from The New Quarterly: Canadian Writers & Writing, Issue 117, Winter 2011
As I get older, I find it harder to spend time with friends. And I love my friends. My friends are the warmest and most generous people I know. That’s why I can’t spend much time with them. The stress is too much. The feeling of having to pull myself together, be collected, unscattered, equal to their kindnesses, ready for the nice things they will say and do. Please, don’t let me blurt out something awful. Tourettes and a dash of Aspergers make for a perfect storm in polite company: excess mental energy and an anxiety about every worst thing that can happen, combined with being utterly unintuitive about social decorum. And the obsession! I once spent an entire lunch with a colleague worrying that I was going to spit my mouthful of salad into his face. He’s talking about marking stipends and I’m looking at him picturing the romaine lettuce on his forehead, a speck of red onion on his chin.
What if all that junk in your head came out? You don’t have to have “mental issues” to know that there are rules in conversation, things that can be said and things that should remain hidden or reserved. I always seem to have Edgar’s caveat at the end of King Lear in my head: “speak what you feel, not what you ought to say,” that next-to-impossible ideal that is supposed to keep tragedy at bay. The idea that people can be natural in company is a mystery to me. I don’t know what natural is (does anyone?). So I make it up, stand on the alert, watch, listen, pick up cues from others, and double-think every least gesture and nuance. I’m a Henry James conversation on crack. Intuition for me was an aggressively learned skill: “learned intuition,” the first and last oxymoron for people on the autism spectrum. It helps to explain why there is for me something very eerie and unreal about polite conversation. I feel like a ghost: insubstantial enough to be not noticed, but bound to frighten people when I am. It is embarrassing and very stressful to be around so many real people. I’m thinking, being real is such an unfair advantage. I’m thinking, I could reach out and my hand would pass through you. Ghosts don’t make genuine connections.
Now writing is another matter. Writing puts the mediacy back in immediacy. It lowers the urgency-rheostat and cools down the over-heated neurons. In writing, you take a step back, gather time and space to yourself. You can think and decide, reflect, have second thoughts. Best of all, you can play! You can be whimsical and daring, flirt with limits, meet friends half way, challenge them, tease them, welcome them at their word. You can be hospitable. All in your own good time.
Now I’m not getting all mushy here about genuine feelings in writing. I haven’t forgotten Oscar Wilde’s “give a man a mask and he will tell the truth.” Wilde was spot-on, of course, about writing and masks; writing is nothing if not an epitome of exercised social control, about making yourself up and putting yourself out there in the terms that best suit you. W.H. Auden said that you can walk into people’s living rooms and know in an instant whether you want to see them again. Something of that is true in writing as well. We size people up. In writing you have the same sorts of tensions that you have in conversation: the give and take, the underlying messages, the judgements and anxieties. It all goes on, and sometimes in ways that are much more biting and cruel than one would ever tolerate in conversation.
But there is something else that happens in writing, in imaginative writing, in literature, that makes me more hopeful of the kinds of connections human beings at their best can make with one another. The great absent mentor in my life, Northrop Frye, has been for me an inspiring advocate of the kinds of connections and meetings of mind that literature recommends to us. I say absent mentor because, for the most part in my years at Victoria College, Frye was a distant ghost. You saw him out of the corner of your eye crossing the quad with his head down, lost in thought. His fame alone could easily have accounted for how unreal he seemed. But there was something else too. He wasn’t the best at conversation, for one thing. God help you if you got caught in an elevator with him alone. He would see that you knew who he was, and you knew that he knew that you knew. How confusing it is to feel awkward in front of someone famous who is actually more awkward than you.
Frye was also absent in the sense that I didn’t really know what he was on about until after he died. In the early 80s, I was into the new trends in deconstruction (attractive to me then, I see now, for the kinds of metaphoric wordplay they invited) and tended to see Frye—as only a snotty-nosed undergraduate could—as a little antiquated. You could tell listening to him that he knew a lot of stuff, but wasn’t it common knowledge that he had been proved wrong? Or something like that. I had taken his Shakespeare course and remembered him tilting at the lectern like the mast of a gently tossed schooner at anchor. Without any notes at hand that I could see, he would fill out fifty minutes with a kind of spoken polished prose. ‘People make a fuss about the ghost in Hamlet because there are no such things as ghosts in the real world. But the point is that there are ghosts in the real world of Hamlet.’ Now what the heck did that mean? What good is it being a ghost in an imaginary character’s real world? And hell, if you were only imaginary, weren’t you already a kind of ghost? I couldn’t see how to make sense of it. Once the class was over, I would remember nothing. How strange was it, when I read Frye’s book on Shakespeare years later and found that each page brought back the afternoon, the room, the very seat I sat in, when he made the point in lecture.
