Then Roethke Said, I Believe in Ghosts, Too!

I was reading this today, and it helped me, again, like things seems to do…always drifting in as disembodied voices, knowing exactly what to say, and when.

Roethke wrote an essay called “On Identity” and in it, said this:

“Let me say boldly, now, that the extent to which the great dead can be evoked, or can come to us, can be eerie, and astonishing. Let me, at risk of sounding off, recite a personal incident.

I was in that particular hell of a poet: a longish dry period….I was 44 and I thought I was done. I had been reading — and rereading — not Yeats, but Ralegh and Sir John Davies.

Suddenly, in the early evening, the poem “The Dance” started, and finished itself in a very short time–say thirty minutes, maybe in the greater part of an hour, it was all done. I felt, I KNEW, I had hit it. I walked around, and I wept; and I knelt down–I always do after I’ve written what I know is a good piece. But at the same time I had, as God is my witness, an actual sense of a Presence–as if Yeats himself were IN the that room. The experience was in a way terridying, for it lasted at least half an hour. That house, I repeat, was charged with a psychic presence” the very walls seemed to shimmer. I wept for joy. At least I was somebody again. He, they–the poets dead–were with me.

……

If the dead can come to our aid in a quest for identity, so can the living–and I mean ALL living things, including the subhuman. Why not? Everything that lives is holy: I call upon those holy forms of life. One could even put this theologically: St. Thomas says “God is above all things by the excellence of His nature; nevertheless, He is in all thigns as causing the being of all things.” Therefore, in calling upon the snail, I am calling, in a sense, upon God.

Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home.
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

…the identity of some other being–and in some instances, even an inanimate thing–brings a corresponding heightening and awareness of one’s own self, AND, even more mysteriously, in some instances, a feeling of the oneness of the universe.

…..

Once we feel deeply, to paraphrase Marianne Moore, we begin to behave”

So, yes, Roethke, yes. I was once in that room, with the ghosts, and have found myself there again, again when I was so sunk in my own dark that I didn’t think words were things themselves anymore. That spirit couldn’t be the tiny hairs on their backs and I wouldn’t find a way to make them crawl across the green of our world.

But then, something happens.

And some spirit lets us move again, with their breath.

But only if we feel deeply. Let our gazes become active and silent on a solid thing. Let our gazes become rocks of faith, even if we grit our teeth against them night after night.

A couple nights ago I woke with a pain. Looking at my arm, I noticed I had bitten it in my sleep. Why would I do such a thing.

Then, in the small part of my chest, where the ribs sort of meet at the top, I felt a skipping joy.

Pain is something gorgeous, when you feel it out of context. When no thought attends to its play.

So, some spirit moved in me to rage against my disbelief, bit into the arm that writes and doesn’t write. And when it doesn’t write, it doubts.

But I said, then, to my biting ghost….

Tell me something I don’t know, something I have seen once, but forgotten, or get out.

Then, the sun broke in.

I thought I was dreaming, but

three weeks before, I sat in the library and cried, reading Larry Levis’ first poem in Elegy.

His black-box windows are now looking at me.

Now, waiting for me to say something about the community of trees.

Larry, I got in late last night. I missed your call.

Forgive me. Whisper something to me again.

No, tell the others I haven’t forgotten them either.

Tell the universe I try so often to remember myself being not myself but dirt.

Larry helped me write a poem, once, even before I knew him.

You’re thinking, how is this possible?

Check out Godel and his concept of time. It’s all there. We’re in this together, alive or dead.

So, Larry helped me write a poem once. I was sitting in Borders, having beaten myself up about not writing a poem, not getting accepted to Graduate School, and losing too much weight.

But he invoked in me a Fish, and at the end…my declaration, at the end of the poem, was:

Field. Cows. Flies.

And, a year later, after Marie Howe told me to read a man named Larry, I sat in the Graduate School library that I didn’t think I got into, and read his line

Cattle. Field. Flies.

I got chills. I cried. I sang something in the small part of my chest, where the ribs meet in the middle…

I said…

Holy Shit!

And cried some more.

Now, Roethke says, Well, yes, Shannon, of course I believe in ghosts and dead poets.

I want to hold your hand, Roethke. Can you hear me, now?

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