‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
‘ “I liked white better,” I said.
‘ “White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
‘ “In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” ’
—Gandalf to the White Council, on Saruman; J.R.R Tolkien, “The Council of Elrond,” from The Fellowship of the Ring
Winter. New snow at last. Everything white: white the blank page, white the new-fallen snow, white the snow-ghosts that shake loose from the pines and arch their backs against the cloudy sky. I’m falling behind. I skin, alone, accompanied only by ghosts, half-mad thoughts. But they’re beautiful, too, those technicolor ghosts, half-transparent fantasies. I mutter Heaney to myself: The mildest February for twenty years / Is mist bands over furrows…Old ploughsocks gorge the subsoil of each sense. That sounds about right.
White the lodgepole trunks furred in snow. White my breath in the middle air. White my skis’ bases beneath my feet, crossed by the black lines of P-Tex repairs: scars of my former mistakes. You depart from the trail, you earn some scratches. There’s a lesson there somewhere. My heel clacks on the ski’s heartwood. Gotama, the skis are called. The Buddha on my top-plate presumably still holds up a smiling offering beneath his mantle of snow, while the clouds clear slowly as we climb and the Hogsback emerges from the distant mist. And then, the sun piercing east into the jagged turrets of the Beartooth—misty mountains, the Paradise glimmering white and etched in fretworks of blue trees. The peak. Unskin. Click in. Into the blank whiteness of the upper meadow we carve long looping lines, sine curves in the field of white light off the mountain. As we descend other skiers’ lines appear beneath our feet, and we cross them too and throw a heel down and float a moment into a long, swooping kind of enlightenment: the mind empty and alert as the body rushes forward, following the watering eyes.
Later, tai chi in the garage. My body knows the form, with some slight promptings from my mind. The difficulty, of course, is that you can’t think and act at the same time. So in my head I think, White Crane Spreads its Wings, and from me there is seen a beautiful blocking movement, one leg poised and half-drawn-in, arms unfurling oppositely to protect high and low—but there is also a hesitation between me and the movement, or my decision and my action, or even my decision and my consciousness of my decision.
T’ai chi ch’üan or tàijí quán is “Shadowboxing” or “Taiji boxing.” Taiji means something like “supreme ultimate” or “great pole.” The yin-yang symbol (as we call it in the West) helps to explain what precisely taiji is. The symbol, which is more properly called taijitu, is actually composed of many pieces. (Not all of the elements are found in the simplified taijitu with which we are familiar.) The circle that bounds the symbol represents wuji, “without ultimate,” the absolute and unknowable Emptiness that dictates and gives source to all life. Wuji is the primordial universe, formlessness, “that without a pole.” (In these contexts “pole” means, as in English, both a ridgepole and an axis.) The sinuous line down the center is Taiji; and its resultant black and white halves represent yin and yang, which are the dualistic principles of the universe—winter/summer, north/south, female/male, shadow/light, etc.
Taiji, then, is the state between wuji and the dualism of yin-yang. It is endless potential, it is division, and it is the unification of the dualistic world. If yin is a shadowed northern slope and yang a sunny southern one, taiji is the peak where they meet. Taiji is the line itself between yin and yang, the meeting-place of all opposites, the confluence, the stillness at the heart of movement, the change at the heart of stillness. It is also, paradoxically, what creates the dualism of yin and yang. From one come many. From unity comes division. From division comes unity. On and on and on.
My mind cheerfully follows down the rabbit hole, and suddenly I’m again standing on a trash-spotted beach in Lyons, central France, late August, a museum’s huge bulk and twisted mass of steel and glass behind me, watching the chalky blue waters of the Rhône mix uneasily with the more ultramarine hues of the Saône—La Confluence. The neighborhood around me is post-industrial, an uneasy mix of gentrified apartments and old waterfront works. The line where the two rivers meet is clear as day, a wavering cordon between the light and dark waters, and unstill: it seems to writhe beneath its own turmoil, the cerulean Rhône now pushing forward, then retreating beneath the dark forehead of the Saône, the line between them roiling with bubbles, foam, a crease that formed and unformed where one river gained a fleeting upper hand. An old man was fishing where the rivers met. He drops a line, and it’s swept away within seconds. He drops it again, straight into the roil. It’s swept away. He smokes a long thin cigarette, hand-rolled, which he never removed from his mouth. He tips his hat, says, “‘Allo” in heavy English. “Any fish in there?” I ask. “Oh, oui vraiment, yes,” he says, and winks. “You catch feesh everywhere you might not think.”
