Bartleby’s Choice

Author is to a boring legalism led — logorrheic exchange among logos-lovers— when, like Bartleby, he’d prefer not to. “What do I desire instead?” he wonders.

“Audience before a conference of birds,” he answers.

“Transformation of The House on Shady Blvd into an interactive fiction.”

“A door into summer.”

Precipitations

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.

Interrupted Forms

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

recall him?

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.

The Johnstons

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.

The Narrator, the Traveler, the Gay Wizard, and the Ghost

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.”

The MacGuffin

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.”

Lunch at the Village Tavern

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.

The Werehouse

Thanks to Frank, I found my way down there mere days after my arrival to town. What a space! It was like a T.A.Z. torn in time, a liberated territory poking through the city’s capitalist-realist façade.

To make it viable economically, artists living above had opened a coffee shop below. I remember the latter as a funky, spacious, cavernous place — a fun place to plot. And their annual Halloween parties were instant things of legend. Members of local bands would partner up with one another each year and play in one-off cover bands, performing in costume as famous indie bands of the past (Pretenders, Modern Lovers, Cramps, and the like). And the remarkable thing was, heads came out in droves: hundreds of us in costume, dancing, drinking, smoking our way toward dawn.

How I wish it was still there! Which is to say: How I wish we were there, you and I. If my Time Machine works, we’ll go there — ‘tis a promise. But not today. Today’s is the story not of the Werehouse, but of the home on Shady Boulevard.