Turn the screw once more—see how far in it digs before the threads lose grip and the whole assemblage rips itself up by its own penetrative power. “Screw your courage to the sticking place”—that kind of thing.
Three months ago, in August, I most recently tried to write this essay. I only got this:
There are ghosts all over this August summerscape. The wildfires have finally arrived. The needles of heat have sucked the life from the grass. Haze, haze and that sneaking suspicion things are changing once again. Last night, roaming around at 3 AM, a leaf fell to the sidewalk behind me. The first sign of Fall? Or just a dead leaf?
Well, that and one more thing:
A crow’s dissecting a bag of Lay’s potato chips.
Don’t ask me why that was important. Now November’s come in at long last, a real cold front to follow the half-hearted feint of snow in early October. And before you know it there’s December rising like a specter, too—like the Ghost of Christmas Past. Or Future.
There’s been something blocking me these past months—writer’s block, of course, in the lurid and oversimplified phrase, but something else, too, an unseen influence over my life like low clouds or the November mist I woke to this morning, the pines across the street hazy, indistinct, dream-like. What is it, that presence in the mist? What keeps my face so near the glass, trying to make out something in the gloaming? I can’t name it, but it weighs on me, it follows me like a big black ghost-dog around the house, it nudges my sleep until I give up and turn on the light and try to read the night away.
The Turn of the Screw and The Bell Jar suit this black-dog November mood. I’ve been reading nonfiction—The Lost Art of Finding Our Way—and found it too dense for everyday use, so I picked up Plath and didn’t put it down till the next day, finished. —If indeed I really put it down at all. Metaphorically, I mean. The Bell Jar is one of those harrowing, psychologically affecting books. It lurks in your subconscious for quite a long while, like the vast emptiness of The Great Gatsby or the jaded gloom of Blood Meridian. Of course, such psychological effects are personal, subjective entities, entirely limited to one’s state of mind in any given time—but it’s also a window outside of the self, the kind of window that once you’ve looked through, you can never leave alone again. My roommate loaned me Blood Meridian; I gave him The Bell Jar. Both books produced in us similar reactions—and for weeks all we could see were blood-soaked sunsets, and the bells of the college on the hill above us were hollow and uncanny. So it’s not all in your head. Or, in any case, it’s in all of our heads, a kind of collective unconscious that changes shape under different influences. When you stand before the window, the view itself is something beyond you, something that influences you and changes independent of you and is thus not you—or not just you, anyway. It has a life of its own. In 30 years I might pick up Plath and I will again be 23, November will be setting in, and I will taste familiarity in the darkness beyond the window, the scent of apocalypse on the wind. We all know the bell jar.
Truth is, I can relate a little too well to Esther Greenwood, and to the unnamed heroine of Turn of the Screw. For one thing, they’re both unreliable narrators, full of little vanities and arrogance. They’re from backwaters; they’re full of dreams and illusions and hopes. You can’t trust people with hope—it gives them an agenda. But neither story is hopeful, really, despite both being about hope. Life seems to just happen to the protagonists. There’s not much agency involved. In a roundabout way, then, the two narrator-heroines are the opposite of unreliable—they are honest to a fault, and they dwell within their insecurities, they dwell on them and in the process they become trapped in both the kinder days of memory and their ever-vanishing, vague hopes. They present the world as they see it, distorted though it seems, and they are self-conscious to a crippling degree. In this sense of honesty they are reliable, which at first blush seems like the opposite of unreliable—but the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe the opposite of unreliable is something like constant; which is a subtle but important distinction. Reliable means you’ll do what needs to be done when it needs to be done; you can depend on reliable. Unreliable is shifty and vanishing, or inadequate, but it has an element of hope that reliable lacks. You don’t need to hope for something reliable. You get the sense that unreliable has been given chances, but it’s failed. In fact, when you begin to think about it, the difference between reliable and unreliable is exactly one slip, a single failure, catastrophic or not. That’s why reliable and unreliable aren’t opposites—they’re just degrees of a spectrum. One moment can change everything, and it will never again cross over the divide. The two terms are kissing cousins, yin-yang parts of the same idea. The real opposite of unreliable is the eternal or constant, that state which does not change, which has no chance of ever being unreliable. What in our world can be called eternal or constant? What can we always, always count on? I can think of only one thing: change.