I’m back in space and time. The garage. I go back inside. I look at the fish. Yin is weaving in and out of the pagoda. Yang is chasing bubbles. The Gregs are hoovering away at the Buddha-head. All seems well. I say it again. All seems well.
A Zen story.
Subhuti was a disciple of the Buddha. Once he was meditating, and he suddenly heard the voice of the gods: ‘Subhuti, your doctrine on emptiness has pleased us much.’
Subhuti said, ‘But I have not spoken of emptiness.’
The gods whispered, ‘You have not spoken of emptiness, we have not heard emptiness. That is true emptiness.’
And flowers fell upon Subhuti like rain.
Ghosts are moments of un-emptiness, agents of un-silence. Disquieting, we call an eerie experience. If enlightenment is emptiness—nirvana carries the meaning ‘extinguishing’—then a ghost is, in some sense, unenlightened. This jives with reincarnation beliefs: reincarnation means that you are still tied to samsara, the illusory, ever-changing, corporeal world of suffering. Or, as Merrill put it, Desires ungratified persist / From this life to the next. Ghosts, tied as they are to the places and people of their life, and to their grievances, cannot move past the state of dualism back into unity. The balances, in their minds, are weighted wrong in some way. They cannot accept things as they are.
So how do you cope with a ghost? You can be pure—empty—and thus wield a spiritual power over them, the power of the exorcist and the priest and the monk. As an agent of the emptiness, perhaps, you can realign them with the outer emptiness of God or wuji or whatever. But most of us aren’t pure—and would you trust your parish priest to confront a powerful ghost, either? Of course not. True agents of emptiness like Subhuti are very rare.
For the rest of us “average folk,” ghost stories tell us, we must align ourselves with the ghost, understand what they want and either combat and thus neutralize it, or else ally with them and accomplish the reckoning they seek. In The Devil’s Backbone, the young hero allies himself with the ghost Santi to defeat a psychotic older orphan who murdered Santi, and who is terrorizing the orphanage. In The Bell Jar, Esther’s release from asylum depends on her aligning herself with the ghost of society’s expectations. She must wear masks to accomplish this—and, importantly, we are uncertain in the end if she succeeds at last. (Plath’s suicide only a few years after publication of The Bell Jar complicates the reading…) In The Turn of the Screw, the heroine tries to fight the ghosts, and ends up killing her young charge—which was exactly the goal of the ghosts. (Incidentally, she is the only person who ever sees the ghosts.) Who is the ghost, really, when the hero’s hands do the ghosts’ work?
I feel sometimes like I’m saying the same thing over and over again, in slightly different ways. I might be. But each time it feels new, and in any case every frame changes the picture. That’s valuable in itself. And anyway, there’s a looping feeling to life sometimes, a sense of dim connections, big arcs and spheres of knowledge all forming something of the exact same fabric. The more you understand the more you see beyond you into the fabric. There’s no end.
Waiting for something to change, I go to the desert. I sleep under cold stars, under a moon turgid with light. Between Cassiopeia’s scrawl and Perseus’ long arms I find Andromeda, our sister galaxy, just one more faint and gently pulsing point of light. At its center, just like our own Milky Way Galaxy, a black hole is dragging everything amorously to its endless black heart, swallowing light and time and matter all the same. The final silence, the colorless center of all mass.
—But no, that’s still not quite what I mean. It has something to do with silence, with the unvoicable. You dance around on the edge of any idea long enough and you begin to sense it there, an inescapable shiftiness, something in everything that refuses to be pinned down. It’s like when you get a word stuck in your head, and you wander around saying it to yourself until you can’t even recognize it any more. The word, you realize, is a little structure, very nice and compact and pretty, but it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s air, a ghost. And real life doesn’t help when you’re in this silence mood, this suspicious way of looking at the world. The word tree is a nice word, very Old English; but it doesn’t approach a real tree. So what does approach a real tree? Science can cut it apart and tell how old it is, science can squeeze its branches in gas chambers to see how thirsty it is. Science has told us that trees exchange nutrients and chemical signals using the mycorrhizal network of fungal roots that extends throughout the earth—this fungal network makes up something like 30% of soil mass. We know that trees recognize kin, that dying trees leach themselves of nutrients to feed the trees around them (favoring their kin in such cases). And yet we are not a jot closer to understanding a tree. What does it sense? Are those chemical exchanges a kind of language? After all, our own thoughts and feelings are “nothing more” than electrochemical signals—so does a tree have an ego? A consciousness? What about a whole forest of trees? No way of knowing.