So that’s when he was around. I was already at McMaster when I learned of his death in 1991. I had just got back from a run and was sitting on my bed watching (but why?) a noon-hour news show. They were breaking for a commercial: “Coming up next ... Northrop Frye remembered.” I stared for silent minutes, and then got on the phone with my former teacher Eleanor Cook to get the proper news and start the long, quiet work that goes on still of honouring a loss. It wasn’t until my first leave year in 1995, spent out among the sheep and peat fields in the west of Ireland, that I finally sat down properly with Fearful Symmetry and the two late Bible books (The Great Code and Words with Power). The first hundred pages of the Blake book turned my world upside down, or inside out, as Frye would have said. Everything changed. I’ve got it down to one or two paragraphs:
[Blake’s] Golgonooza ... is the total form of all human culture and civilization. Nothing that the heroes, martyrs, prophets and poets of the past have done for it has been wasted: no anonymous and unrecognized contribution to it has been overlooked. In it is conserved all the good man has done, and in it is completed all that he hoped and intended to do. And the artist who uses the same energy and genius that Homer and Isaiah had will find that he not only lives in the same palace of art as Homer and Isaiah, but lives in it at the same time.
We wince today at any “palace of art” metaphors. But that aside, what did it mean that in writing we inhabit the total form of human culture, and live there with all its past writers “at the same time.”?
We live in two kinds of symbolic worlds, Frye argued: the one we put there and call real, and the one we put there and call imaginary. Think of a lucid dream. There is the world you dream up as real (with its laws of gravity and its population of demons that you are putting there), and there is the power of the dream itself which is limited only by your imagination. The moment you realize that they are really the same world is the moment you break free, and do something whimsical like fly.
There is an authority that accrues uniquely to the imaginative world, its way of connecting and communicating, its recreative and revolutionary potential, and its hypothetical relation to the world we think we live in minute by minute. That authority came suddenly clear in a shock of revelation that Frye himself spoke of having had as a young man on a Moncton sidewalk (of course, he didn’t have Frye to read for a shortcut). My journey, getting on fifteen years now, of wandering around, both lost and found, inside Frye’s work and inside the kind of imaginative cosmology that it opens, feels as though it has only begun.
All the while that I was thinking Frye might be, if my peers were right, a little sadly outdated, I was becoming interested by chance in a particular kind of literary scene, one that is not especially common in the literature, but from beginning to end present enough that it set me a-wondering. I have called them since the “Ghostly Encounters,” and some day, when my plate is clear (which will be never), I’d like to write a small book about them. A poet meets the spirit of a dead mentor, usually another poet whose work he has admired. The mentor pops up out of the blue and the host-poet is surprised in the way that we all are when taken aback, in dreams, by spooks that we ourselves have put there. The encounter is a summons, an invitation. Dante calls up the ghost of Virgil in The Divine Comedy. Blake doesn’t so much speak to a pontificating “Milton,” in the poem of that title, as stand in his audience. Shelley in a dream catches Rousseau passing in a chariot in “The Triumph of Life” (the conversation is cut off in the truncated poem just at that moment, darn it!, when Rousseau is about to answer the question, “What is Life?”). If the Victorians didn’t seem to be as interested in raising the dead this way (unless we credit Browning’s dramatic monologues as relevant ... they aren’t in any case two-way conversations), the moderns have made up for it. In the final section of “Little Gidding”—on the dark streets of war-torn London with the sound of German bombers in the distance—T.S. Eliot runs into “the compound ghost” (compounding such as Jonathan Swift, W.B. Yeats, who had just died, and of course Dante himself). Seamus Heaney echoes this very encounter in his meeting with the ghost of James Joyce at the end of “Station Island.” In another poem, Heaney has a briefer encounter with Philip Larkin in the Underground. W.H. Auden doesn’t have an actual two-way conversation with Byron in his “Letter to Lord Byron,” but he certainly chums around with him and “assumes” certain kinds of response and feedback. James Merrill, in any case, answers for this by having Auden himself, among so many others, turn up on the Ouija Board in the nightly, otherworldly conversations that make up “The Changing Light at Sandover.” Borderline cases suggest themselves. The scene is a sub-species of a larger type of otherworldly encounter that would have to include Hamlet’s ghost itself, Moses and the burning bush, Jacob wrestling with the angel. “I will not let you go until you bless me,” Jacob cries to the spirit, as do our host-poets to their mentors.