Crows in a caterwaul on the limb-laced edge of the afternoon,
Three scored like black notes in the bare oak across the street.
The past is a thousand-mile view I can’t quite see the end of.
Heart-halved, I stare out the window to ease its medicine in.
—Charles Wright, from “There Is a Balm in Gilead”
Two guppies circle the tank that my roommate and I have set up in the living room, between the bookcase and the fireplace. The tank’s been empty till today, and now the guppies—one white, one black—turn restlessly inside their native water. We dropped their little transport bag into the tank so they could become temperature-acclimated before being released. Now the bag floats turgid and alive above the underwater Buddhist temple we’ve assembled: a red and black pagoda, a miniature stone bridge, two lava rocks flanked by java ferns, a lung dragon, and a chintzy gold-edged Buddha head. Apart, removed, float the guppies: one black, one white. They’re called “yin-yang guppies.” The little sign at PETCO said they invite tranquility. Well, we’ll see.
The fish replace the cat—Misha and her owner moved out some months ago. The last time I thought about Merrill’s ghosts, it was the sick cold of last March and Misha and I were alone in our house without heating. Now I sit in my bed in the room her owner vacated; and when I enter the house there’s no small, insistent presence, no little golem of the everyday, no thing to upbraid your absence with cries of indignant welcome. Strange, how this craving for life comes over you sometimes. Others’ lives, no less.
Talk, talk, talk, as Hamlet said. There’s something about a ghost that outstrips description. Ghosts are particular creatures, unique to their own context, and doomed by their particular existence. Merrill’s ghosts are highly particular, as precise as his language. (Exactly so, in fact.)
In “Lost in Translation,” the ghosts are omnipresent. The title of the poem warns us of a kind of ghost—the ghost of miscommunication. A thing is said is one language, and is full and rich, but cannot be properly realized in another language. Somewhere in the gap between speech and understanding it loses its color, and comes out faded and bland. The poem begins with the empty card table, and its own ghost: “the puzzle which keeps never coming.” Then there are the ghosts of the parents, whose absence perversely pleases the child:
A summer without parents is the puzzle,
Or should be. But the boy, day after day,
Writes in his Line-a-Day No puzzle.
If his parents’ absence isn’t exactly satisfying, at least it’s less irksome than the immediate problem of the missing, physical puzzle. It’s no puzzle to spend time alone as a lively young boy, especially when accompanied by the stout Mademoiselle, who takes on aspects of “Guinevere as well as Gunmoll Jean.” But the poem’s older speaker—who is only revealed as the poem continues—renders Mademoiselle a ghost even as we see her living and breathing in Merrill’s present-tense descriptions. As we see her first, she seems solid and corporeal: “stout, plain, carrot-haired, devout.” But even as this is registered, Mademoiselle takes on more ghostly qualities: “Having known grief and hardship, Mademoiselle / Knows little more. Her languages. Her place.” She is reduced to words and locality—much like the ghost in a Victorian novel. She doesn’t even have a name save “Mademoiselle.” This “widow since Verdun” has a past, we begin to sense; in fact, she may be trapped by it.
The language that this ghost uses is in fact Merrill’s greatest link to her. A mixture of French and German—“l’accent allemand”—is what defines Mademoiselle in Merrill’s later eyes. Waiting for the puzzle, she soothes the child with “steaming bitterness”— a lesson hidden within her consolation: “Patience, my dear.” The lesson is, life simply involves a lot of waiting—which is “no puzzle,” really, but harder to enact than speak. It is not the child who was given the lesson who hears it now. To Merrill’s later mind the phrase refracts into Mademoiselle’s twin tongues, French and German: “Steaming bitterness / Her sugars draw pops back into his mouth, translated: / ‘Patience, chéri. Geduld, mein Schatz.’” (Emphasis mine.)