You dance around on the edge of any idea long enough and you come around to other ideas, too. And those ideas often have something to say to the other ideas, and yes, it is all connected like a big tapestry but still that silence is there in the heart of everything. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding. —Yes, it’s there, it comes, whether or not you’re waiting for it: wuji, the winds of emptiness.
I have a ghost in common with Merrill: a black dog. What does it say to all of this?
It first appears in Athens, in the middle of a Ouija session:
Excuse me, that’s the doorbell— OR THE BAIT
But no one’s there. Or only an unfamiliar
Black dog, leg lifted at our iron gate,
Marking his territory. Dusk. The mountain
Rippled by head, scent of green pine, a star
Delicately remind us where we are. (106-7)
The dog in this case is an innocent if somewhat audacious visitor. The presence is benign, though still mysterious—who rang the doorbell?—and we are left with only the afterglow of a brush with the eerie, the black dog trotting off. The ordinary night thrills. The dog acts as a gateway to Merrill’s small moment of enlightenment, his appreciation of the mountain dusk.
The dog’s little scatological joke is in line with presence in the world, too. Kobayashi Issa, the haiku master and Buddhist lay priest, wrote haiku which also utilized urine as a method of enlightenment:
what a straight
snow at the gate
To urinate or defecate is to function within the corporeal world, which is composed of consumption and release. Issa’s haiku guides and aligns us with a moment in his life, a singular point of shared experience. Pissing in the snow isn’t necessarily a universal experience—but pissing certainly is. A connection between Issa and the reader is powerfully established. We join him in a necessary biological task, an animal moment in the world. That moment is made to transcend time, despite the fact that the moment’s place within time, especially in its vulgar banality, necessarily relegates it to oblivion. The piss mark, our stain and moment of attention, disappears.
The next time the black dog “appears,” Merrill realizes what the dog in Athens signified. JM and DJ have been introduced to “THE SONS OF CAIN,” the dark agents of Mirabell’s Book of Numbers:
David looks up in genuine alarm:
But these are devils, they’re the fallen angels!
JM: I wonder. Wouldn’t a surefire devil
Pretend to be someone nicer? And why should They
Speak of leading us to Paradise?
DJ: Why shouldn’t they? They want it back.
They’re tempting us, like Faust, to get it back.
JM: Well then, we now know what our black
Dog in Athens means. There’s one in Faust,
A kind of feeler Mephistopheles
Sends out before appearing. A black poodle.
DJ: Let’s stop right now. JM: Relax.
Something tells me all this Flame and Fall
Has to be largely metaphorical. (114)
Now the dog is both the signal of reality and a signal of un-reality, or rather what lurks beyond reality. Unknowable things. In Athens it brings Merrill to the door, away from the heady seance and out into the mountain dusk. In Stonington it appears as a vision of foreshadowing—déjà vu, almost. Despite DJ’s reasonable objections, Merrill uses the vision of the black dog to weigh the situation. Perhaps he senses that if Hell imitates Faust so blithely, it might not be as bad as it seems. Merrill seems to grasp the vision and its symbol, and take it up as his own. He proceeds calmly, heroically, and descends into hell. Like Orpheus or Aeneas, he uses his self-actualized tool (lyre, bough, symbol) to proceed; he seems to sense that the way forward has been opened. And, lo and behold, with a wink and a nod Hell reveals itself to be Heaven in disguise. It’s quite theatrical. The Sons of Cain are bats—“BLACK SQUEAKERS”—and “BEZELBOB” and his cohorts are reformed from devils to monkish rationalists, former agents of chaos now working for humanity’s betterment. The picture is, outwardly, quite rosy.
But there is tension, too. JM and DJ do not trust the masquerade of Heaven entirely, though they decide to go along for the ride.
How grave doubts we entertain
In mid-eruption fall asleep again.
How cloudhead, fulguration, crimson ash
Are, at a brushstroke, flattened to gouache
As, night by night, these aching grimy dreads
Sink into ever softer feather beds.
