Jeffery Donaldson has graced us with this poem about an encounter with a ghostly familiar, if not a “familiar compound ghost.” Jeffery is currently working on an article about the significance of Frye to a poet, to be published in New Quarterly. A video of Jeffery reading the title poem from his latest collection, Palilalia, can be found at the end of this post.
But one writes only after one has willed to renounce the will,
and the wisest of poets have always insisted that in the long
run all poetry that is worth listening to has been written
by the gods.
Subway, in the middle of my commute, I found myself in a dark corner. The line vanished into the underground in two directions, the clack and crow-screech of steel wheels echoed in recession of the just missed five-o-nine from the tunnel’s depths. Museum Station. A chilled solitude widened around me and water-drops pooled in mimicked snips between the rails below. The ceiling lamps’ subdued fluorescence seemed to cast no shadows and were like peering through green water. Exhibits from the ROM in glass cases with aboriginal wooden masks descended like messengers from the real world above, whose outsize faces gestured witness and alarm in the apocalyptic style of indigenous myth. Farther up, the February dusk was tawny, the air tasteless and dull as pewter plate. Fog had moved in on Old Vic’s scrubbed-stone but now vague turrets uncobbling upwards to the last vanished spire, as though parting illusion from the epigraph above the stairway arch, still insisting, after these twenty years, that the truth would set me free. All gone up in a mist now, as far as I could see. I pictured them above, the Burwash quad, Pratt, and residence, whose faux-gothic walls hold the city at Bay like the brim of an empty cup, and where the mind-set of college years, memories of what unwritten words, burn perpetually as in a crucible. I wonder now had I known, those years hiding my fidgets, of the tics Touretters spend their days trying to release, or heard of how the obsessive’s repetitions grind every last impulse to its death, would I have finished more, managed the regimental habitus and got things done? Too skittish by far to do as that passage from Faust always roared mockingly I should, from its perch on the cork board above my desk, Settle your studies! and sound the depths of that thou wilt profess. Get real! I still have the welts from the nightly tongue-lashing. But now school’s out at last, and the long ghostly hours of doodling, daydreams, lectures, lessen. The students pouring from Northrop Frye Hall slushed in out of the fog in private directions escalating down into the commuter scrimmage towards the platform. And that brought it on. The clapping heal, nasal-snort, the lurching nod, the whooped-up screech and cluck. I tried to catch the right patterns up, send them unfolding in dervish rhythms, unstoppable as blinking. Suddenly, out of the unasked-for corporal hootenanny I sensed a conjured presence whirled out in tangents from myself echoing in the sniggers I bounced off the walls, until in my thinking, it appeared, a stooped man stood apart, behind a pillar, unhurried, thoughtful, neither leaving nor arriving, one I seemed to recognize or remember, coming through and breaking up like a cell-phone signal too far from its source. The chunky glasses and electric hair, plain, perennially ancient, he was there, bunched up within himself like New Brunswick brushwood, swaying like a scraggly jack-pine or as a man in thought at arm’s length from a lectern will rock, it seems, to captivating rhythms for the sake of argument. Sheet folder. Waiting for this line to take him home. He spoke up under my own chirps and wheens snickering back under the stone work, like a cold draft working itself out. “Still conjuring ghosts, are you Hamlet, from the depths of the waiting place? Have you forgotten my Shakespeare lecture in ‘81, on how the Danish spook is not one jot less real than the made world he rises in?” He looked himself over. “Not that I can say much in the matter, but you might have made me younger. When you conjure someone in a dream, (where are your manners?) it’s best to be more generous than time was . . . . But look at you. Why you look as though you see a burning bush or a hanging disk of fire.” “Oh no no, I see you, heavenly ghost, old sky father, old officer of art! but holy company of angels what are you doing here? Fifteen years have passed since we sat through the Blake readings at your remembrance service, and together cracked what wine bottles afterwards launched you on your way across the Styx, that second journey you once wrote about as having rather less to do with ego than the first. You always looked for how to get past it without actually dying, and I thought if I kept reading your prose you might show the way chosen ones take to the spiritualized secular, and find you again, or myself at least. But not haunting some in-transit concourse buried under old grounds I’ve already trod.” “You’re still looking in all the wrong places. Time you saw through your own smoke and mirrors.” “A window then? Not a thing I see?” “Closer, yes, but don’t get your hopes up on clarity, too many hands and noses have been pressed to the glass for you to find what you’re looking for in someone like me, even in this state. I was never much for small talk, as little on subway platforms as on that elevator we once rode together.” He shied away three steps and started to fade, searched himself as for the rumpled coat he was still wearing. But I wanted more, moved to step clear of my own withholdings. “I’ve long imagined I had missed my chance, had lost you to the ranks of bygone paternal mentors, fathers in whom I planted the seeds of long-nursed dependencies for the tall harvest that never came.” “Still stripping grafts from confidences greater than your own? You’ve a way to go, and it won’t be this old crow, cocking his eye at you under these shady lights, who will get you there. Don’t you know that mine too was the ventriloquist’s thrown voice, and that what I spoke was a stirred echo?” “I’ll never write as much as you did, spirit, the endless notebook-drafts of plumbed inklings and the thirty odd volumes of limpid prose. I can’t pinch off a dozen lines in a year.” “You could use some metaphoric roughage in your diet. An evacuation and purge, as Auden said, can be a positive omen. But you’re the one who goes on about Whitman . . . . You have to keep the tics down in public, and the vocal dirt from passing at all times, (like kegel exercises for the mental sphincter . . . ). I can understand that. But your verbal warm-ups are over-worked, if I may say so, too handled and pushed, too proudly shaped. You’d rather lay off the inkpot than risk the odd bad sheet, won’t commit a line not already hammered into its promise. You have this chiselled-phrase stuff backwards. A poet finishes with cut gems for the jeweller’s eye, his sturdy maxim’s sculpted waterfall hefted upwards into empyrean, he doesn’t start there. You’re a Touretter. Why not write like one? Hold off the perfectionist blocking out phrases to exhaustion, those worrying threads, the Penelopian back-ravellings of the unmade. Your repetitious tics have always come first, and so they should, the ecstatic rhapsodist’s St. Vitus’ Dance, slangster’s whizzle and conjuration, philologist’s hullaballoo.” You think of Moses breasting the mountain top to find the right words already carved in stone. But Moses too went round and round, ’til he found the clearing and the words came.” My tics slowed, and he dimmed like a science fair light bulb, whose frail filament is kept lit by the frantic, pumping cyclist ’til he tires. I cried, “But wait! What words? Suppose I did dance circles, made off-beat tongue-claves my first exuberance, tell me what I’ll find there beyond.” “No time,” he said, turning away, “and we’ve both said enough. But look, you’ve waited on this line for some time, haven’t you. I think I hear what you need coming,” he said, and fading, said something else I missed, when a shriek, as from depths within, drowned him out, and it was then I saw, what else?, a light at the end of the tunnel, and heard the train’s sliced-steel, involuntary skreak and howl, an offense to all, but look with how many along for the ride! One last tic, I sounded my barbaric yawp. And a door opened.
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008
© Jeffery Donaldson