Mademoiselle not only is somewhat ghostly herself, she is haunted, too. In the sixth stanza we learn she wasn’t even French, except by marriage. She was Anglo-Prussian, (which explains the German) but she kept it to herself, especially in light of the Second World War—or, as Merrill puts it, “1939 about to shake / This world where ‘each was the enemy, each the friend’.” Her heritage was only revealed by her nephew after her death. And there’s the ghost of her husband, too, who was killed at Verdun in the First World War. Patience, my dear… Mademoiselle has seen tragedy indeed—which makes her words all the more prophetically weighted, her gestures all the more powerful. When she puts young James to sleep, she says, “Schlaf wohl, chéri”— “Sleep well” in German, “dear” in French—kisses him, and then, with her thumb, crosses his brow “against the dreams to come.” This gesture, coming from a ghost, seems like potent magic. The kiss alone has the brush of the otherworldly. The “dreams to come” recalls Hamlet—What dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil… The crossing of the brow is a comforting gesture, but also a talisman against the inevitable changes wrought by time, and its culmination in death. Viewed this way, as a talisman, the gesture takes on symbolic import—but, more importantly, there is an ambiguity to the gesture that leaves us uncertain as to its purpose: is this touch for Merrill or Mademoiselle? Mademoiselle of all people knows that time wreaks havoc on a life, so perhaps she doesn’t expect to bulletproof young James’ dreams, or life, or whatever. It certainly seems to be a loving and poignant gesture. Perhaps the talisman is for her, too—which makes it not a bulletproof vest but a two-way touch of love. The touch on the brow becomes a site of communion, a memory encased in the physical contact of two presences. The ghost, the memory, the touch itself is the talisman. But so too, the ghost is created by the memory of the touch. No matter who it’s for, the talisman is haunted.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The appearance of the puzzle is preceded by a meditation on Paul Valéry’s poem “Palme.” In another manifestation of the German/French dichotomy, the older “speaker” Merrill seemingly interrupts himself—or perhaps gives a footnote to Mademoiselle’s first passage—in order to describe how reading Valéry makes him think of a Rilke translation of “Palme,” which in turn brings back memories of Mademoiselle. The ghosts of the poets swoop him away, less like Virgil in hell than an irresistible white rabbit with a pocketwatch. “The hour came back,” he says—and then, a line from Valéry: “Patience dans l’azur. / Geduld im…Himmelblau? Mademoiselle.” The speaker-Merrill struggles to get the French line—which Merrill himself would later translate “Patience beneath the blue”—into a German form. He appeals to the ghost of Mademoiselle for succor.
Next the puzzle appears “out of the blue” (dans l’azur), yet also “as promised”—a strange contradiction in terms. The opening of the puzzle box is the opening of a world, full of familiar shapes—“Witch on broomstick, ostrich, hourglass, / Even…an inchling, innocently branching palm”—but also full of the incidentals, the ordinary pieces which are separated from the novelty pieces and dealt with more prosaically. (These are the ones Mademoiselle turns to when she “does borders.”) Questioning the pieces, young James sees them
Like incoherent faces in a crowd,
Each with its scrap of highly colored
Evidence the Law must piece together.
Some of the pieces are ridiculous—the “sky-blue ostrich” who gives nothing away—but others hold strange meanings: “Mauve of the witch’s cloak white, severed fingers / Pluck? Detain her.” The puzzle pieces have two layers of meaning: one as a piece, a shape within a larger, gestalt framework; the other as a fragment of a picture. The picture is overlaid onto the interlocking pieces, but they are not the same. The sky-blue ostrich is a puzzle in and of itself, for it resists meaning in the pictorial sense—it has the physical bounds of the pieces, and can go in exactly one spot, but no visual clues as to anything besides its general location in the blue. The “evidence” the pieces offer is their pictorial value; the “Law” is the shape of the puzzle itself. Both evidence and Law must, and do, coexist. “The plot thickens / As all at once two pieces interlock.”
Mademoiselle does borders. Straight-edge pieces
Align themselves with earth or sky
In twos and threes, naive cosmogonists
Whose views clash.
—Almost a polarized kind of situation, a binary of earth and sky. Many world myths begin with the separation of the earth and sky: God parting the waters; Gaia and Uranus; Geb and Nut in Egyptian myth; etc. But this is soon complicated:
Nomad inlanders meanwhile
Begin to cluster where the totem
Of a certain vibrant egg-yolk yellow
Or pelt of what emerging animal
Acts on the straggler like a trumpet call
To form a more sophisticated unit.
