Therapy allows for reflection, narrative recaps fitted to the hour of the therapeutic session. “What story do you wish to tell?” asks the Therapist. “A utopian one!” I attest, eyes gleaming. “A romance!” Afterwards, though, I sit around perplexed. “Why, then,” I ask myself in exasperation, “did I write it last summer as if it were a ghost story?” Here I am, now — ghosted. Why have I written a story that interpellates me as a bloody mother fucking asshole and former inhabitant of a haunted house? What was I thinking? Why were those the genres and tropes to which I was drawn? How instead might I proceed with my tale?
What Kind of Monster Are You?
Self-fashioned life. No more a monster than Lovable, Furry Old Grover in The Monster at the End of This Book.
“Why should I be scared of you?” asks DC punk guitarist and vocalist Christina Billotte near the end of her band Slant 6’s song “What Kind of Monster Are You?”
Several more of the group’s songs turn up on the eternal mixtape soon thereafter.
“Ladybug Superfly.” “Babydoll.” “Partner in Crime.” “Don’t You Ever.”
Am I a victim of my own desires?
The lyrics to a song of theirs called “G.F.S.” stand out to me today, causing me suddenly to hear the song anew, its references to “stars going retrograde” and “recollection starting to fade” far stranger now than I ever knew them to be before.
The perfect guitar solo on “Time Expired” leaves me mulling my past in the hours afterwards, the song’s words forming a hieroglyph, echoing if not quite rhyming slant with the words on your necklace.
Tarot: great modular graphic novel, arranged in a spread and read by super wise super cool Sacred Expanse rock-witch Michelle Mae. I’ve been a fan of hers since 1995, when I saw her band the Make-Up on a bill with Fugazi and Slant 6. Michelle has me set intentions. I share with her my questions for the cards — “What should I be open to? How do I make the best of the year ahead?” — and, upon her instruction, also voice them again silently, eyes closed. She pulls the spread: lays it out on a table, explaining that it can be read both linearly and holistically (i.e., taken as a whole). The two of us then proceed to do so as follows. She introduces the cards one by one, naming them, raising them into my field of vision one at a time, without my knowing at any given point until the end how many there are in total. “Some difficult cards,” she reports. “Two of them major arcana.” Michelle helps me make sense of what she admits with a laugh is a bit of a crazy spread. She sends me afterwards a sacred Tibetan meditation practice, urging me to approach it with utmost respect.
I am to visualize my demons sitting across from me.
I am to ask them what they desire, and I am to feed it to them.
By these means, the instructions suggest, we convert our shadow self into an ally. We become whole again, filled with a sense of power, compassion, and love.
Mind blown by the experience of seeing musician Michelle Mae’s group The Make-Up perform at Irving Plaza in the spring of 1995, the Narrator had kept up with Michelle’s bands over the years. Never, though, had he met Michelle in person. Life is like that sometimes, especially for those of us with rich fantasy lives. Rarely do we get to sit down one-on-one to converse with the heroes of our youth.
“But early last September,” notes the Narrator, “I did exactly that.”
Thanks to a most excellent gift from his friends, he had the pleasure of meeting with Michelle and working one-on-one with her on Zoom in her capacity as a tarot reader.
She appeared onscreen sitting at a table in her home in Tucson. “I remember noting in the room behind her,” notes the Narrator, “a handcrafted besom leaned upright against a gray stone hearth.”
“There were some difficult cards in my spread,” confessed the Narrator to his friends in the days that followed. “But Michelle is super wise, super cool. She helped me see what the cards might be trying to teach me.”
News from Tucson
There came a time in the Narrator’s life when the best thing he could think to do was to seek the help of a tarot reader.
And sure enough, he was confronted soon thereafter with a way to do so. The opportunity presented itself, he recalls now in retrospect, at a backyard barbecue one afternoon last summer. “I was there chatting with my friend Saylor,” says the Narrator. “The latter, newly returned from the desert, leaned in and shared some exciting news with me.”
“You’ll appreciate this,” said Saylor with a grin. In the course of his summering in Tucson, he explained, he’d begun to hang with tarot reader Michelle Mae.
“Saylor had good reason to assume I’d be wowed by this news,” adds the Narrator, “as indeed I was, for as I’d confided to him in the past, I’m a longtime fan of Michelle’s band The Make-Up.”
