Cole Swensen | Ghost Stories

Paolo Abreu | Conde Ferreira, 2003



Sometimes the Ghost


Sometimes the ghost arrives before the body is gone and the breath which will one day white, there will be walls, or illness may be the cause and cause the ghost to crawl up inside, a bright

illness, when the eyes go, and the ghost walks around looking like you, and we talk quietly, and she says things I remember your saying, but at the time they were out of context and made no sense, and now I look around the room that fits. And I walk across the room with my eyes closed




Walking Through


I was walking through my grandfather called it was a long way across he said I ran like mad it was his I knew the house was alone I knew the face that held had opened the door I had known I had wanted on hearing his own and ran back up the hill as I slammed the door and then I slammed the door

A ghost is a hearing is a calling and every gesture that builds the pressure that then through unknowing becomes in pieces the inner ether so larger grows the mansion and larger grows the wind, undid, and the child who ran up the hill is an older man telling a story that is simply a story he lived




Ghost Stories

Defoe’s Story

It took place in London at the end of the 17th century—a man was spending the evening at home, thinking often of a friend of his, a woman who was very ill, worrying about her, hoping she would live, when there was a knock on the door, and she entered, looking fine, thriving in fact, and sat down in a normal way and began a normal conversation, though she seemed a little more serious than usual until he began to cry, at which she continued quietly, discussing things of the soul, aspects of time, and he began to sob, and she continued speaking quietly, as he sobbed and sobbed, and when he finally looked up she was gone.

This story is not unusual and belongs to a subgenre in which the dead person seems to drop in on a few old friends on the way out, giving no indication that he or she has died, but stays and speaks, saying the clear water at the bottom of my hand will make a turn and my hand will go bottomless like a mirror forgets my face at the slightest glance there was a man standing beside

the clear water     pooled in the rock beneath a tree. The bright leaves     tore up the light

you would have seen that he was part of the light and asked him to help me climb down


Le Fanu’s Story

Sheridan Le Fanu offers a variation on this story in which the whole family hears a carriage arrive late at night, just at the time that (they later learn) their older daughter has died miles away. Even the dogs start barking, and they all clearly hear the folding down of the carriage stairs, but when they open the door, the courtyard is empty, and the dogs recoil in fear. So that the sight

of anyone in an unexpected place so that the voice now traveling alone out on its own on a quiet day      I saw a friend I knew to be in Japan     I once saw my sister on a train

Sometimes it’s only a strong resemblance, and you wonder if the person in question hasn’t had a close call, crossing the street with an absent mind, or walked out of a building just moments before it blew up. Caught a cab on the corner & never knew. It happens every day. We are made

in a thin thread     or of the line incised     into the pane     which may be only a photograph   she said, whenever I look at a photograph, I see    not the man who died years ago    but the one who will    one day as he’s simply    looking out the window


James’ Story

In Henry James’ version, an unnamed narrator discovers she has two good friends who’ve had the same experience—a woman whose father came to her in a gallery in Italy as he was dying in New York, and a man whose mother showed up in his rooms in Cambridge just after she’d died. Determined that her two similarly­-gifted friends should meet, she makes numerous plans, but oddly, something always comes up to thwart them. Finally, after she has become engaged to the male friend, our narrator decides that she really must arrange this meeting, so she fixes up something so simple that it cannot fail. However, at the last minute, she finally gets it: these two are destined to fall in love—there’s really no other possibility—and so she herself, and through subterfuge, prevents this last attempt. Last because, by sheer coincidence, her female friend dies that night. In the morning, overcome with guilt and remorse, the woman tells her lover what she has done, but he declares, “That’s not possible! She came to my rooms just before midnight!” The woman insists that it must have been her ghost, while the man insists that she was alive. They finally agree to disagree and get on with their lives. Except that the woman notices a change in him, and one week before their wedding, gently declares that she knows that he has been keeping up a liaison with her dead friend ever since that fatal night, and though he denies it, he doesn’t do so very vigorously, and allows her to break off their engagement.

Needless to say, neither ever marries.

And as it so often is with James, we are never sure if the ghost occurred, or if the woman was not simply eaten up by a jealousy engendered by her guilt, or, much more likely, by a different jealousy, a jealousy for that other world, which her obsession with that detail of her friends’ lives tells us she preferred to her friends all along.


James’ version is unusual, too, in that it’s the only ghost story I know in which a ghost is genetic , a kind of corner­-of-­the-­eye that just can’t stop in time    and heard the other arrive though way across town       or felt a line drawn taught      and could not respond

although a light comes on all on      its own      every day at just that time      time they say, is stone. I once had a heart      made of string      and hung myself, my love




Some Paintings of Ghosts


There are so few paintings of ghosts, which is really rather odd
since there at last they could be seen, could slightly live
in the visible, under glass

where all errance squares
and there’s an end almost to the body you forgot

there’s a body that runs on
out ahead of the one inevitably left behind

in the shock of recognition on the face of the dying

that, in a Rembrandt sketch, or I saw it once
in a painting by Ingres, though he had not
put it there.




Some Ghosts in Paintings


Atelier du peintre, Gustave Courbet, 1855. At the far right edge, just coming through the door or perhaps from behind a mirror is a man who isn’t there.

Sea and Rain, James McNeill Whistler, 1865. A human husk stepping carefully over something very fragile in the sky.