A ghost can be pretty handy to have around. Coming from “the other world,” from outside of time, it sees things and knows things. It is wise and prophetic. It has a habit of cutting through the waste, while giving us the poop on how things are with us and where we’re going. It talks straight and doesn’t dissemble. Of course it’s appearing at all in the poem is an enormous compliment to the host poet’s effort. The fact that the host-poet is actually the one putting him there brings a sense of tongue-in-cheek to his modest demurings. Here is Dante’s first encounter with Virgil, with his medieval version of “Well for crying out loud, look who it is!”:
“Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain
Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?”
I made response to him with bashful forehead.
“O, of the other poets honour and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me.
Eliot in his poem plays beautifully on the ambiguity of the kind of conversation that ensues. The spirit is a projection of the host’s own voice, his own voice doubled, or echoed against itself as it were, at once conjured and encountered:
The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
So I assumed a double part, and cried
And heard another’s voice cry: ‘What! are you here?’
Although we were not. I was still the same,
Knowing myself yet being someone other—
And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded.
Now the spirit doesn’t just show up at any old time. The poet is usually in crisis, sometimes quite actually at a crossroads, or lost, as Dante was in his dark wood at the outset. It is no accident either that what they end up talking about is poetry and the poet’s way forward in his vocation (a word that, where exchanged voices are concerned, seems particularly apt). In “Little Gidding,” Eliot is struggling to find value and purpose in his work, both in relation to his religious searches and to the “bombardments” of history (both actual and metaphoric) that loom so menacingly overhead. The conversations are not easy. Bitter truths are spoken, and the saying and the listening are hard:
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
Nasty stuff. No wonder the host needed a dead spirit to tell him this. But we can see what is happening. Eliot is “really” just shaking a finger at himself, but he uses a form of ventriloquism (the compound ghost like a dummy on his lap) to get a kind of leverage against his manifest failings, his inability to say the things he wants. In “Station Island,” Seamus Heaney tries as well to come to terms with his obligations as a poet. Does he take on the Irish troubles and use his work as a more direct and explicit political tool? He has Joyce put him straight:
You are raking at dead fires,
a waste of time for somebody your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,
infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage.
You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements,
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.
James Merrill too is at an impasse, finds himself griping over the authorial conditions of his own poem. In what sense, he wonders, can he call messages received from a Ouija board his own writing? In a moment that resonates I think for all creative authors, Merrill asks: to whom do these words belong ? Auden gives him a verbal smack-down about the place of the writer’s ego in the big picture, and then sets off crooning about imaginative literature as a total gathering of voices:
THINK WHAT A MINOR
PART THE SELF PLAYS IN A WORK OF ART
COMPARED WITH THOSE GREAT GIVENS THE ROSEBRICK MANOR
ALL TOPIARY FORMS & METRICAL
MOAT ARIPPLE! FROM ANTHOLOGIZED
PERENNIALS TO HERB GARDEN OF CLICHES
FROM LATIN-LABELED HYBRIDS TO THE FAWN
4 LETTER FUNGI THAT ENRICH THE LAWN,
IS NOT ARCADIA TO DWELL AMONG
GREENWOOD PERSPECTIVES OF THE MOTHER TONGUE
ROOTSYSTEMS UNDERFOOT WHILE OVERHEAD
THE SUN GOD SANG & SHADES OF MEANING SPREAD
& FAR SNOWCAPPED ABSTRACTIONS GLITTERED NEAR
OR FAIRLY MELTED INTO ATMOSPHERE?
AS FOR THE FAMILY ITSELF MY DEAR
JUST GAPE UP AT THAT CORONETED FRIEZE:
SWEET WILLIAMS & FATE-FLAVORED EMILIES
THE DOUBTING THOMAS & THE DULCET ONE
(HARDY MY BOY WHO ELSE? & CAMPION)
MILTON & DRYDEN OUR LONG JOHNS IN SHORT
IN BED AT PRAYERS AT MUSIC FLUSHED WITH PORT
THE DULL THE PRODIGAL THE MEAN THE MAD
IT WAS THE GREATEST PRIVILEGE TO HAVE HAD
A BARE LOWCEILINGED MAID’S ROOM AT THE TOP.
