red of the sun, smearing it on the shore, the birds, the watcher's feet. By means of this distorting whiteness, the poem materializes the gap which is the site of figural elaboration: the blank unrelatedness of  the terms drawn into metaphoric encounter. And this gap, Graham suggests, is repeated in the disjunction between ordinary substantives and the nonhuman world they purport to describe: 

So then it's sun in surf-breaking water: incircling, smearing: mind


knowing if it's still "wave," breaking on

itself, small glider, or if it's "amidst" (red turning feathery)

or rather "over" (the laciness of foambreak) or just what


the line of also smearingly reddening terns floating out now

on the feathery backedge of foambroken

looking)— it is. (27-28)

These lines dramatize the mind's effort to find a noun, a "snapshot" with which to identify something not nounlike: a processual unfolding of motions and relations. But this failure of adequation, so meticulously evoked, is not the poem's last word on linguistic possibility. It is striking that the poem begins with gulls calling outward over the waves and ends with "my words" facing into the wind:

. . . gazing-straight up at the reader there filled with ultimate


devoted servants: road signs: footprints: you are not alone:

slowly in the listener the prisoners emerge:

slowly in you reader they stand like madmen facing into the wind:

nowhere is there any trace of blood

spilled in the service of kings, or love, or for the sake of honor,

or for some other reason. (30)

"The wind," the speaker told us earlier, "swallows my words one / by / one." thus preventing them from concatenating to produce meaning. And when they are caught and imprisoned, "my words" emerge in the reader to "stand like madmen"—their coherence not increased by preservation-— and face into the very wind that swallows them. Words that behave this way, the passage concludes, are not, at least, the stuff of murderous ideologies. But the passage also suggests, paradoxically, that the speakers words are transmitted precisely so that the reader/listener can lose them in the wind. The madmen that close the poem correspond, awkwardly, to the gulls "calling / outward over the breaking waves" that open it, and this failed figure frames the effort to imagine a language as evanescent as the processes it encounters.

In Never’s first version of "Evolution," Graham again juxtaposes linguistic production to processes in the nonhuman world. This poem articulates the self-regarding questions that are the stuff of surveys, positioning them among meticulous evocations of natural processes. "Evolution" is a poem rife with images of writing, situated so as to suggest that human language is not unique among the world's processes, that the nonhuman world is full of inscriptions and voices, although they do not "mean" beyond the moment of their iteration:"[t]his all first time and then again first / time" (23). Razor clams "[scratch] . . . phrases in a rapid jitter" (22); the retreating ocean inscribes sentences with kelp and rivulets of sand; clamshells are nouns that lie "in punctuating sunlit stillness" (23); seagulls and ocean "drag and loosen," creating "peeps, insucks, snaps" (23-25)."'* Among them the poem situates its images of human voice: "Do you agree or disagree with the following / statement: / it bothers me my life did not turn out as I / expected" (21).This dramatizes the drive toward closure of meaning and condensation of times in the image of a speaker who has decided the meaning of his life in advance, and whose life, though not ended, has already "turned out" disappointingly. And, of course, this "question" is patently part of a questionnaire which offers its respondents narrow options of interpolation in the form of ready-made statements. Hyperbolically closed figures of human language in the form of this and other "opinion-poll" questions are placed in comic contrast to traces of inscription in the nonhuman world.

The poem simultaneously dramatizes a new poetic calling. Its speaker's claim that"[t]his all first time and then again first / time" is followed by a disagreement with G: "G says, breathing beside me, that firstness is not, in any case, / a characteristic of experience" (23). G's words are quoted directly from Allen Grossman's "My Caedmon: Thinking about Poetic Vocation" in The Long Schoolroom; in that context. Grossman goes on to explain that "[w]hat I speak of as 'first' experience is very likely the supply of terms for many experiences that came before the 'first' one ..." (2). In other words, the "first" experience condenses previous ones and furnishes the terms of their significance, suggesting that "firstness" is itself a figure for significance. Graham's speaker interrogates this reduction and extends her implied argument with G by reworking the story of poetic

vocation, which is the theme of the Caedmon article.

In "My Caedmon," Grossman recounts how a voice came to Caedmon in a dream and demanded "Sing me something;" Caedmon, who had never sung before, began a career of making songs. The same demand is made upon "Evolution"'s speaker by the evanescent, continually changing dispositions of water on the shore:

[s]ound becoming particular and pricked

with syncopations of singularities—

peeps, insucks, snaps—where light is

in domain.

What good is my silence for, what would it hold

inside, keeping it free?