The puzzle-world is not just the easy dualism of earth and sky; it is populated with other “clans” of pieces like little societies that huddle around a color or a recognized banner, a shape that begins to call more and more pieces to itself by their relation to its image. Even as the borders define the piece within, so the piece within moves outward to the borders, and the borders close in. The structure dictates the game, and the game augments the structure. Like chess.
But even as the puzzle pieces flock to the images like worshippers gathering to an idol, so the picture that emerges takes on new meaning. The picture is revelaled: a sheik facing down a dark-eyed woman with a small boy. Merrill’s own life becomes reflected in the puzzle itself, his estranged parents seeping into the Arabian scene depicted in the puzzle. The boy in the picture has no feet. (They “have not been found.”) As the two figures stare “eye to eye across the green abyss” of the card table, Merrill becomes the footless boy, incapable of escape, robbed of agency.
“Puzzle begun I write in the day’s space.” Into Merrill’s comfortable existence—house, Mademoiselle, the private dreams of childhood—is thrust the complex knot of his parents’ relationship. His world is now shared by the ghosts of his parents. They stalk the puzzle-room, accumulations of a still-incoherent structure, turbaned and veiled and fixed in their places between the puzzle’s narrow margins. This is the first time in the poem that Merrill uses the first person. It’s almost as if, at this moment, he enters the scene again—or, perhaps more accurately, the scene creates him. It is the turning point between the past self, the child, and the new self, the older poet. When Mademoiselle crosses his brow, the scene remains in first person. In the reader’s view, the ghost is still there, kissing Merrill. Or else the poem is a kind of ghost itself, in which Merrill and Mademoiselle and parents and reader all are ghost-actors reliving endlessly what happened long ago.
The poem changes form after this, and seems to enter the world of the puzzle, “This World that shifts like sand.” It’s a vision like a dream of chivalry, and its old-fashioned form (iambic pentameter) and language (“Lo!”) reflect this fact. Retinues assemble, noble and scarred and plumed, and “Houri” and “Afreet” stare each other down across the green which is slowly vanishing into sand and sky. A houri is a virgin female spirit in Arabian mythology, roughly analogous to Greek nymphs; an afreet or ifrit is a powerful type of jinn associated with the underworld. The vision, initially so grand, becomes clouded by the debate of the houri and the jinn:
While, thick as Thebes whose presently complete
Gates close behind them, Houri and Afreet
Both claim the Page. He wonders whom to serve,
And what his duties are, and where his feet,
And if we’ll find, as some before us did,
That piece of Distance deep in which lies hid
Your tiny apex sugary with sun,
Eternal Triangle, Great Pyramid!
—And now the poem shifts imperceptibly once more, and we are back in the “real” world of the “real” puzzle:
Then Sky alone is left, a hundred blue
Fragments in revolution, with no clue
To where a Niche will open. Quite a task,
Putting together Heaven, yet we do.
It’s done. Here under the table all along
Were those missing feet. It’s done.
The parents, each bent on the child with the single-mindedness of a spirit, leave the poor Page uncertain in his role and loyalties. Indeed, their wrangling almost seems like a coordinated attack; so much so that Merrill’s pun on “thick as thieves” takes on new meaning. Thebes was famous for its seven-gated wall, built by two divine twin brothers, Amphion and Zethus. Amphion was blessed (and loved) by Hermes, and was a musician; Zethus was a hunter and herdsman. Forest and field, Apollonian and Dionysian, Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus, yin and yang. And as for “Mademoiselle [who] does borders”—indeed she does. She exists in the realm that his parents cannot, the borderland of love and blood. Her loyalties are French, her blood German; her tongue is both. For Merrill she’s neither jinn nor houri, but a solid, reliable, much-loved companion. She is real, though made unreal by the progression of the poem, and his real loyalties lie with her, not contained within the drama of the puzzle but the one who forms its frame. It is through her that he sees his parents in such stark contrast to her ever-present love—yet she seemingly lacks the divine magnetism of the parent spirits. The page boy’s missing feet symbolize his indecision—and yet, even in his tenuous position, he appreciates the sight of the Great Pyramid glittering in the distance. Caught motionless in the flux between his two powerful guardians, he gains a certain key to the beauty present around him. When the poem shifts back to the “real world,” and Heaven is assembled, he regains his feet, and his transformation is complete.