I love this piece. I suppose some might take exception to the quaint English-garden version of literature—mere decorative topiary or class-unconscious manor house, take your pick—and I suppose they wouldn’t be swayed by the fact that the property actually belongs to everyone, occupied by every manner of poet (THE DULL, THE PRODIGAL, THE MEAN, THE MAD), or that Merrill’s own place is rather modestly relegated to the cramped attic. In fact, Merrill is echoing Auden’s own use of the literature-as-house conceit in his “Letter to Lord Byron” (and let’s not forget Blake’s palace...), in such a way that the allusion itself might be seen to accomplish the metaphor proposed. Merrill dwells in the house by “rebuilding” it in his own poem, as his own poem. The low-ceilinged maid’s room at the top becomes the attic space of the mind, that resonant chamber, into which those myriad voices below may rise like echoes.
I mean this in a quite precise sense so it may be worth putting a little pressure on the idea. Go back a moment to Eliot’s first sight of the compound ghost: “So I assumed a double part, and cried / And heard another’s voice cry: ‘What! are you here?’” Recall that Eliot fixes here on the ventriloquism of the thrown voice, where another is echoed back to him inside his own. But it is more than this. What both the ghost and the speaker cry out at that moment is itself an echo of Dante’s own encounter with Ser Brunetto Latini in Canto 15 of The Inferno: “Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?” (“Is it you here, ser Brunetto?”). Readers have also noted how Eliot in this particular section uses a longer line with unstressed endings as a way of calling up (as best one can in English) something of Dante’s own Italian metrics. So Eliot cries, and in the cry we really do hear a voice that is not entirely his own echo in response. They converse.
Heaney offers a variation. His encounter with Joyce comes back as an act of remembering voice before an actual one is heard: “His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers / came back to me, though he did not speak yet.” Heaney then alludes to a line in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (regarding Stephen’s right to the Irish word “Tundish”) that has stayed with him:
Old father, mother’s son,
there is a moment in Stephen’s diary
for April the thirteenth, a revelation
set among my stars—that one entry
has been a sort of password in my ears…
And of course it is a password in the poem’s ear too, for it calls out to Joyce’s own lines at the very end of the novel: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Heaney also accommodates a winking irony to the poem, one that is at least the equal of Merrill’s meditation on “writing one’s own thing.” Joyce’s ghost tells him that he has to cut loose from every imposed expectation and obligation. “When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim / out on your own and fill the element / with signatures on your own frequency, / echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements....” Heaney must find his own frequency, but he must do so with “echo soundings,” that is, by quite actually “sounding” unheard-of depths with echoes that are already a part of him. Here then, at the end of “Station Island,” fasted and light headed, the poet offers, partly in homage, partly in self-admonishment, a conversation about the work still to be done, and about how to accomplish that work in echo, while echoing work already accomplished.
So there’s a bit of slow reading if you like. But it comes to this. Poets, like everyone else, live in their own time and their own place. They can be separated from one another by a neighbourhood block, or by centuries, or by the kinds of cultural and linguistic differences that would have made it impossible for them to break bread together. Dante never sat down with Virgil. Heaney will never meet Joyce. Even if they could shake one another’s hands at a wine and cheese, the conversation, as such things go, could well have been stilted and mundane (“Pleased to meet you, Virgil. Why do you suppose they never put out enough brie?”). And yet voices themselves travel quite well over distances of time and space. They sound across centuries. They lie quiet until we are ready to hear them. Our words become ready to listen, our readiness to listen becomes an invitation, our invitation their approach.
And there is so much to talk about. Our poems are conversations in every meaningful sense. They are an exchange between ourselves and those parts of ourselves that belong to other people, that we owe to them. Intimate whisperings, productive tensions. They challenge and tease us, lead us to say things we have not thought to say. They give us the courage to have a self and to lose it too, which is surely the most we can ask of any conversation.
I tried my own hand at a ghostly encounter poem in my last book Palilalia, where I meet the spirit of Northrop Frye himself in the underground of the Museum subway station near Victoria College. At last, I think, I can underburden myself, confess my anxieties about writing, about wasting time, about not making connections. It turns out that he has some rather strong words for me. And I have tried to listen.
