from Poetry, March 2016
Tonight I saw myself in the dark window as
the image of my father, whose life
was spent like this,
thinking of death, to the exclusion
of other sensual matters,
so in the end that life
was easy to give up, since
it contained nothing.
—From Mirror Image, by Louise Glück
You can spend your whole life thinking of death. Or soaring from it. My father was the opposite of Glück’s—steeped instead in the earthly, the decimal point, and the profit margin. Eight years into leukemia and he still had no time for death—no truck with it, as people used to say. He was a retired businessman still chairing company committees. He was a master gardener, devising ever new systems for labeling squash and trellising tomatoes. He was industrious, in the best sense. Frost might have said that his vocation and avocation had successfully united, as two eyes do in sight. Hospice was the roadblock. His own mortality was the real shock.
Hospice broke his heart.
This is the story I’m telling right now. I believe it to be true. Or might there have been another, different truth—some truth beyond a living person’s need to understand? I’d like to imagine a veiled waterway, hidden even from himself, that led him to a place beyond his conscious will and power. Could some internal stream have soothed the pain of his body’s betrayal? I’m guaranteed never to know. But I can still wish.
Can poetry reside in the recess of that mystery?
There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died.
—From Illuminations, by Walter Benjamin
Some years ago, a friend was talking to an owl at an artists’ colony near the Bighorns. Every morning before sunrise, she went out to greet the owl, and the owl spoke back. I understood that some profound content had been exchanged between the two of them—though it was also, perhaps predictably, hard to pin down in English. So I didn’t press her too hard for details.
What stayed with me instead was the euphoria of address—what Roman Jakobson called the conative function in language, or “orientation toward the addressee.” I like to think of it this way: the conversation’s subject isn’t really so important; the thrill is that the conversation happens at all. The linguistic rush of face to face. Or in French, conversation is tête à tête: literally “head to head,” or putting two heads together.
This is what it feels like to fall in love.
Still, wouldn’t you be skeptical about the owl story?
A few years later, during my own stay at a colony, I myself became the surprised target of a “visitation”—a ghost. It was said that a person, or persons, had died in the house where I was staying. One of them followed me up the staircase and spoke in my dark bedroom. Tripped the electrical circuit’s “light fantastic.” And made my keyboarding fingers type the initials “BS”—in a succinct (and, yes, hilarious) pan of everything I’d written that day.
The other residents there didn’t find my experience unusual. They had their own, similar stories. One of them told me not to worry.
To me, it had felt terrifying and then a little silly. A good agnostic, and a good empiricist, is not supposed to be visited like this, even if she’s also a poet. I couldn’t square that ghost—but I couldn’t deny its existence, either. It had all really happened. So I tried to redefine it as a local artifact. Or put it in the zoo. I told myself, Ghosts are part of the discourse here.
That sentence is a paradox: discourse sparks the intellect while ghost flouts its every rule. The sentence is also a diplomat—it brings reason and inexplicability to the same table. Most of all, though, it muzzles the ghost. Discourse routs the uncontainable. The uncountable. I fenced that ghost in language.
Since poetry is made of words—as Mallarmé told Degas—it’s capable of doing this, too. But a poem is also something else. Poetry is what lets the ghost reply, Don’t fence me in.
You have told me you gave it all away
then, sold the house, keeping only the confirmation
cross she wore, her name in cursive chased
on the gold underside, your ring in the same
box, those photographs you still avoid,
and the quilt you spread on your borrowed bed—
small things. Months after we met, you told me she had
made it, after we had slept already beneath its loft
and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath
her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft.
—From Artifact, by Claudia Emerson
Look at the smallest, most ephemeral things around you. How many fingers have touched them? Do you know whose?
In Claudia Emerson’s sequence “Late Wife: Letters to Kent,” a newly remarried woman encounters her husband’s first wife, dead of cancer, in precisely those sorts of things. There is the quilt the late wife made, and one stray “driving glove” in the car. The late wife also made a video of her then-husband Kent coming home to their adorably excitable dog.
When she watches this home video, Emerson realizes that its erstwhile camerawoman and “director” is now, impossibly, directing her: “as though she directs / me to notice the motion of her chest / in the rise and fall of the frame.” Kent—the “you” in this passage from “Homecoming”—is unwittingly complicit in the strategy:
Then, at last, you come home
to look into the camera she holds,
and past her into me—invisible, unimagined
other who joins her in seeing through our
transience the lasting of desire.
The “you,” the “me,” and the “she.” Three pronouns that don’t always go well together. But this particular triangle is full of generosity. Emerson becomes the late wife’s coconspirator, confidante, receptor, continuation. Kent is the natural bridge: love for him has brought two strangers together, one posthumously, in these poems’ “unimagined” scenes. A single wife is not enough; two marriages combine in time to serve an idea, or “the lasting of desire.”
I don’t know how “true” these poems are, nor do I need to know. In other words, I don’t know whether, or to what degree, Emerson actually experienced the late wife as I did the ghost at the colony. Regardless, I see her poems as an act of radical empathy and eros—one that reimagined and loosened the outlines of a single self, or of a couple. It was an act that redefined triangulation not as tension or obstacle—the way it has been since time immemorial, or at least since Jane Eyre—but as the perfecting of each couple’s love, moving forward and backward in time.
I didn’t know Claudia Emerson. She died in 2014, also from cancer, at the young age of fifty-seven. When I read the news, my mind flew to Late Wife. It was all I could think about. At first, I felt it all had to be a mistake: that Late Wife made Emerson’s early death impossible. As if the book itself should have been a prophylactic. Then I wondered if the opposite were true.