So much so, in fact, that when asked to name the best rock concert of his life, the Narrator always refers to a Make-Up show — one he caught in high school. Make-Up shared a bill with two of their Dischord Records labelmates, fellow DC punk superstars Slant 6 and Fugazi. “What a night,” says the Narrator, recalling the show proudly now in hindsight. “Seminal. Life-altering. I was sixteen years old at the time. The Make-Up were a new band, so I hadn’t heard of them prior to that evening — but I liked and admired frontman Ian Svenonius’s former band Nation of Ulysses. As for the other acts on the bill, Fugazi and Slant 6 were as good as gods to me in those days. All of it blew my mind.”
When the trance-script writes itself, it writes the following:
More must be said, too, of Devin’s book, Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice. ‘Tis a book of criticism prepared by Devin based on a dissertation he wrote under the supervision of Robert von Hallberg and Saree Makdisi at the University of Chicago. I am grateful Devin wrote it — for with its overview of prior acts of trance-scription by the likes of poets Robert Duncan, James Merrill, and H.D. comes the potential to retell the backstory of what I’ve done. It sits with me here as I write.
Devin’s essay “The Needs of Ghosts” turns upon “Interrupted Forms,” a poem by Robert Duncan, included at the start of the latter’s Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s “Moly.”
Given its dedication to one who is both there and not there, ‘tis a poem that is both desirous and recollective simultaneously.
Into the situation of Duncan’s poem, I project this character of mine, the Gay Wizard — the ghost who haunts “The House on Shady Blvd.”
Of him, or of a ghost of similar make, Duncan writes as follows:
Long slumbering, often coming forward,
haunting the house I am the house I live in
resembles so, does he recall me or I
Wanting today to alter the condition set upon me by the ghosting of me by others, I sing the poem to those I love. I sing it to you, dear reader, “as if telling could reach you,” hoping against hope you have ears to hear.
The Needs of Ghosts
There’s more to it, though; this vein of coincidence runs deep.
For Devin, too, has a place in this story.
I reach out to my colleague C., a poet-friend who studied under Dillon, and ask if he knows, too, of Devin. C. confirms that Dillon and Devin are indeed father and son.
Devin wrote an essay called “The Needs of Ghosts: On Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s ‘Moly.’” The start of that title hits home, of course — startles me, lands with me now as I recollect my time on Shady Blvd. Having taught poems from Moly in my course on Hippie Modernism, I relish the opportunity to read Devin’s commentary. Not yet having familiarized myself with the other text about which he writes, however, I set to work doing so. I track down and read Robert Duncan’s Poems from the Margins of Thom Gunn’s “Moly,” a serial poem that Duncan published as a pamphlet in 1972, later reprinted in his 1984 collection Ground Work: Before the War.
For Duncan, writes Devin, crafting poems in the margins of Gunn’s book was a form of collaboration. The collaborator, he explains, is for Duncan “an inspiration from outside.”
And like that, it happens. The idea grows legs as I read. For I, too, wish to craft a text in the margins of another’s book. Mine will be a story crafted, in a sense, in the margins of Devin’s.
I admire a small stone and a pair of clam shells: mementos from last weekend’s party on the beach. In thinking about bathing the stone in salt water, an occult practice suggested in Aidan Wachter’s book Weaving Fate, I’m reminded of Devin Johnston’s Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice (Wesleyan University Press, 2002), a book I read last fall. Although most of Devin’s books are collections of poetry, the above book is a work of criticism — as were the books on Irish poetry published by Devin’s father Dillon Johnston, who Devin thanks in the above book’s acknowledgements.
I introduce each figure here, as each plays a part in my tale.
Dillon taught in my department, his time overlapping that of his more famous colleague, the poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Dillon is the one who founded the press here at my university. His name now graces our reading series.
And oddly enough, Dillon lived for a time here on Shady Blvd, this street about which I’ve been writing — his home Mitch Easter’s home, two doors down from my own. He settled there in the wake of a divorce, and stayed there for several years.
Indeed, in all respects, he seems like an interesting character — someone I would have liked to have known. By the time of my own tenancy on Shady, however, Dillon had moved on to Wash U., where he trained several of my friends and colleagues. Our times thus never aligned in our respective homes — though I suspect Dillon’s stint overlapped that of the Gay Wizard.
For hyperstition’s sake, let us assume the two to have been friends and neighbors. The story of their friendship is one I venture to tell in what follows.