(—Or so it seems. The repetition of “It’s done” might give us pause, if we were being skeptical—almost as if the lady doth protest too much. Or perhaps it’s Merrill’s way of convincing himself that it really is done, that it’s finally finished, in the same way that all of us go through our entire lives thinking, “Ah, yes, now it’s done—now I am Who I Am.” And then, of course, things change…)
The puzzle is disassembled, hung up in the air until the picture dissolves and the structure crumbles. “Power went to pieces as the witch / Slithered easily from Virtue’s gown.” With the dismantling of the puzzle, Merrill in some sense detaches himself from the role of the Page—he dissolves the gordian puzzle that represents the oppressive structure of his parents. Like a sand mandala washed into a river, the image is made whole by its dissolution. By entering the picture and the puzzle, Merrill achieves a kind of enlightenment. The scales fall away. The witch emerges from the virgin’s robe, like a serpent from beneath a flower. He sees his parents for what they are. He sees Mademoiselle for what she is. I think Steinbeck said it best in East of Eden:
When a child first catches adults out—when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just—his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.
All that is left is the empty card-table beneath the lamplight: “Remained the green / On which the grown-ups gambled.” (Green here perhaps symbolizing growth, newness, and beauty, but also envy and pride—and thus encapsulating the parents’ tangled form of love.) But it’s not a matter of judgment on the child’s part, either. The destruction of the puzzle isn’t an act of anger or catharsis in the end, merely insight. Young James steals a small piece; “and hadn’t Mademoiselle / Kept back her pitiful bit of truth as well?” The “aching kind of growing” that occurs comes with an important realization—that we all have secrets, that we all are selfish spirits in the end, in every sense of those words. And the older Merrill, in a desperate search for his own type of puzzle piece, “ransacks Athens” trying to find Rilke’s version of “Palme,” with no success. The poem, invisible and unfound though it is, has a landscape in his mind:
Shadow stanza to stanza’s symmetrical
Rhyme-rutted pavement. Know that ground plan left
Sublime and barren, where the warm Romance
Stone by stone faded, cooled; the fluted nouns
Made taller, lonelier than life
By leaf-carved capitals in the afterglow.
The owlet umlaut peeps and hoots
Above the open vowel. And after rain
A deep reverberation filled with stars.
The child cannot judge because the price of enlightenment is compassion. To realize one’s own ghosts is to realize that everyone carries ghosts, ripples of past lives like fish in a deep and unseen waterway. The people that we were, the people who made us, the people who we become all live within the mirror now and always. Years later, and stanzas earlier in the poem, Merrill saw a medium divine a puzzle piece hidden away in a locked casket. How should we explain this? There’s no way I can think—unless, being a medium, a ghost told him.
Lost, is it, buried? One more missing piece?
In my beginning is my end, as Eliot said. The mysterious, unattested epigraph at the beginning of “Lost in Translation” is from “Palme,” but translated into German. Merrill himself translated “Palme” into English in the New York Review of Books in 1982. Translated, the epigraph reads:
These days which, like yourself,
Seem empty and effaced
Have avid roots that delve
To work deep in the waste.
Like the Fisher King, we the subject of the poem stand waiting for something to change, gazing out at the desolation of our broken home, wounded and sad, studying the fragments time leaves as it trundles mindlessly over us, over and over again. But, Valéry says through Merrill’s mouth, even in such desolation there is life, and even as we brood upon the broken plain things are moving beneath it. Roots are digging deep, pushing fingers through the earth searching for a gasp of wetness. Even without us noticing it, things are changing.
river, ice-framed santuaries,
all of them framing the human eye
discovering the human eye
within the human eye’s fathomless black soil.