Sing says the folding water on stiller water—-

one running through where the other's breaking. Sing me

something (the sound of the low wave-breaking)

[ . . . . . ]

of something sing, and singing, disagree. (24-25)

The final line, which invokes tradition both by its vocational call and by its iambic pentameter form, nevertheless demands a singing that disagrees. "Evolution"'s speaker has already disagreed with G about the condensation of times into significance. But Grossman discusses poetic vocation in "My Caedmon" Xo make a larger argument: that the function of poetic making is to reconstitute the relation between the acknowledgeable person and the significant human world, both artifacts of discourse (Long Schoolroom, 7-12; 14-15). The final line of "Evolution" may be read as calling for a different poetry—a singing that, instead of reinscribing significant personhood, enters among the inscriptions of razor clams and waves as a mark of this moment's process, without monumental, permanent claims. As Helen Vendler has remarked, in Graham's work "poetry . . . exists as one of the forms of matter . . . as 'real' as other phenomena" (Given 124). And since "Evolution"'s call to sing comes from a world of intersecting, overlapping sounds—"syncopations of singularities—it demands a response positioned as one more discordant note rather than as the primary voice, the voice of mastery.

Both liberate energy

James Merrill and Jorie Graham, poets of no mean ambition, both set out to rescue worlds. In Sandover Merrill undertakes to construct a twentieth century in which tradition could meet the new, and in which a self constituted by its relations to others, living and dead, could be imaginatively incarnated. In particular, he constructs a temporality in which a complexly incarnated self and tradition could engage the powers and terrors of the worlds disclosed by the sciences. In Materialism and Never Graham struggles to rescue some intuition of genuine, irreducible plurality/ram a twentieth century whose media (museums, televisions, opinion polls) accelerate processes of facile reduction. To do so, she suggests, works against the dangerous closural tendencies of- our language and imaginations.

As these poets pursue their constructive and deconstructive tasks, their linguistic experiments with fusion and fission, each is conscious of an apocalyptic urgency: the self which, as JM claims, was once "a great, great glory" (80), now must become "sufficiently imbued with otherness" (89) that its deathly solipsism, its bland, blinding forgetfulness, and its dark romance with power may be reworked and new energies may be released. Their common impulse is to test the resources of figurative language for evoking plural times and worlds; and by their own fallible, experimental elaborations, they dramatize such language as a site where relations among worlds are still in the making.


1. In July 1947, when the doomsday clock first appeared on the Bulletin’s cover,

the editors offered the following explanation:

This symbol of urgency well represents the state of mind of those

whose closeness to the development of atomic energy does not permit

them to forget that their lives and those of their children, the security

of the country and the survival of civilization, all hang in the balance as

long as the specter of atomic war has not been exorcised. (169)

In October 1949, when the Bulletin first moved the minute hand of the clock,

the editor explained:

There seems no reason to believe that the developments of the second

period—that of an open atomic arms race—will not take the dreadful

course anticipated since 1945. While we must do all we can to keep

ahead in this race, we must continue looking for a large-scale imaginative

political solution, which alone could stop the inexorable trend

leading to atomic war. (275)

2. The Union of Concerned Scientists deplored, among other things, practices

destructive of the earth's atmosphere and water resources; humanity's "massive

tampering with the world's interdependent web of life;" and practices leading

to unrestrained population growth, with attendant poverty- and malnutrition


3. Several critics have recognized the apprehension of nuclear threat as central

to the Sandover trilogy. See especially Materer HJ3-04; Zimmerman 178; Berger

282;Yenser, Consuming Myth 288; and see McHale 52-54.

4. In "Mirabell's Books of Number" JM notes that both he and DJ had been

reading Lewis Thomas's Lives of a Cell (Sandover 118).

5. Gardner conducted this interview \n 1987. It was first published in 1992 and

republished in Gardner’s Regions of Unlikeness in 1999.

6.Vendler suggests that the poems of Never implicitly ask what we will "put in

place of the integrations we have lost" ("Indigo" 15).

7. By visible self-re vision, each of these poets dramatizes the fact that conscious

engagement with this process is far from being a guarantee of infallibility.

Indeed, as Harrington has pointed out (204-05). some of JM's otherworldly

interlocutors in Sandover voice troublingly neo-Malthusian ideas, registering,

perhaps, the dire—and overtly Malthusian—predictions Asimov made in his

Guide to Science (792-99), which was prominent among the scientific popularizations

Merrill consulted while be wrote the trilogy- (Interview with Vendler

50).To argue that the processes the trilogy dramatizes have ethical effects is

emphatically not to claim that they free their participants from error—a fact

that the poem itself repeatedly places in the foreground.

8. Indeed, Yenser observes that Time is both a speaking character and an alter

ego for the poet in the first book of the trilogy, "The Book of Ephraim" {Consuming

Myth 227-36).

9. The Changing Light at Sandover consists of three books and a coda. "The

Book of Ephraim" elaborates Ouija board transactions between James Merrill

(JM on the board), his partner David Jackson (DJ). and Ephraim, their"familiar

spirit" from beyond the grave. In "'MirabeH's Books of Number." voices

described as coming from within the atom instruct JM and DJ about wideranging

scientific and cosmological matters; this "seminar" is also attended

from beyond the grave by W. H. Auden (WHA) and Maria Mitsotaki (MM).

In "Scripts for the Pageant,"JM. DJ, WHA, atid MM,joined by two more of

the newly dead, scientist George Cotzias and Merrill's and Jackson's old friend

Robert Morse, are instructed by a wide range of figures including God Biology,

four archangels, and Nature.