There’s no choice, really. Don’t think we decide
To take in with a single horrified
Shrug—Good? Evil? is it all the same?—
Such revelations as our teacher’s name: [BEZELBOB] (115)
The apocalypse is lurking there, in “cloudhead, fulguration, crimson ash”—a dread of nuclear war. The Sons of Cain explain that they created negative energy, the negative half of the atom—the positive half is God Biology, and “Uncle Abel.” (Abel’s inclusion is a point of confusion for Merrill, which goes unexplained.) Importantly, though, God Biology is not alone: the “negative” half is divine too. “2 GODS / GOVERN BIOLOGY & CHAOS WHICH EMPLOYS FEELING” (113). Chaos which employs feeling… that sounds to me like the domain of ghosts. Or maybe ghosts toe the line between these two opposing forces. Their existence in the domain of biology is ended, or at least significantly rewritten, fatally rearranged. But they are not wholly agents of chaos, either. They have an agenda, a voice, something that ties them to the “biological” world. Biology creates order from chaos; chaos devours biology given enough time. Feelings devour human beings every day, and every day more humans are born as a result of feelings. The cycles are predictable, as regular as the seasons. Merrill’s guides so strongly equate feeling with chaos that we must also consider that perhaps feeling is the link between the two worlds—the taiji snaking between the yin and yang. Biology creates order—colonially, plants march in ever-taller waves over burnt land. Lichens creep like amoebas over rock, digesting. Fungal roots hold the soil together beneath the tree, and the tree speaks through those roots. But the need to survive takes paramount importance, too, always. Even within the abstract beauty of biological succession, or symbiotic relationships, or monastic purity, there is always that little materialistic pull: hunger. A desire to live. And who could deny that lust and hunger are biological concerns?
Subalpine firs grow in rings. The mother tree grows cones which stand like candelabra flames on the periphery of the tree. When these cones are shed, they drop on the outer circumference. There new trees grow, the next generation—and, because they’re farther towards the light, they actually tend to do quite well: better than the mother tree. Within a few decades they will choke her entirely, and the body will rot and leach itself of nutrients to feed its ravenous progeny, who are already being devoured themselves. This process keeps on happening, year after year. In high meadows you can find huge rings of trees hundreds of yards across, like a circle of meditating cannibals. It’s grotesque; it’s also beautiful. Is it self-less? Is it strangely martyr-like? YES & NO.
We, like the firs, are carbon-based life forms, susceptible to material needs, material decay. Carbon’s easy bonding make it ideal for organic life. JM and DJ are discussing atoms of carbon when the black dog next appears:
Eyelevel sunset. The blue room. JM:
It’s clear now! Suddenly I see my way—
Wystan, Maria, you and I, we four
Nucleate a kind of psychic atom.
(Mind you, it works best as a metaphor:
The atom being, as They’ve said, a peace
That passes understanding, we make do
With its outdated model by Niels Bohr—
A quasi-solar system.) At the core
We are kept from shattering to bits
By the electron hearts, voices and wits
Of our dead friends—how maddeningly slow
One is; E told us all this weeks ago—
In orbit round us. DJ: Each carbon atom,
This much I remember from high school,
Has four bonds. Are we four hooked on a redhot
Coal in plumes? JM: Mixed metaphor.
We’re like an atom, not a molecule.
DJ: And five now. 741
Joined us, changing our atomic weight
When he changed. JM: Oh, let’s complicate
It irretrievably! Why stop at five?
If there’s no accident, all things alive
Or dead that touch us—Ephraim, the black dog
In Athens, Cynthia—but why go on?—
Are droplets in a “probability fog”
With us as nucleus. And yet our peacock
Mustn’t touch us. His whole point’s the atom’s
Eden tells a parable of fission,
Lost world and broken home, the bitten apple
Stripped of its seven veils, nakedness left
With no choice but to sin and multiply.
From then on, genealogical chain reactions
Ape the real thing. Pair by recurrent pair
Behind the waterfall, one dark, one fair,
Siblings pitted each against the other
—Shem and Shaun, Rebekah’s twins, whichever
Brother chafes within the Iron Mask—
Enact the deep capacities for good
And evil in the atom. (191-2)
The black dog in this passage takes on an aspect of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, perhaps—a “probability fog” over JM and DJ’s lives that dictates and also exists within a fundamental structure of randomness. The unpredicatable electron, its whir in cloud chambers, guides the life of the nucleus, its heaviness and reality. The electron is mostly space, an interlinked area where subtle energies move. And yet, it is this vast surrounding of the nucleus that bonds carbon, that same vast emptiness that in fact knits our bodies together. It seems a paradox. Theoretically, with the right tool in the right alignment, you could pass a solid object through the space of us. After all, we’re mostly space. An electric hum. A series of influences.
