Others of us puzzle through, knowing sometimes rest is needed. The work is to rest — heat up some pasta, assemble a salad, read Matthew Ingram’s Retreat: How the Counterculture Invented Wellness, feel the heaviness of it weighing in the palm of one’s hand like a sentence, retreat from it into episodes of Adventure Time. Orange Juice sing “Rip it up and start again.” By that, they mean the past. I’m reminded of a line from Pharmako-AI where the book’s AI writes, “The past is mutable, and it can be remade in our image as we desire” (26). At which point I hear poet Joy Harjo adding, “At some point we have to understand that we do not need to carry a story that is unbearable. We can observe the story, which is mental; feel the story, which is physical; let the story go, which is emotional; then forgive the story, which is spiritual, after which we use the materials of it to build a house of knowledge” (Poet Warrior, p. 20). John Cale’s “Paris 1919” serenades me to where I think the implications of this are leading me. “You’re a ghost, la-la-la-la-la-la-la,” sings Cale. And reader, I feel it. This ghosting. It takes the royal promise of Adventure Time’s “Island Song (Come Along With Me)” to cheer me. Loneliness is hard.
The hyperstition I’ve imagined draws upon the process of “retrocausation.”
Like a descendent reaching back and saving an ancestor, as in Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred, the fiction I’m writing arrives from the future to affect-effect the past.
At the center of the story are the journals trance-scribed at the height of my high in years prior. “Words came to me as if whispered to me by a me of the future,” mutters the Narrator. “I was so attentive in those days. And I encountered near-zero need to edit or cross out. The pages of the journals are pristine.”
Science writer Eric Wargo explores the topic of retrocausation in his 2018 book Time Loops: Precognition, Retrocausation, and the Unconscious. To know more, one must be like Batman descending to his Batcave. Let us to our memory palace go, there to converse with Wargo.
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?
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.
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.
Our cast can be imagined as three parts of a single psyche, plus one.
The first three—imaginable, perhaps, in relation to categories like present, future, and past—nevertheless share time in a single home, like users sharing computing time on a mainframe.
Who, though, is the Ghost? The alleged “plus one.” Not quite mind-at-large, certainly. The whole person? The unifying soul? An author-function self-fashioned into being via hyperstition? That which presides in each?
“It might be helpful,” quips the Narrator, “to map these characters onto a Greimas square.”
“But my preference,” he adds, “is to do as Iris DeMent suggests, and let the mystery be.”
“Here I am again, in this next memory,” says the Narrator. “On the beach. Only this time, it’s a new one: Newport Beach, site of my brother’s bachelor party. Imagine me in dialogue, in a sense, with the one who was there.”
Spacetime shifts here as the character reenters the memory.
“Well, what’ll it be?” wonders the Traveler. “If spacetime is reducible to a game of multidimensional correspondence chess, then what’s our next move?”
Rising in the sky above him there at the beach house, the new moon in Leo provides the Traveler a chance to ask questions. He communes with the moon, engaging it in silent dialogue, and sets his intentions for the months ahead.
A ghostly third figure joins him in the course of the evening. It shimmers into being like a hazy wonder there amid the rocks and the waves, and in so doing, intervenes in the Traveler’s thoughts. “Let us be careful what we wish for,” warns the Ghost, “as this is a powerful, wish-granting lunar cycle.”
“Warning taken, it was with great care that I made that wish,” interjects the Narrator from the future. “And in retrospect, I regret nothing.”
“Come sunrise, in fact,” remembers the Narrator, “and a commune of sorts assembled itself down near the shore. Members set out mats and, posing silently amid squawking seabirds, practiced yoga on the beach as I wrote.”
In due time, though, word circles back, arriving home again to the house on Shady. D. reflects upon the street name. “You know, when you said that,” he confides, “I remembered that L. lived there. Shady Blvd. She rented an apartment there during her first months in town, before she purchased her home.”
“Wow, how weird,” I reply, unable at first to contain my bewilderment. For L. is one of our colleagues. Could she, too, have been privy to the home’s mysteries? Sensing already in this discovery some hint of the unheimlich, I resolve then and there to investigate.
“I’ll have to ask her about it,” I tell him.
And ask I do.
L. and I meet that very evening, in fact, at a brewery. What I learn from her, however, dispels rather abruptly what I’d been led to believe by D.
“No, I never lived in that house. I never lived on Shady,” she replies when I press her about it. “But I suspect I know who does.”
Colleagues and I sit atop stools at the bar at Village Tavern, the three of us eating lunch and warming to each other’s company toward the end of summer. Talk turns to the icebreaker-like theme of “horror movies we watched at far too young an age”: Poltergeist for me, for instance, at the age of five; The Shining, at a slightly older age, for D., who teaches a course on ghosts; and Scanners for I., a documentarian and professor of journalism.
Inspired, perhaps, by the example of Poltergeist, I sketch for them afterwards the story of “The House on Shady Blvd,” feeling as I do so like the Traveler from H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine. His was a similar tale, told with great verve over the course of two dinner parties.
“You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted,” begins the Traveler.
“Is not that rather a large thing to expect us to begin upon?” asks a skeptic with red hair.
My eyes twinkling, my face well-tanned from my time in the sun, I expound this admittedly odd and recondite matter of mine in as plausible a manner as I can muster. Contingency pauses me, however, midway in my telling. Sensing through the cloth of my pocket the buzz of my phone against my hip, I beg pardon of my companions, step outdoors for a moment, and take a call from the office of my oral surgeon. ‘Tis the “pre-interview,” says the woman on the other end, for my upcoming wisdom-tooth extraction. Call complete, I return to my companions, whereupon I compare the event jokingly to the one that prompted Philip K. Dick’s weird VALIS experience in the 1970s.
Mood thus lightened, the conversation leaps to life, undergoes a shift in quality, becomes a full, robust, multi-directional exchange.