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Satire & Dysfunction: James Merrill’s “Family Week at Oracle Ranch”

Posted By John Foy On November 7, 2013 @ 4:18 pm In 2013 November: James Merrill Special Issue,This Month | No Comments

“Family week at Oracle Ranch” is a portrait of dysfunction. It’s a poem written later in Merrill’s life, appearing in his final book, A Scattering of Salts, published by Knopf in 1995, the same year that Merrill died (February 6, 1995). It originally appeared in The New Yorker, in the issue of February 22, 1993. This poem has offended some because it begins as a dismissive satire of 12-step rehab programs, which of course have helped many people suffering from addiction, and for that reason they deserve serious consideration. I would, however, like to defend Merrill’s approach to this subject because his poem transcends satire to end as a meditation on human frailty and what he suggests is the inevitability of dysfunction for all of us. I think this is the rhetorical move that earns him the right to say what he does. He looks at how New Age psychology probes the mind and its dark places, or doesn’t, while readily conceding his own dysfunctional dark places.

The speaker in the poem—there’s no reason to believe it’s anyone other than Merrill himself—is visiting a close friend for a week at a substance-abuse recovery ranch somewhere in a desert moonscape of the American Southwest. This is where his longtime companion, David Jackson, is trying to dry out. During Merrill’s weeklong stay as a “guest”, he sits in on group therapy sessions and listens to lectures given by the counselors. He doubts cynically whether anything at the ranch “could help you, light of my life, when even your shrink…” Merrill uses the word “shrink” as a point of departure for a highly compressed, metaphorical contrast between Old World Freudian psychotherapy and New Age rehab wisdom. The metaphor plays out through a comparison of… underwear!  Wondering out loud what Oracle Ranch means in the larger scheme of things, Merrill asks:

The message, then? That costly folderol,
Underwear made to order in Vienna,
Who needs it! Let the soul hang out
At Benetton—stone-washed, one size fits all.

If high-culture Freudian analysis is customized undergarments from Vienna, then Oracle rehab is off-the-hanger underwear from Benetton. This is Merrill at his meanest and most entertaining. He compares the reductive simplicities the patients are asked to adopt in rehab (“Just seven words—AFRAID, / HURT, LONELY, etc.”) with the full range of words and emotions used by the “connoisseur of feeling” (this could refer to Freud or to Merrill himself), who “throws up his hands: / Used to depicting personal anguish // With a full palette—hues, oils, glazes, thinner— / He stares into these withered wells and feels, / Well… SAD and ANGRY?…” As the week goes by, however, and as the poem proceeds, Merrill begins to implicate himself in the dysfunctionality and admit, to a degree, the legitimacy of the treatment he has turned his nose up at.

Like most Merrill poems, this is a finely crafted system of patterns. It’s written in 12 sections, each made up of four quatrains in which the first and last lines rhyme (AxxA, BxxB, CxxC, DxxD). The end words in lines two and three of each quatrain are variable, and the lines are metrically unpredictable, though many fall into iambic tetrameter and pentameter. This non-demanding structure imparts order to the poem but is loose enough to give Merrill’s urbane, conversational voice the freedom it needs to expound. If the drinking patterns that Oracle Ranch tries to end do, in fact, come back, , then perhaps Merrill hopes they recur in a non-punitive pattern such as this, which Merrill can at least live easily within. It gives free rein to his eminently speakable mode of speech.

I’ve always enjoyed this poem for its irreverence but also for the way it moves beyond mere poking fun. The first four sections of the poem are a well-schooled dismissal of this “fat farm for Anorexics, / Substance Abusers, Love & Relationship Addicts.” Section 3, subtitled “The Counsellors,” scoffs at those who run the show:

They’re in recovery, too, and tell us from what,
And that’s as far as it goes.
Like the sun-priests’ in The Magic Flute
Their ritualized responses serve the plot.

Ken, for example, blond brows knitted: “When
James told the group he worried about dying
Without his lover beside him, I felt SAD.”
Thank you for sharing, Ken,

I keep from saying; it would come out snide.
Better to view them as deadpan panels
Storing up sunlight for the woebegone…

By section 5, however, Merrill has begun to change his tune. At one point during the week at Oracle Ranch, having woken that morning from his own dream about depraved Dostoyevskian sinners (returning at dawn from “the dens of vodka, mucus and semen”), he addresses his friend, having come to understand that:

You and the others, wrestling with your demons,
Christs of self-hatred, Livingstones of pain,
Had drawn the lightning.  In a flash I saw

My future: medic at some Armageddon
Neither side wins. I burned with SHAME for the years
You’d spent among sufferings uncharted—
Not even my barren love to rest your head on.