I never had a real conversation with Northrop Frye when he lived and it might be just as well. But I have been talking with him ever since. His work pays homage to that imaginative cosmology of interpenetrating voices that we all inhabit, in literature and in life. We are made up of voice, and we are the relations between voices, inside and out. They are our judgement and our redemption, our ownness and our generosity, our origin and our promise. Perhaps something like their revelation is possible in real conversation. It may be, after all, what we live for. As Yeats says, “what do we know but that we face / one another in this place?” I suppose there will always be something ethereal and unreal about conversations as long as I feel as anxious about them as I do. But in every ghostly encounter—the ones we have with friends at Tim Hortons, and the ones we listen for when we write—we recognize the voices we love, and we think: it is good of them to come back the way they do, share a part of themselves with us, good to hear them again. And our hearts warm to a quiet tryst of living voices, ones that, if we’re lucky, will choir among themselves long afterward.
* * *
Subway, in the middle of my commute,
I found myself in a dark corner.
The line vanished into the underground
in two directions, the clack and crow-screech
of steel wheels echoed in recession
of the just missed five-o-nine
from the tunnel’s depths. Museum Station.
A chilled solitude widened around me
and water-drops pooled in mimicked snips
between the rails below. The ceiling lamps’
subdued fluorescence seemed to cast no shadows
and were like peering through green water.
Exhibits from the ROM in glass cases
with aboriginal wooden masks descended
like messengers from the real world above,
whose outsize faces gestured witness and alarm
in the apocalyptic style of indigenous myth.
Farther up, the February dusk
was tawny, the air tasteless and dull
as pewter plate. Fog had moved in on
Old Vic’s scrubbed-stone but now vague
turrets uncobbling upwards to the last
vanished spire, as though parting illusion
from the epigraph above the stairway arch,
still insisting, after these twenty years,
that the truth would set me free.
All gone up in a mist now, as far
as I could see. I pictured them above,
the Burwash quad, Pratt, and residence,
whose faux-gothic walls hold the city at Bay
like the brim of an empty cup, and where
the mind-set of college years, memories
of what unwritten words, burn perpetually
as in a crucible. I wonder now had I known,
those years hiding my fidgets, of the tics
Touretters spend their days trying to release,
or heard of how the obsessive’s repetitions
grind every last impulse to its death,
would I have finished more, managed
the regimental habitus and got things done?
Too skittish by far to do as that passage
from Faust always roared mockingly I should,
from its perch on the cork board above my desk,
Settle your studies! and sound the depths
of that thou wilt profess. Get real! I still
have the welts from the nightly tongue-lashing.
But now school’s out at last, and the long ghostly
hours of doodling, daydreams, lectures, lessen.
The students pouring from Northrop Frye Hall
slushed in out of the fog in private directions
escalating down into the commuter scrimmage
towards the platform. And that brought it on.
The clapping heel, nasal-snort, the lurching nod,
the whooped-up screech and cluck.
I tried to catch the right patterns up,
send them unfolding in dervish rhythms,
unstoppable as blinking. Suddenly,
out of the unasked-for corporal hootenanny
I sensed a conjured presence whirled out
in tangents from myself echoing
in the sniggers I bounced off the walls,
until in my thinking, it appeared,
a stooped man stood apart,
behind a pillar, unhurried, thoughtful,
neither leaving nor arriving, one I seemed
to recognize or remember, coming through
and breaking up like a cell-phone signal
too far from its source. The chunky glasses
and electric hair, plain, perennially ancient,
he was there, bunched up within himself
like New Brunswick brushwood, swaying
like a scraggly jack-pine or as a man
in thought at arm’s length from a lectern
will rock, it seems, to captivating rhythms
for the sake of argument. Sheet folder.
Waiting for this line to take him home.
He spoke up under my own chirps and wheens
snickering back under the stone work,
like a cold draft working itself out.
“Still conjuring ghosts, are you Hamlet,
from the depths of the waiting place?
Have you forgotten my Shakespeare lecture
in ‘81, on how the Danish spook
is not one jot less real than the made world
he rises in?” He looked himself over.
“Not that I can say much in the matter,
but you might have made me younger.
When you conjure someone in a dream,
(where are your manners?) it’s best to be more
generous than time was.... But look at you.