I wondered, that is, if the poems were talismanic. They didn’t foretell Emerson’s death, but they narrated what had, in a sense, already happened: she herself was in the process of becoming the “late wife” that the poems so lovingly inhabited.
In a sense, every poem becomes a site of askesis, or self-evacuation—since we don’t write literally with blood, but with black marks on paper, or their electronic equivalents. As we learn in our first workshops, our bodies (and explanations, and justifications) can’t follow our poems around in the world. But Emerson’s askesis seems different, as if she exchanged her very life for a rapt concentration on the dead. The danger of that statement, of course, is that it sounds a lot like magical thinking. It sounds like an aesthetic justification for a death that occurred too soon.
And maybe it is. But consider this: elsewhere in the poem I just quoted, Emerson calls the late wife’s video “scripted.” In the course of writing these poems, had Emerson tapped into something more powerful than poetry, or even than her life? In this case, the rhetorical term is prolepsis—meaning that, in some sense, we are always living with a future that has already happened.
What role can poetry play in such a life-script? Here are the first wife’s X-rays, as her doctors described them to Kent:
By the time they saw what they were looking at
it was already risen into the bones
of her chest. They could show you then the lungs
were white with it; they said it was like salt
in water—that hard to see as separate—
and would be that hard to remove. Like moonlight
dissolved in fog, in the dense web
—From The X-Rays
Like the disease in the lungs, metaphor is everywhere. It’s ineluctable, even in the doctors’ diagnosis. The first wife’s illness becomes beautiful as an ocean or as moonlight dissolved in fog. It seems to me there is always a risk in lyricizing pathology, but I also sense that this is the perfect accommodation—the hand-in-driving-glove, if you will—between the ghost of the late wife and the poet who will become her successor. Like salt in water, the two of them had already grown so very hard to see as separate.
Maybe metaphor incites such eerie inevitability, which became the achievement of Emerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Yet the poet’s biography shows that the poems themselves are not the end. It calls us beyond the poems, into the script.
This is what made Emerson’s death the hardest-hitting for me, despite our recent and staggering losses of giants like Seamus Heaney, Philip Levine, and Mark Strand. Strand who, in one of his last talks at the Poetry Foundation, discussed “the inevitability of surprise” in poems. He said that current poetry fashion had lost the taste for it.
Though she was alive when he spoke it, Strand’s phrase also describes Emerson’s demise.
All I know is a door into the dark.
—From The Forge, by Seamus Heaney
The history of the novel has a discrete historical place for the Gothic and its revenants. In poetry, though, the ghost can’t be confined to a single era. Claudia Emerson had so many ancestors. There was Coleridge and “Christabel.” Hardy’s final ghost poems. Rilke “transcribing” the sonnets to Orpheus, inspired by the dead Vera Knoop. Yeats writing A Vision. Merrill and his Ouija board. And so on.
Why do so many of these ghosts seep into the lives and deaths of poets? All I know is that the more I write poetry, the surer and less sure I become. The more deeply I listen to both the inflections and innuendoes of language, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, the more astute and also superstitious I seem to be. The more densely I describe the textures of the world around me, the more of it I realize I am missing. The negatives of Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs, built into greenhouse glass and described by Linda Bierds in The Profile Makers, make lovely analogues for this. Of course, it’s a short journey from photographic negatives to Keatsian negative capability, or the valuation of doubt and mystery that animates so many poets.
For me, poetry proliferates and flourishes in the intellect’s blind spot. But you have to have the intellect first; you can’t skip that step. I find intelligence to be most interesting when it’s tested—not when it’s challenged, but when we restrain it from being the default mode by which we apprehend the phenomena around us. Can strategies in the martial arts speak to this?
By the same token, the way of mind that attends the supernatural or numinous is hardly compelling without a formidable and even mutually exclusive foil. Ratiocination. This is where poetry inserts itself, again with Stevens, as what “must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.”
Or come again,
Or send to us
Thy wit’s great overplus.
—From An Ode to Ben Jonson, by Robert Herrick
The dead have no ears, no answering machines
that we know of, still we call.
—From Leave a Message, by Bob Hicok
The “O” of apostrophe. The vocative, in Latin—and for Jakobson, too. For the critic Barbara Johnson, apostrophe was what made lyric poetry itself; its long history could have been distilled into a single cry. Robert Herrick’s apostrophe transformed his dead friend, the bon vivant Ben Jonson, into “Saint Ben.” We cry to the dead, and we imagine that they answer us. The weirdness in me wants to say they sometimes even do.
Herrick was right, too, about the dead’s “overplus.” This is the uncanny excess that can’t be contained by empirical limits—even if it’s sheathed in Jonson’s wit or my own ghost’s “BS.” If Herrick’s term sounds mathematical, so much the better. Think of the late wife’s doctors and their metaphors.
Can we greet overplus without relinquishing our skepticism? Poetry keeps asking the impossible.
My father died two years ago today, in my childhood home that had become, for six short and endless hours, Hospice. His pain ripped him, even with morphine. To the end, I think, he was battling death, his legs still muscled enough to fight.
When it was over, the funeral home attendants zipped up his body and wheeled it away, leaving a silk rose behind.
Later that night, I startled awake and sat up. He was lying next to me, as if still in his hospital bed. But his eyes were peacefully closed, the way they hadn’t been in death. His face and body were calm—as if conflict and even muscularity had flown, or floated down a river. I leaned over and reached for his hand, then realized I was clawing my own bedsheet.
He was there. Or not. How would I ever know?
In poetry, perhaps more than anywhere else, we can try.
The answers won’t be there. Still we call.
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