—Rowan Williams, from “Cambridge at 800”
The damning thing, of course, is that we can never really see this process. We can’t pierce the mirror. We have to take it on trust that things get better, that the vanished puzzle did serve a purpose after all. In this way, our avid roots represent a kind of faith; and are thus a part of God, who is the source and author of all change. Is God change? Is change God? It’s an easy theological conclusion. If God is indeed the “unmoved mover,” then it’s impossible to distinguish change from God, and vice versa. In such a view, the unchanging fact of the world, the “unmoved,” is not a melodramatic cosmic being but simply the existence of change. “Split the wood and I am there,” says the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.“Palme” begins with a visit from an angel:
Veiling, barely, his dread
Beauty and its blaze,
An angel sets warm bread
And cool milk at my place.
Quite quickly the angel disappears, to be replaced by a vision of a palm tree, “formally fulfilled in bondage to thick fruit,” “svelte arbiter between the shadow and the sun,” “forever standing where it must stand.” The palm’s fruit is like manna, “the honey of each noon”—and its fruit is evidence “That, without keeping time, / [The palm] can alter it, seduce / Into a steady juice / Love’s volatile perfume.” (Not unlike the black swan…) The palm itself becomes a divine image. In ancient Near Eastern religions—Mesopotamian, Judaean, and Egyptian—the palm represents immortality. To the Greeks and Romans it represented victory, and thus peace. To the Christians, who inherited a mixture of these traditions, it represents victory of the spirit over the flesh. It became a common icon of martyrs. And what, we might ask, does this prophetic tree say to us?
Patience and still patience, Patience beneath the blue!
Each atom of the silence
Knows what it ripens to.
The happy shock will come…
… … … … … … …
Those hours were not in vain
So long as you retain
A lightness once they’re lost;
Like one who, thinking, spends
His inmost dividends
To grow at any cost.
Patience, chérie. Geduld, mein Schatz. What will come will come—and if it does not, then it will not. An aching kind of growth, growing at any cost. An aching kind of life we lead. Enough of the Chatauqua for now. Let Merrill finish:
But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation
And every bit of us is lost in it
(Or found—I wander through the ruin of S
Now and then, wondering at the peacefulness)
And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.
This is how the evening begins,
arranging its black pieces
Across the landscape.
Enormous silence, like wind, blows south through the meadow grasses.
Everything else holds its breath.
Stars begin to appear as the night sky
sets out its own pieces, the white ones.
Its moves are not new, but they are inexorable, and cold.
—Charles Wright, from “Buffalo Yoga”
We release the fish into their temple home. We sit and stare for hours at their small undulating bodies, their blank suspicious eyes. Yang, the black guppy, likes to follow the catfish around. (The catfish are both named Greg—collectively, “the Gregs”—since we can’t distinguish them in any way.) Yin mostly chases his reflection. In front of the tank our table now permanently holds a game of chess, unstarted. Or, really, started and finished many times, but now standing cleared and neatly ordered: the black pieces staring down the white, the queens thorny pillars of their native color, the fragile kings uneasy beneath their little cross-topped crowns.
What is a ghost? Guillermo del Toro, in his cinema ghost story The Devil’s Backbone, asks this question via voiceover: “What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and again? A moment stuck in time?” YES & NO, is the answer. The voiceover is not in the protagonist’s voice, nor is it an omniscient narrator. The story unfolds and you realize that all along you have been speaking to a ghost, not even the main ghost of the story—which complicates the film’s conception of time. The film begins and ends with the same questions, spoken by the same ghost in voiceover. Have we just watched the past? Or was the past created by our moving through it to the story’s conclusion? When we press play, do we watch the story of how the ghosts were born, or are we a part of their creation, their whispering temple of regret, their universe of looping time?
YES & NO. Another answer, from Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by way of another question: did the law of gravity exist before Newton?
So when did this law start? Has it always existed?…before the beginning of the earth, before the sun and stars were formed, before the primal generation of anything…Sitting there, having no mass of its own, no energy of its own, not in anyone’s mind because there wasn’t anyone, not in space because there was no space either, not anywhere—this law of gravity still existed?…If that law of gravity existed…I honestly don’t know what a thing has to do to be nonexistent…and what that means is that that law of gravity exists nowhere except in people’s heads! It’s a ghost!