10.Thus Sword characterizes the Ouija apparatus as "a metaphor for metaphor"

(569), and Lehman notes the substitution of JM and DJ's teacup pointer

"for the teacup from which, thanks to Marcel's madeleine, “towns and gardens

alike' sprang into being" (39), suggesting also that "The Book of Ephraim"

"gathers together various discarded . . . selves" (42).

11. Donaldson appears to describe such a relation when he calls Merrill's use

of his predecessor's work "echoic"" and "dialogic" rather than allusive (45-46,

SI)., as does Rotella when he argues that Merrill’s characteristic practice is to

refigure the thought that precedes him (82).

12. Judith Moffett points out that the voices from the other world are identified

by tag phrases (168).The tag phrases she mentions are, in fact, forms, of


13. See Johnston (113-19); and see Polito, who traces processes of "character

alchemy" through the trilogy (241).

14. Richard Saez argues that the trilogy "differs radically from the Western epic

tradition in that it is not about the regeneration or moral development of its

hero" (215). I do not attempt to place Sandover’s relation to that tradition, but

I would argue that the trilogy undertakes the imaginative incarnation of a hero

dispersed across time and relationships. See Keller's intriguing claim that the

scheme of reincarnation adumbrated in "The Book of Ephraim" is actually "an

image for the process by which aspects of the artist's self and experience are

reborn, transformed, in his successive works of art" (248).

15. Buckley appears to treat the trilogy as a visionary truth system that includes

science, while Yenser claims that it "gives us . . . not a belief hut rather a dialectical

process.,." ("Names" 275). Reading Sandover as metaphorically elaborating

rather than revealing discursive connections, I am pursuing a version of

Yenser's claim.

16. This poem arises without title in "Mirabell" and uses a stanza form that

Merrill invented much earlier. Since it describes its founding movement as "a

pavane / Andante," I will refer to it as "the pavane" for convenience.

17. Sandover not only mobilizes half-effaced meanings, it also subtly extends

the connotations of crucial words. Thus, for example, "density" is the measure,

according to the bat-angels, of spiritual value and intellectual complexity

in human beings. It must be remembered that the scientist George Cotzias,

speaking from the other world, describes the origins of complex forms of

matter as a thickening, the forming of a paste resistant to its own dissolution

(396).The increasing complexity of matter, no less than that of mind, is thus

described in terms of density. In turn, in Sandover, the density of states of matter

and mind determines cosmic destiny. Density, in other words, is the linguistic

pivot whereby an image of matter and one of mind are set in relation to one

another; and by means of density's anagram, both echo with determinations of

future processes.

18. McHale also draws attention to Merrill's interest in what he calls the

"found" resources buried in etymologies (44-45). All claims hereinafter about

roots, cognates, and their meanings will be based on "Indo-European Roots"

an appendix in the 1969 American Heritage Dictionary. This appendix explains

that such roots are inferences drawn from comparison of historically attested

linguistic forms; the cognates believed to have developed from them emerge

from divergent strands of etymological change. Of course, since Indo-European

roots are inferential, they are modified with progress in comparative

linguistics. Thus, in a few instances, roots and cognates found in the 1969 appendix

do not appear in more recent compilations. This progress in scholarship

would not, I think, have troubled Merrill; his inveterate wordplay suggests an

acceptance of the role of random events and accidents in linguistic evolution,

especially including the linguistic evolution sponsored by his own work.

19. This poem's last lines, too, have a kind of transferential reversibility. JM,

it suggests, is surrendered to the scene before him by a page, which is like a

white flag. Or the white page surrenders its "nothing" to the dramatic scene,

the scene of artifice created by JM. Or, of course, both.

20. Several critics have suggested that (Graham reopens figural unities. See for

example Shifrer 149 and Otten 246. Paretti argues that Graham creates verbal

disjunctions in order to gesture toward "something inexpressible" that representation

elides (161).The poems discussed here suggest, however, that disjunction

is itself the thing that representation tends to elide. And see Vendler s

discussion of Graham's search for a st)'le that would "enable us to find authentically

modern selves that admit . . . their contingency and fractionation and

dispersal" ("Indigo" 14).

21. Karagueuzian also argues that one of Materialism 's themes is solipsistic descriptive

practice (24-25; 203; 214).

22. Bei Dao's poem, translated as "Daydream" by Bonnie S. McDougall, presents

images of dissolution and enacts estrangement by means of antithetical

metaphors and paradoxes. The poem is framed by references to political atrocities

and disasters; it evokes disjunctions at personal, cultural, and political levels.

23. As Spiegelman notes. Graham's "visual delight in the world is matched by

an opposing resistance to the visible" (246). And see Karaguezian, who argues

at length that Graham's poetry is preoccupied with the relation between the

visible and the invisible.

24. Commenting on "Ravel and Unravel." a poem from The End of Beauty,

Gardner calls attention to an analogous evocation of nonhuman voice: "[t]he

eagles' cry marked the world without mastering it, pointing to a world ultimately

beyond such gestures" ("Fresh Look" 34(1),