A Conversation with a Ghost

August 18, 2016

But look, the morn in russet mantel clad
walks over the dew of yon high eastward hill.[i]

 What he says:

Of course I cannot see his distress.
A blackened bowl is one that makes the most
of the daylight. He is alone, left in the fortress
to have a conversation with a ghost—

‘I want to hold you close,’ is all I say.

Do you believe in ghosts? No light glints from
my disproportionate sight; he had to pray
to me to keep his life, his form, his sum.
All fury is at my dispensation now. To stare,
I see four eyes eyeing my eyes,
one pair medical and concerned, the other pair,
too young to know that death is never fair.
All are seeing in me what he suddenly fears—
the nastiness of ripening him to tears.

What I say:

If only life were like a soapsuds bubble,
or a balloon in a fresh breeze, or dancers
on a ballroom floor—if transience  was not
the very essence of  a life—but only
its tragic conclusion, if only we
could do to life what it does to us—
experienced dancers all—and make each ghost
see that all hot bodies should not end so cool.

‘Sir, I am not what fear is about.’

It’s shouted plain, but is not heard—
even when poured into a shapeless ear—
because even when it’s whispered, all
that is remembered is a stateless tear—
left to glisten here on another unmade bed.

[i] Hamlet.

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7 Responses to “A Conversation with a Ghost”

  1. Thomas Davis Says:

    I hope you sent it to Bennison Books, Jim.

  2. John Looker Says:

    Ok Jim, no names for those pronouns: I can see that naming them is not an option. You raise a number of intriguing points. With most poets of earlier periods it is probably always pretty clear who, in a dramatic poem, is speaking and to whom (with Browning, for instance, that prominent exponent of the form) but we are living in modernist and post-modernist times. Although I’d suggest that Ezra Pound was generally pretty clear. But anyway, it’s your poem and your preference to infuse your poetry with multiple possibilities – and I respect that.
    I’ve been re-rereading with pleasure!

  3. extrasimile Says:

    Okay, some thoughts on this poem. John, I agree with you on the attribution of the quote from Hamlet, though I don’t agree on supplying antecedent names for the pronouns. That process is part of the poem. And besides, it isn’t really Horatio recognizing he ghost (though, Tom, it works rather well in that role), it is Horatio recognizing the dawn in a rather overly literary way. I’ve often wondered at those two lines—they seem so inappropriate—when a simple ‘how-do-ye-do? it’s morning‘ would do the job. Well, leave that for another day. The problem is, if it’s not Horatio, who is it speaking in the ‘what he said’ and the “what I said’ sections. And really this poem does not really reproduce a ‘conversation’ at all, does it?
    This poem really got started with my musing over the ‘conversation’ I was having with Anna in the ‘To Anna’ poem. Who you’re talking to is, to my mind, an important part of a poem. I don’t mean who the audience is so much as who author is or seems to be addressing in the poem. Robert Browning’s audience for ‘My Last Duchess’ is you and me. The person he is addressing is the middleman for whoever it is who is securing his latest duchess. Gertrude Stein’s formula of ‘myself and strangers’ seems adequate—if a trifle misleading—for the audience role—you can always let the strangers look over your shoulders—but who you’re addressing… well, who is Keats addressing in ‘An Ode to a Nightingale? A bird? Or Coleridge in Kubla Khan? The man from Porlock? And Whitman? Emily Dickinson? (A really complex question). Anyway, to whom is this poem addressed is a crucial question. I wanted you to go to Hamlet, for sure, but perhaps only as a model. The ‘He’ could just be the ghost come to collect the next soul entering the afterworld. But ‘do you believe in ghosts’ is a strange thing for a ghost to wonder—or is? It might serve as a slightly causal introduction for the ghost to a 21st century person who probably does not believe in ghosts at all…
    Thus, John, no names for those pronouns.
    Now Thomas, your reading of the poem really is brilliant. Once again you show me things I didn’t quite see there at first. After all, Horatio, could have been pushed by his contact with the ghost to utter such majestic lines (if in the right context) or maybe it was an attempt to establish the right context…in short, I thoroughly relish this reading. Bravo! More to the point, I wanted you to hover around the scene of death, see what you find.
    Also John was kind enough to suggest I send Benison books a couple of poems—which I did. I wonder if they’d be interested in this one. I do see it as a kind of blessing…but isn’t all poetry?
    Thank you again, both of you.
    Jim

  4. John Looker Says:

    I am very much in agreement with Tom here, Jim. This poem is full of originality and offers some unusual insights into Death and the transience of Life (in that regard it reminds me of Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning). There are many lines that are deeply poignant but that resonate with a mixture a sadness and acceptance. I shall reread it later and then again and again.
    Why not add the textual reference to Hamlet after the italicised quotation? That would help many readers. And indeed why not spell out the names of the two speakers? Lower the gangplank and pipe any hesitant readers aboard!

  5. extrasimile Says:

    Thank you, Thomas. I am truly honored at the insight and perception you bring to my poetry. More thoughts to come. Jim
    Yes Horatio. Act 1.

  6. Thomas Davis Says:

    Good Lord, Jim. I cannot tell you how good I think this poem really is. I would really like to see you published in the anthology being put together by Bennison Books, John’s publisher: https://bennisonbooks.com. Would you consider submitting a poem or two to her?

    You don’t say, but, of course, the quotation in italics is from Hamlet and Horatio’s perception of the ghost in, what? Act I? That leads us to the conclusion that “he says:” is Horatio talking about Hamlet and his confrontation with the ghost of his father.

    “Do you believe in ghosts?” . . . ” “he had to pray
    to me to keep his life, his form, his sum.” What a strange, powerful comment, as if death still allows us to pray. Then, “All fury is at my dispensation now.” Then,

    I see four eyes eyeing my eyes,
    one pair medical and concerned, the other pair,
    too young to know that death is never fair.

    The power in this section of the poem seems to me to be obvious, the contemplation of ghosts and death, and the conclusion that to young eyes, the window to the soul, there is no seeing “that death is never fair,” that the “distress,” the idea that

    A blackened bowl is one that makes the most
    of the daylight.

    reverberates backward onto our perception of life, I suppose enhancing our perception of life and light.

    Then “What I say.” This is as good as you have written, or can write, Jim:

    If only life were like a soapsuds bubble,
    or a balloon in a fresh breeze, or dancers
    on a ballroom floor—if transience was not
    the very essence of a life—but only
    its tragic conclusion, if only we
    could do to life what it does to us—
    experienced dancers all—and make each ghost
    see that all hot bodies should not end so cool.

    This brilliance leads to what I assume is a comment from the ghost? ‘Sir, I am not what fear is about.’

    Then “he said”s response to the comment that the ghost, death, after life, is not what fear is about:

    It’s shouted plain, but is not heard—
    even when poured into a shapeless ear—
    because even when it’s whispered, all
    that is remembered is a stateless tear—
    left to glisten here on another unmade bed.

    There is truth here, Jim, the stateless tear remembered, glistening on “another unmade bed.”

    This is just good poetry.


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