In the same way, influences pass in and out of a life, brief as a black dog seen once but remembered always. The chain reaction of genealogy, the twinned energies of siblings or lovers, the yin-yang pull of all reality, is “precarious inviolability.” The atom, the basic unit of reality, is what cannot be split—except that we, clever monkeys, learned how to do it. The fundamental violence of that act is reflected in the divorcement from Eden. The flaming sword of the angel is of our own making, and our own lighting. The choice to experience the apple, to move it from the realm of unviolated reality to invasive, consumptive knowledge, is to create a ghost—the ghost of a world before tasting forbidden fruit. In The Lord of the Rings, one of Saruman’s dominating characteristics is his knowledge; the byproduct of this is his consumptive urge, his willingness to break things in order to understand them. His consumption of the Forest of Fangorn proved his undoing, though, for when nature returned to equilibrium he himself was consumed. The Isen quenched his fires, the Ents destroyed his machines of war, and the Huorns consumed his army. This is the fundamental division between Gandalf and Saruman: Saruman consumes to gain knowledge; Gandalf observes to gain wisdom. The difference is subtle, but immense—nor is it accidental that Gandalf’s associated color is grey, the color of ambiguity and interdependency, the color in between the poles, the mixed color, the color of the middle way.
In a similarly “mixed” way, the friendly comedy of Mirabell and Scripts conceals a darker core, a very real concern about nuclear war, overpopulation, and ecological destruction. Tolkien, too, seems to be concerned with ecology and industrialization—but unlike Tolkien, Merrill cannot pinpoint the source of evil. The Ring is what gives The Lord of the Rings some of its singular appeal: we all like to think that there is a Great Enemy, and that this enemy has one fatal weakness which, if exploited, will remove the danger from the world and win the Great War. The same fatal flaw scenario kills Smaug; and much later it destroys the Death Star, in a very different world. It also killed Achilles, Baldur, Cassandra, Icarus, Coyote, Raven. Merrill cannot find such a flaw—unless it’s that darkness within humans that creates weapons like the nuclear bomb. As JM comments, “A touch of Gollum in us all.”
Both Tolkien and Merrill seem obsessed with that intermingled taiji-twist of good and bad. In Sandover JM and DJ have a chance to quicken their ghosts again—but to do so is also to acknowledge them as only shades of what was. To use a medium such as a Ouija board, especially in the style of JM and DJ, one has to be comfortable with the idea of death, even if the seance is in some ways an escape from it. The misgivings JM and DJ feel about their teachers, and about the occasionally horrifying lessons they receive, reveal a twin fascination and horror with regards to death. The causing of death is undeniably evil: after all, no souls came from Hiroshima. But, in order to support the described hierarchy of heaven, death is necessary and even useful, in certain ways, as a kind of “restart” or “try again” button. Kinda like Flood stories, when you think about it… The Lord of the Rings “ends” happily, with Aragorn’s crowning and the triumphant Hobbits returning home for the Scouring of the Shire—but the true ending is the departure from the Grey Havens. Gandalf, the remaining Elves, even Frodo and Bilbo all depart Middle Earth forever. Even as the world is saved, it becomes a little sadder, a little less. So too, Tolkien’s Elder Days mythology was dominated by the twin questions of creation and death. When the Noldorin Elf Fëanor created three holy jewels, their beauty led to the first killings in the new-formed world, and fueled thousands of years of war and atrocities. Humans, incidentally, were uniquely related to death. True death, called the Gift of Ilúvatar, meant that humanity was not bound to the confines of the world, as the Elves and Dwarves and Ents were. (They could die physically, but were kind of “reabsorbed” in a soul sense.) But humans feared death, and called it the Doom of Ilúvatar, and when they were at their strongest they marched against the gods themselves in search of immortality. —And, predictably, were destroyed for that hubris.