Touching and sad, indeed, his self-incrimination at the end of that stanza. Merrill acknowledges that his “barren love”—referring perhaps to their childless homosexual relationship—has often been little solace to his suffering friend. In section 7, Tunnel Vision, Merrill attends a lecture on Grief and finds himself, despite himself, responding as the counselor urges everyone in the room to close their eyes, imagine a tunnel with a light at the end, and to enter it, moving back slowly through time to their childhood home. “And suddenly you’re there,” the counselor prompts, “at home.” Remembering now his own broken home, Merrill concedes:

… Years have begun to flow

Unhindered down my face. Why?
Because nobody’s there. The grown-ups? Shadows.
The meal? A mirror. Reflect upon it. Before
Reentering the tunnel say goodbye…

Goodbye to childhood, that unhappy haven.
It’s over, weep your fill. Let go
Of the dead dog, the lost toy…

In these lines, he alludes to his famously lonely childhood that we know from poems like “The Broken Home” and “My Father’s Irish Setters.” Section 9 finds Merrill sitting across from his friend in a face-to-face exercise run by the counselor:

We’re seated face to face. Take off your mask,
Ken says. Now look into each other deeply.  Speak,
As far as you can trust, the words of healing.
Your pardon for my own blindness I ask;

You mine, for all you hid from me. Two old
Crackpot hearts once more aswim with color,
Our Higher Power has but to dip his brush—
Lo and behold!

Here Merrill asks forgiveness for his own shortcomings, just as he says his friend should seek his pardon “for all you hid from me.” He refers to himself and his loved one with felt affection as “two old / Crackpot hearts.” A common expression when urging others to comply is “get with the program,” and by this point in the poem, Merrill  has. Moreover, he has earned the right to satirize the folly and dysfunction because he has clearly implicated himself in both, seeing the rehab patients as well as himself with the double vision that Oracle Ranch proposes to them all:

(a) You are a brave and special person. (b)
There are far too many people in the world
For this to still matter for very long.
But (Ken goes on) since you obviously

Made the effort to attend Family Week,
We hope that we have shown you just how much
You have in common with everybody else.
Not to be “terminally unique”

Will be the consolation you take home.

If anyone might have felt “terminally unique,” it would have been Merrill, blessed materially with the rare advantages of superlative wealth and class privilege and protected from the regular man’s challenges of supporting himself, but what he learns at Oracle Ranch is that he has much in common with all the other so-called dysfunctionals, which is to say, with the rest of the human race.

This brings us to the final, breathtaking section of the poem, which requires quotation in full as it makes its long but gentle reach toward a tragic conclusion. It reprises the image of the moon from the first stanza, but here, at the end, it brings the analogy to full orchestration:

12  And If

And if it were all like the moon?
Full this evening, bewitchingly
Glowing in a dark not yet complete
Above the world, explicit rune

Of change. Change is the “feeling” that dilutes
Those seven others to uncertain washes
Of soot and silver, inks unknown in my kit.
Change sends out shoots

Of FEAR and LONELINESS; of GUILT, as well,
Towards the old, abandoned patterns,
Of joy eventually, and self-forgiveness—
Colors few of us brought to Oracle…

And if the old patterns recur?
Ask how the co-dependent moon, another night,
Feels when the light drains wholly from her face.
Ask what that cold comfort means to her.

The beautifully complex phrase that I think unlocks everything is “the co-dependent moon.” The term co-dependent, historically, describes a kind of pathology and comes directly out of Alcoholics Anonymous. In a broader sense, it means one person choosing to be controlled and/or enabled by another. To call the moon “co-dependent” in the context of this poem is to suggest that the moon, too, is somehow dysfunctional, but the adjective in this case alludes literally to the physical relationship between the moon and the Earth, with the moon locked forever in its gravitational orbit—the mother of all patterns. In the final stanza, he seems to suggest that being co-dependent (i.e., dysfunctional or compromised) is built into the nature of things and is, by implication, an inevitable if crippling aspect of our own lives. This is indeed a profoundly sad poem, but not because it makes fun of the recovery movement. It is sad because of the tragic insight it points to, that dysfunction may just be an inherent part of who we are and that patterns of behavior can be more powerful than the will to change them. Merrill implies that it is better to be at peace with the likelihood that old patterns will recur, and better, like the moon, to find at least some cold comfort there.


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