James Merrill

(3 March 1926 – 6 February 1995 / New York City, New York)

Voices from the Other World

Presently at our touch the teacup stirred,
Then circled lazily about
From A to Z. The first voice heard
(If they are voices, these mute spellers-out)
Was that of an engineer

Originally from Cologne.
Dead in his 22nd year
Of cholera in Cairo, he had KNOWN
NO HAPPINESS. He once met Goethe, though.
Goethe had told him: PERSEVERE.

Our blind hound whined. With that, a horde
Of voices gathered above the Ouija board,
Some childish and, you might say, blurred
By sleep; one little boy
Named Will, reluctant possibly in a ruff

Like a large-lidded page out of El Greco, pulled
Back the arras for that next voice,
Cold and portentous: ALL IS LOST.

Frightened, we stopped; but tossed
Till sunrise striped the rumpled sheets with gold.
Each night since then, the moon waxes,
Small insects flit round a cold torch
We light, that sends them pattering to the porch . . .

But no real Sign. New voices come,
Dictate addresses, begging us to write;
Some warn of lives misspent, and all of doom
In way’s that so exhilarate
We are sleeping sound of late.

Last night the teacup shattered in a rage.
Indeed, we have grown nonchalant
Towards the other world. In the gloom here,
our elbows on the cleared
Table, we talk and smoke, pleased to be stirred

Rather by buzzings in the jasmine, by the drone
Of our own voices and poor blind Rover’s wheeze,
Than by those clamoring overhead,
Obsessed or piteous, for a commitment
We still have wit to postpone

Because, once looked at lit
By the cold reflections of the dead
Risen extinct but irresistible,
Our lives have never seemed more full, more real,
Nor the full moon more quick to chill.

Submitted: Wednesday, May 09, 2012

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Comments about this poem (Voices from the Other World by James Merrill )

  • Gold Star - 7,033 Points Frank Avon (9/14/2014 2:23:00 PM)

    Merrill the mystic hears voices, and we should listen. I wonder if anyone has heard his voice since his death. Perhaps we should listen for it. What he hears is what we need to hear; what he says is what needs to be said: the gloom here, all is doom, Our lives have never seemed more full, more real. (Report) Reply

  • Gold Star - 7,033 Points Frank Avon (8/30/2014 3:27:00 AM)

    think this may be Merrill's most glorious effort: he achieves in the reader, a more or less willing suspension of disbelief, what Keats called a negative capability. One enters into his experience even as one stands aside and wonders, Can this be happening? Do I wanna go there? In spite of ourselves we hear his voices (if they are voices, these mute spellers-out): we affect his nonchalance. We hear the humming in the jasmine. All the while his language (its rhythms and rhetoric) are building toward those final two (magnificent) lines:

    Our lives have never seemed more full, more real,
    Nor the full moon more quick to chill.

    The consonance (all those l's) , the half-rhymes (real, chill) , the onomatopeia (buzzings in the jasmine) , the almost (but not quite) regular iambs, etc. etc. The music of the poem leads us on into just such a commitment that we no longer have the wit to postpone. (Report) Reply

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