We less warlike wanderers, like DJ and JM, are guided mostly by the “voices and wits of our dead friends.” In JM and DJ’s case, the voices and wits are quite literal, omnipresent and chatty. In other cases, the ghostly voices are less overt—which is to say, they are the subtle ghosts of a person’s conditioning. The hobbits of The Lord of the Rings are guided by the latter: it’s Samwise’s common sense that gets them out of scrapes; it’s his memories of home that keep Frodo and him going; it’s Frodo’s mercy for Gollum, learned from Bilbo and Gandalf, that leads to the Ring’s final destruction. Call it ancestors’ voices, or honor, or common sense, or divination, or a seance, or wisdom—all of it is inherited, given down to us in the ideas of those who came before. Our Paleolithic ancestors were as intelligent as we are, as social. They too had dreams. But we today are not them, because we bear the collective weight of all our ghosts, added like snow to ever-piling drifts: culture, science, religion, art, ideas about how to live well, our mistakes and moments of grace. The ripples are unending, and what seems at first to be a Venn diagram—mother, father, and child—dissolves like a glassy pond beneath the weight of falling rain, ripples on ripples crossing over and over, becoming a general hum, the water bucking in its cradle with the sound.
The last black dog—the ghost:
En route, that same sun-flooded evening,
To dine back country, something black gives chase
Highspiritedly barking—ah, slow down!
As in a bad dream the dog veers, is hit,
Not hard, but…D and I walk back to it
Struggling, hind legs motionless. From his white house
Flush with the road great treetops meet above
A shirtless freckled boy has run, in shock
Cradles the dusty head. Both look at us
Not to blame, but not accepting, either,
Our stammered offer. If a vet nearby—?
Dumbly the boy keeps motioning us towards
The car. We back off, late already. Yet
For the remaining mile cannot find words. (270)
Now all the whimsicality is gone. Now the Zen trickster-ghost of the black dog comes into the real world. The dog appears, and a moment later there’s a ghost. There was nothing to be done. After all: No accident. The sonnet form, too, indicates a formal inevitability—but within that structure, there is relatively little organization: loose rhymes. It’s as if Merrill himself is searching for a pattern of meaning within the structure of the event. The strongest end rhymes are “hit/it” and “towards/words.” The former emphasizes the suddenness of the event; the latter again indicates the struggle to arrange meaning from the chaos hidden within fate.
Some few days later, JM and DJ sit down to dinner, and the black dog is in the room again.
Light the candles. This last supper’s meat
Is the imperial beet,
Green salad, Vermont cheddar. Grape juice brings
To mind a young Château. What would the right
Music be? Some ruminative suite
(Unwritten) for five strings
Tuned to a fare-thee-well. Lamplight
Falls on the novel nightcap, but our eyes
Keep dimming with surmise—
The black dog, good as new, had known DJ,
Bounded in perfect rapture to the car!
No accident? Or else a dog that dies
So many deaths each day,
Emotional or cellular,
That death no longer… (272-3)
Merrill trails off after this, then transitions to an image of night falling into sunrise. Rebirth, we might think, except that the dog keeps on dying inside our heads, “so many deaths each day,” endlessly reborn, endlessly dying once again. He can’t even finish his thought.
My black dog was named Bria, a feminized form of the musical phrase con brio—“with vigor.” She was a slim little mutt, black and lanky and hound-eared, with grey stockings and a grey blaze on her nose. She died when she took off chasing a deer out across the darkened fields near our house, my father still shouting after her. She made the highway and was hit by a truck which drove on into the night. My father found her there, later. No longer vigorous. No longer quick. Still, still warm.
She was such a happy little creature. The whole thing messed me up real good. (Although, apropos to this discussion, I could also say, “It messed me up real bad.”) I’m not entirely sure why this one was so traumatizing—I’ve experienced a number of animal mortalities. But this time it wasn’t senescence, wasn’t euthanization, wasn’t a broken leg or cancer or the slow fade of a cat wandering away to die. It was a creature in the grips of a fervent joy, a wonderfully alive little spark that winked out on the impassive asphalt face of Death. I think about how the deer must have appeared in the truck’s headlights, how the faceless driver might have swerved to miss the deer—or maybe not, the deer could well have threaded the needle of fate by pure chance, squirting just beyond the heavy weight of what was coming, how the slim blackness of Bria must then have appeared out of the darkness like a dream, like a ghost that took on a sudden heaviness when she met the grille with a wet thud of bone. She was a year and a half old. How she must have felt, that last long moment sailing from the dark, into the light. How the driver must have felt. Not blame, but not acceptance either… How rushed the world when it finally meets you.
