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    Tales from the Ouija board

    By KIT REED

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


    FAMILIAR SPIRITS

    By Alison Lurie

    Viking, $22.95

    Alison Lurie's book explores the forces that created James Merrill's verse trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover.

    What could be better than to be young and beautiful, rich and talented -- and in love? For the poet James Merrill and his lifetime partner David Jackson, the early years were sunny and beautiful, according to Alison Lurie. In this loving memoir she traces the relationship from golden days in Stonington, Conn., to the last, unhappy years in Key West, when Merrill is dying and Jackson's mind has begun to deteriorate.

    When the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist first met the couple in the 1950s, all three were aspiring writers.

    "It was, I thought, the happiest marriage I knew." says Lurie, who was finding her way out of an unhappy first marriage. Married to a struggling academic and living in shabby surroundings, she loved visiting the pair.

    "Jimmy and David were nicer to each other than most husbands and wives, more affectionate and considerate . . . better suited than most husbands and wives. Both in a way lived sideways to life, observant, detached, enjoying the world's variety." They created beautiful households wherever they went -- selecting and placing the objects that surrounded them as carefully as any artist creating a new work.

    But this is less a biography of the two than an exploration of the forces that created Merrill's verse trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover. When love goes wrong, Lurie suggests, other things must of necessity go right.

    The couple buys property in Stonington at a time when their fledgling careers appear to be running neck and neck. As Jackson puts away a series of busted novels and Merrill's career takes off, the physical attraction wanes. They move to Greece, perhaps thinking a change of address will change their lives. Throughout, the emphasis is on the partnership, which seems strong enough to survive challenges from the world outside.

    But something else is happening. A brilliant and graceful poet, Merrill publishes several collections, while except for reviews and the occasional short story, Jackson can't get published.

    Lurie suggests that the poet and failed novelist turned to the Ouija board as way to keep the partnership intact. A 19th-century medium for contacting the spirit world, the board delivers messages via a shaky pointer moved either by the spirits or perhaps by the fingertip-touch of the people who put their hands on it.

    In short order Merrill and Jackson were sitting knee to knee over the board -- Jackson holding the teacup they used as pointer while Merrill transcribed. They are connected to the spirit world when something starts moving the pointer and cryptic messages are spelled out.

    The partners' contact is a figure they call Ephraim, who is cranky, capricious and well-connected. He knows everybody, beginning with the poet W.H. Auden, who becomes a major figure in their work. Over 25 years, Merrill and Jackson communicated with deceased friends and relatives, including parents who had refused to accept their homosexuality when they first broke the news. Merrill takes thousands of pages of notes and from the notes, he constructs The Book of Ephraim, the first of the three books grouped under the title The Changing Light at Sandover.

    Lurie reflects: "It is possible to see David's involvement in Sandover as an effort on Jimmy's part to prevent him from wasting his creative gift; to make him also a famous writer. . . . It is also possible to see the Ouija-board years as a last-ditch effort on the part of one or both of my friends to save the marriage. Night after night, as long as the collaboration continued, David and Jimmy were bound together in an intellectual and an emotional partnership that necessarily excluded everyone else, including anyone either of them might be erotically involved with."

    The careful manner in which Lurie explores the matter of the Ouija board leaves at least one reader wondering. Does she believe there's a supernatural power attached to the thing or is she simply trying not to rule out the possibility? Clearly there was a lot of subconscious surfacing as the lovers communicated with each other through the wacky medium, but it appears that the memoirist thinks there was something more.

    This slight but engaging book leaves the reader with the question: Is the trilogy really a loving collaboration or is it the product of a larger, supernatural force?

    - Kit Reed's latest novel is @ expectations, published by Forge.

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