YES & NO in a nutshell. Gravity is a human construct, not an eternal law. YES, as far as we can tell there is a force out there that draws things together, inexorably, spinning stardust like flax into flaming golden matter; but, NO, as soon as we name it and give it a formula it becomes a ghost, unreal despite the fact that whatever it is is the very thing (so far as we know) that formed the planets and the stars and Earth and eventually a species of ape who thought so hard about all of this going-on that our own thinking possessed us completely, a smooth and subtle ghost in our cognitive machine. The word itself creates the ghost, like God’s voice in the Gospel of John. Or as Ecclesiastes puts it: “With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words…”
The problem, the contradiction the scientists are stuck with, is that of mind. Mind has no matter or energy but they can’t escape its predominance over everything they do. Logic exists in the mind. Numbers exist only in the mind…Science is only in your mind too, it’s just that that doesn’t make it bad. Or ghosts either…The whole blessed thing is a human invention, including the idea that it isn’t a human invention…It’s all a ghost, and in antiquity was so recognized as a ghost, the whole blessed world we live in. It’s run by ghosts. We see what we see because these ghosts show it to us…Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.
So the windows themselves, the ballroom at Sandover, “the ruin of S,” the poems and the words that make the poems and the phonemes that make the words and the letters that make the phonemes and the physical voice that makes the phonemes: all ghosts. Does this make them unimportant? Not at all. If anything, it makes them more important.
I, like Merrill and his puzzle, have been getting lost in translation. (Or found, as the case may be.) I’ve been reading Eastern literature—filtered through the lens of translators, since I can’t speak or read any Asian languages. There’s a hopelessness to it all, a sense that I’m missing something even as I dissect the text, and crow-like pick out the bits that I understand, or don’t. I say crow-like because there is a shine to religious texts and poetry, a glassy surface that resists the mind’s grasp—and translation, for that matter. I like those little moments of perplexion, the mind scrabbling for a hold on the words. It happens in most religious literature at some point, the famous “ineffability”—and it occurs in poetry, especially poetry like Merrill’s, which toys with your mind. It tells you there’s something important just below your gaze. Look again. Like a magpie in a ruined house I find these shiny bits and carry them off, knowing them to be something more than they appear.
I said this in the last essay:
…we, as readers, stand on one side of a pane. It requires us peering through for the poetry to mean anything. Poetry is arguably one of the more obscure types of window available. It takes oblique routes to things, using clever little tricks like meter and rhyme to frame itself, and meanwhile doing its best to avoid saying anything in “plain English.”
—I stand by this statement, but let’s look at it crow-wise. Religious texts and poetry are both famously obscure—so why do corvid souls like me and you come back to these obscure windows, glassy passages, these glittering and incoherent pieces of the world? Perhaps because “plain English” is a ghost; and, knowing this, the obscurity of poetry is not obscurity at all, simply another species of ghost. The language of poetry and religion is honestly deceptive. It makes no claims to “accuracy” or “good common sense.” Jesus speaks in parables for a reason. “Obscurity” in language forces the reader to question not the language itself (which is obstinate) but the meaning of the language, its connotation and undertones and suggestions, which is something else entirely. That is the ghost. It’s the gap between what words point at and what they really are—ice palaces, sculptures of air. By using shifty language, poets and prophets can avoid the false trappings of simplicity which hang on “good common sense,” and we the reader (like Hamlet) must question the ghost as if it were exactly as “real” as the words that define it. “Who’s there?” we call into the quiet dark.
The world is a chessboard; the world can be found within a puzzle’s broken margins, its fated and predetermined accumulations. A poet is a knight, moving in strange angles and capable of uncanny forked power; a poet is a frozen page boy missing feet, musing upon the Pyramid in the distance—which we today might read as Delta, mathematical symbol of change. Hamlet says, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Yet only a few lines later, he admits, “A dream itself is but a shadow.”
Shadows and ghosts, shade and fiber, milk and memory. The puzzle dissolves when you realize that, as Charles Wright put it, “whole is part, and part is all of it.” The sky-blue ostrich is again just that; and more. At the heart of it all, as Yeats said, Things fall apart. Some of us pay more attention to it than others. There is an interiority to writing that perhaps encourages bell-jar mindsets, and the creation of ghosts. Turn the screw again, see how deep it goes, say once more what Lao-tzu (whoever he was) said so many years ago, which I refract now through Stephen Mitchell’s mouth:
Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.
TO BE CONTINUED…