It reminds me of this old Swedish film: The Phantom Carriage. The story is centered around a drunkard. It’s New Year’s Eve. He’s in a graveyard telling his buddies about his friend Georges who died a year before, on the stroke of midnight. He tells them that the last person to die each year has to crew Death’s carriage and collect the souls of the dead until another takes up the task. That night, his friend Georges shows up, a ghost who is indeed crewing a phantom carriage. He shows the drunkard visions of people he hurt: his wife and family, and a kindly nurse dying of consumption caught from the drunk. Georges forces the drunk to face his past, taking him on a ghost-ride through the midnight city. For me, Death doesn’t drive a carriage these days—it’s a midnight blue Chevy, with a bed big enough for bodies.
What is a ghost? Perhaps it’s the burrs on our soul, moments within us that catch, tug against the fabric of What Is shuttling us along. They’re not just shades, not just a creepy feeling on the spine. Paradoxically, they are lights, too—that’s how ghosts live on, maybe, by being a little beacon—an unextinguished place. Will-o’-the-wisps, they are the lights within our world of shadowy half-meanings, they lead us out like the Lorelai into the misty dark. And they have a presence in our corporeal world. The other day I was in a really stellar mood, walking along, and I saw this dog for just a moment behind a house. Black body, lean; lanky; grey stockings flecked with darker grey; floppy hound-ears; a grey face with that same dappled flecking. It could have been Bria—which is what I thought at the time, That could have been her had she ever grown that big, and abracadabra! there’s the ghost, and they grab your face and yank it around and point (either inside us, or out) and say, “Look, you self-satisfied little fuck: Remember.” They are what help us see the fabric of our world, our memories and past joys, our lost innocences and first loves. The act of remembrance is a ghost-act itself, a little exercise in playing Dr. Frankenstein. Take all those little fragments—place, time, quality of light, company, mood, events—and when we “re-member” them we are sewing up again what had been broken apart. Dry bones clatter up from the dust’s strata. Once you see a ghost, the air is crowded with them.
Is that a black-dog feeling coming over you? Should you let it in? Is it good, or bad? Divine or otherwise? Merrill offers no answer—Mu, “un-ask,” as the Zen priest Joshu said—as friends and black dogs and even, slowly, his beloved DJ drift away from him, Merrill immerses himself more and more fervently into the world of the Ouija board. But he does let the ghosts in—Mirabell’s Book of Numbers ends with the final descent. If Merrill were Dante, he would be entering Heaven; not so with God Biology. In typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, even as Merrill enters the higher stages of Heaven, he is confronted with more and more hellish imagery. The Sons of Cain are the speakers of Mirabell’s lessons—unorthodox figures to serve as mentors in Heaven’s ranks. Like the intermingled twist of taiji, or “the deep capacities for good / And evil in the atom,” God Biology and his minions are not forces of either side, exactly. They’re forces of Everything, which means evil is involved, too. Angels of Life and Death. The last warning to DJ and JM has overtones of both Jahweh and Sauron:
LOOK! LOOK INTO THE RED EYE OF YOUR GOD!
Halfway through the forest, right? If the straightforward path has been lost, all you can do is follow the spirits who sing to you among the dark. Merrill does; and he does one better. He builds his ghosts a home: he creates, as he says in “An Urban Convalescence,” from “the dull need to make some kind of house / Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.” The ballroom and the “broken home” now can be rebuilt in the memory; and, like a Roman memory palace, the building can be stocked with figures who symbolize and trigger memories. But so, too: once they have a roost, they never leave. So imagine my surprise—I can remember it still—when I was reading Sandover (was it two years ago now?) and Mirabell’s last words in the Book of Numbers floated up at me as if in a dream:
I WILL BE THE WOUNDED BLACK HOUND OF HEAVEN AT YR DOOR
Paradise is only ever behind us. It can only exist in retrospect—for if one is in Paradise, then one necessarily cannot see it. The innocence required for Paradise is broken by self-awareness, by alignment with the Real. (Whatever that means at the time.) The Temple’s veil is torn; the diamond sword flashes through the illusion; the closet opens, complete with skeletons. The scales make a racket as they fall away.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Something like that, yes, but we still talk about Jay Gatsby. He is not only in the past. We have to accept that we are also borne ceaselessly into the future. The twin currents of “the history and the mystery” are dominant effects in Merrill’s poetry, where time is at best a fluid concept. Ghosts from both the recent and the long-gone past appear; and, as in “Lost in Translation,” the formal structure of his poetry tugs the reader back and forth between the present, past, and future. All three are inextricably linked, and all three in some sense create the other two, like yin-yang and Taiji.