Why you look as though you see a burning
bush or a hanging disk of fire.”
“Oh no no, I see you, heavenly ghost,
old sky father, old officer of art!
but holy company of angels
what are you doing here? Fifteen years
have passed since we sat through the Blake
readings at your remembrance service,
and together cracked what wine bottles afterwards
launched you on your way across the Styx,
that second journey you once wrote about
as having much less to do with ego
than the first. You always looked for how
to get past it without actually dying,
and I thought if I kept reading your prose
you might show the way chosen ones take
to the spiritualized secular,
and find you again, or myself at least.
But not haunting some in-transit concourse
buried under old grounds I’ve already trod.”
“You’re still looking in all the wrong places.
Time you saw through your own smoke and mirrors.”
“A window then? Not a thing I see?”
“Closer, yes, but don’t get your hopes up
on clarity, too many hands and noses
have been pressed to the glass for you to find
what you’re looking for in someone like me,
even in this state. I was never much
for small talk, as little on subway platforms
as on that elevator we once rode together.”
He shied away three steps and started to fade,
searched himself as for the rumpled coat
he was still wearing. But I wanted more,
moved to step clear of my own withholdings.
“I’ve long imagined I had missed my chance,
had lost you to the ranks of bygone
paternal mentors, fathers in whom I planted
the seeds of long-nursed dependencies
for the tall harvest that never came.”
“Still stripping grafts from confidences
greater than your own? You’ve a way to go,
and it won’t be this old crow, cocking
his eye at you under these shady lights,
who will get you there. Don’t you know
that mine too was the ventriloquist’s thrown voice,
and that what I spoke was a stirred echo?”
“I’ll never write as much as you did, spirit,
the endless notebook-drafts of plumbed inklings
and the thirty odd volumes of limpid prose.
I can’t pinch off a dozen lines in a year.”
“You could use some metaphoric roughage
in your diet. An evacuation and purge,
as Auden said, can be a positive omen.
But you’re the one who goes on about Whitman....
You have to keep the tics down in public,
and the vocal dirt from passing at all times,
(like kegel exercises for the mental sphincter...).
I can understand that. But your verbal
warm-ups are over-worked, if I may say so,
too handled and pushed, too proudly shaped.
You’d rather climb off the pot than risk
the odd bad sheet. You won’t commit a line
not already hammered into its promise.
You’ve got this chiselled-phrase stuff backwards.
A poet finishes with cut gems
for the jeweller’s eye, his sturdy maxim’s
sculpted waterfall hefted upwards
into empyrean, he doesn’t start there.
You’re a Touretter. Why not write like one?
Hold off the perfectionist blocking out phrases
to exhaustion, those worrying threads,
the Penelopian back-ravellings of the unmade.
Your repetitious tics have always come first,
and so they should, the ecstatic rhapsodist’s
St. Vidas Dance, slangster’s whizzle
and conjuration, philologist’s hullaballoo.
You think of Moses breasting the mountain top
to find the right words already carved
in stone. But Moses too went round and round,
‘til he found the clearing and the words came.”
My tics slowed, and he dimmed like a science fair
light bulb, whose frail filament is
kept lit by the frantic, pumping cyclist
‘til he tires. I cried, “But wait! What words?
Suppose I do dance circles, make off-beat
tongue-claves my first exuberance, tell me
what I’ll find there beyond.” “No time,” he said,
turning away, “and we’ve both said enough.
But look, you’ve waited on this line for some time,
haven’t you. I think I hear what you need coming,”
and fading, he said something else I missed,
when a shriek, as from depths within, drowned him out.
And it was then I saw—what else?—a light
at the end of the tunnel, and heard the train’s
sliced-steel, involuntary skreak and howl,
an offense to all, but look with how many
along for the ride! One last tic, I sounded
my barbaric yawp. And a door opened.
About the Author
Jeffery Donaldson was born in Toronto and educated at Victoria College, University of Toronto. He teaches poetry and poetics, American literature, and Inquiry in the English Department at McMaster University. He is co-editor of Frye and the Word: Religious Contexts in the Writings of Northrop Frye and author of four books of poetry: Once Out of Nature, Waterglass, Palilalia, and most recently Guesswork (Goose Lane, 2011). "Museum" first appeared in Palilalia (McGill-Queen's, 2008) and is reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
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