This essay, written in 1976–77, is concerned primarily with James Merrill's long poem “The Book of Ephraim,” which was published in 1976. The poem tells of many nights spent by Merrill and his partner, David Jackson, in communication with a spirit named Ephraim, whose messages they spell out on a Ouija board. The poem also includes fragments of a second story, a retelling of a lost novel of Merrill's.
In her essay Sedgwick talks about the poem's structure, likening the spacing of fragments of Ephraim's voice throughout the poem with the spacing of fragments of the lost novel, but she contrasts the pointedness of the novel's plot with the looser repetitious structure of the poem's nightly séances. To show that this pointedness is characteristic of Merrill's novelistic writing, Sedgwick also looks at two actual novels that Merrill had published years earlier, The Seraglio (1957) and The (Diblos) Notebook (1965). In both novels, as well as in the lost novel embedded in the poem, the plot is dominated by a central, climactic, sadomasochistic scene of real or symbolic castration.
Sedgwick distinguishes the fixity of this novelistic theme of castration from a different thematic range in the poem's language, which has to do “with the behaviors of liquids, with currents, obstruction, diffusion, and circulation.” She explores this thematic range in the relation between Ephraim and his mediums, Merrill and Jackson, in which there is more play, variously shifting among flattery, voyeurism, gossip, pedagogy, love, fear, and neglect. The thematics of liquids, she suggests, includes the thematics of fixation but does not synthesize it. “It spaces, distributes, circulates it.”
There is, she says, a formal impartiality to the distribution throughout this long poem of its many disparate elements, but there is also an awareness of wastage, of moments “intently and beautifully” improved, “then how quickly squandered.” Sedgwick suggests that Merrill's long poem is formally exciting because it is “so knowing, so inventive, and so trusting about that wastage.” Sedgwick is describing the poem itself when she quotes it as saying that Merrill and Jackson, through their Ouija board séances with Ephraim, became “a set of / Quasi-grammatical constructions which / Could utter some things clearly, forcibly, / Others not.”