There’s this Chinese folktale about a fisherman. He travels far up into the mountains, fishing, and follows a stream covered in peach blossoms. He climbs back up the stream and comes out into a valley, wide, green, fertile with peaches and barley, where folk speaking in ancient tongues lived in peace. He came among these people, who had not seen an outsider in many years—they dressed in the fashion of ancient dynasties, and spoke in old dialects. He lived among them awhile, and they pampered him and delighted in his company. He passed the summer this way, eating fat fish from the ponds and rivers and listening to lute songs in the evening beneath the stars. But eventually the man longed to see his wife and child, and he set out to find them and bring them to the Peach Blossom Land. The poet Wang Wei ended the story this way:
But how many green streams
lead into cloud-high woods—
When spring comes, everywhere
there are peach blossom streams
No one can tell which may be
the spring of paradise.
Here’s a question I haven’t asked yet: What isn’t a ghost? If a ghost is a sharpened fragment of memory, the thing that rises from a poem or painting, words, windows, a thread tying someone to the world, an unenlightened moment, then the only un-ghost is that endless shifty silence. The One. The Monad. The eternal flux that swallows everything it touches—which is everything. Sometimes, when you’re listening really hard, not saying anything, you can find that silence. The Buddhist sage Nagarjuna said—I first heard this from a teacher—“There is no distinction whatsoever between samsara and nirvana; and there is no distinction whatsoever between nirvana and samsara.” So maybe Paradise is a state of mind, lurking behind every fallen blossom; maybe Death is a state of mind; maybe Life too.
All of this talk, all of these thoughts—these are weights in the world. My words hum with pixels before your eye, they fold the air beneath their feet marching out from my mouth. You sit there and are vibrated by this, perhaps, and think, and chemicals, electric pulses pass helterskelter through your head, like little vacuum tubes delivering your consciousness. Add those up to a mass; a ripple passing through the world, nothing more. But nothing less, either.
What does this have to do with Merrill? One answer: If, as Gandalf says, breaking something to understand it is unwise, then perhaps building something is a wiser course. Tolkien, who built both Gandalf and Saruman, surely thought so. So did Merrill. He created the ballroom at Sandover, his ghost-house, his memory-palace. But so too, he described his life in “chronicles of love and loss,” a register of moments connected by the thin threads of a life. Life is fiction in disguise… The moments are rendered in fictional veneers, a layer of opera and drama and formal gravity—but even the “real” thread that holds them together, Merrill’s “real” life, is only made real to us by the fictions. We sense honesty in his voice, and we trust him, despite not really knowing him at all. Or perhaps we know him better because of those fictions—perhaps fiction gets closer to truth than honesty.
Another answer: through the union of poetry and seance, Merrill created another world which we too can inhabit, a world refracted through this one—but not a strict mirror. You don’t need a Ouija board and a mirror to find Sandover. Just a mirror will do. If Sandover was built for ghosts—if each of us has such a ghost-house like that in us somewhere, discovered or not—then a Heaven that mirrors earth will contain multitudes, ghosts on ghosts, endless mirrors vanishing into one another’s fractal depths. Even if the ghosts aren’t real, exactly, their images alone will crowd both Heaven and Earth, reflections of reflections, endless, sourceless, pole-less.
The poet is a knight, an erratic leaping chess-knight, an errant knight crossing a sword-blade bridge. He dances on the line between observation and participation, between good and evil. He is a third category, neither king nor monk: the poet is a watchful page with missing feet. Never trust poets: they are multifarious, clever, obscure, semi-honest, boundary-crossing, ascetic, decadent. Trickster gods—although, like any true spy, they would deny it. They stand with one foot in the black, one in the white, straddling that sinuous Taiji-thread holding us up within the swallowing maw of wuji’s emptiness, our source and end.
Some 500 years before Merrill, in Japan, the Zen master Ikkyū Sojun wrote:
keep writing those deep questions sleep on
when you wake even you’ll be gone
The poet is a ghost, just words, just air, hollow as honor, useless as tree before the cedar’s girth. He stands, his trembling brush raised, while a raven rides the wind that roars off the mountain into the vast whiteness of the wilderness, that crowded and expectant silence:
To which there’s no reply. For here we are.