Frederic Bazille, Rose Terrace (Terrace at Méric), 1867. But where is the terrace? the trellis? the woman who sits at the very, very edge of the park bench, a mere sketch

a white dress

sat down

in a garden

Bazille died

in the Franco­Prussian War shot just before he turned 29 he saw her there and wanted to finish it but under the circumstances, had no idea what that would mean.

Les Jardins des Tuileries, Monet, 1876; first woman on the left, white dress, her head and chest bending too much into the world.

Edward Hopper, 1963, Sunlight in an Empty Room.




The Ghost Dance


Emile Berliner, one of the first developers of the gramophone, recorded numerous Arapaho, Commanche, and Caddo ghost dances, as well as a Paiute gambling song, and published them in July, 1894.

When from the door I saw him coming

The Ghost Dance dates to 1888, when, based on a vision he had during a solar eclipse, the Paiute mystic Wovoka claimed the earth would soon end, and be therefore inherited, especially through dancing, in which one dies for a minute

Then saw I       the many plainly

Wovoka’s vision of non­violent resistance was shared by Tolstoy: To you can no damage be, who turns again

And saw that they, in numbers entering

The ghost dances were recorded by the ethnologist James Mooney, who may in some cases also have played them.

Entered calling their innumerable names

Tolstoy published The Kingdom of God is Within You in 1894, in which the other cheek in which one sees

the Ghost Dance movement largely died out after Wounded Knee (December 29, 1890) in which some had believed

the Ghost Dance shirt is impervious to bullets

a rag flies around the sun at specific intervals

Thomas Edison filmed a Sioux ghost dance on September 24, 1894—or more precisely, he filmed a dance that featured true ghost dance costumes, but the documentation carefully states that it is not an authentic ghost dance bending as the light will not

It is 1894, and the gramophone is being sold in a shop in Baltimore. In fact, by fall, they will have sold over 1000 playing machines and 25,000 records, ashless are the voices                                                                                           we have become

that still    and faces fast     in which they turn and slowly halt and latch you in the glance. The dance, brief and the ghost

lived within       whatever we were
was photographed with the lights out.




Interview Series 3

What do you think ghosts are?
Do you think you’ll ever be one?


I don’t know. . . I think they’re communication, simply that; a ghost is simply a connection.

And then she goes on to mention some rather odd occurrences—hundreds of red beetles all over the kitchen the day her mother died, and for a year after her son­-in-law’s death, she kept seeing his car go by.
Do I think I’ll ever be one? I’d like to be; it seems, if nothing else, like a way to get on with it.

I think they’re entities stuck in time. We the “living” pass right on through it, along it, along with it, and then in dying, if all goes well, we pass out of it, but ghosts get stuck, locked, are left half­-in and half-­out. It hurts. Become one? I hope not.

What is a ghost? It’s something that hides behind doors (said without irony)—ghosts lurk; that is their defining quality. Will I ever become one? Quite possibly.

A ghost is that which exceeds the four elements, what will not fit within. Which suggests them as excess, which has by definition nowhere to go, that might show up anywhere, a little startled, a shade persistent, an average shadow that doesn’t move with the sun. Will I ever become one? Certainly not.

A ghost is that which refuses to go on—they’re comfortable with death.

Or a ghost is burned into the sky as an image is burned onto the retina of an eye. It was an accident, or at least incidental; it was nothing special, but stayed too long and so remains emblazoned on a certain patch of air, annealed there, watching, for instance, for a ship to sail into view.

They are laws of physics caught at that fractional moment of suspension that all laws pass through as they’re changing. Yes, I think the laws of physics change all the time, but because we’re completely bound by them, we can’t remember their ever having been different; however, we can perceive the glitches that persist if the revision isn’t fast enough, and sometimes, no doubt, we are the glitch, and have no idea of it.

What is a ghost? It’s tangled electricity. It’s a radiogram of the air, an ex­-ray of the sky.

What is a ghost? Well, that’s tantamount to asking what you think the present is. We have a much clearer take on both the past and the future than we do on the present—it remains a gap between two clarities, a void, and as such, it cannot possibly make sense, at which point, we must admit that we are lacking crucial information on our own state, and therefore can’t even begin to comment on the state of other entities that are not attached to the present, even though they may be visible from it. Will I ever be one? I might very well be one now, if viewed from another state.

I get up and turn on the light.

A ghost is one life layered upon another that has not yet been named. A ghost is a crossroads, now mobile, as in the Middle Ages, avoided at night, the air thickening there, but the intersection itself, invisible up close, and suddenly warm and at home.

A ghost is a broken window, though the window does not end the room; it only breaks the seal.

What is a ghost? It’s the spirit returning to exact revenge. Will I return? I don’t know—I suppose it will depend on how much pain I’m in.

A ghost bit a child of the tip of her thumb.                  And the child replaced the sun. It seems that great emotion disrupts the structure that makes time and space appear separate.

Or a ghost is a knot in the otherwise smooth flow of time, an electrical storm in a jewelry box, grief perfectly aligned. And sometimes a ghost is a shared thing; sometimes the entire population of a city or country will just happen to look in the mirror at the same time, and from then on there was a city in the sky, as all cities are if we consider that the sky reaches to the ground, and this city, too, thought it was alive, and the candles walked off by themselves.




Cole Swensen | Gravesend
University of California Press 2012

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