An Expectation of Presences


This is a new revision of a poem written in the pioneer graveyard in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, a place where ghosts ought to, but do not, appear.

"To die is far different from what
anyone supposed...and luckier."
-- Walt Whitman

This gravesite, phantomless, does not appease
my walk -- not for myself alone
have I come, but in an expectation
of presences drawn forth like tides
from that alluring moon, to sit
and hear the chattering of ghosts
for the dead must have many songs to sing:
their dire complaints, their unrequited loves,
their broken oaths, their bony fists
clenched in the earth for some unsweet revenge;
their pleas that some neglected deed be done
to free them from a wormy pilgrimage;
their wry requests to know what souls
once famed to them, now call such pits
a hearth. But here’s no tombly talk;
none but a nightbird and a tapping branch
reply to my arcane soliloquy.

My eyes, as keen
for darkness as those of an owl,
spy nothing; my ears, keen
almost to the ultrasonic,
hear nothing but the bird-stir
and the limestone lap of lakebed.
Where are the ghosts?
These peaceful dead, this tranquil town
sleep far too well reposed.
Doubts do not stalk
these penny plots, no killers wring
remorseful hands, not one protesting atheist
is doomed to somnambulist stumbling.
Can it be
that in their simple times
(the whole of the 1800s buried here!)
mere faith
could be a perfect opiate,
that life within a wall of hymns
led to this silent, dreamless death?

Ah, so they die, who believe in Death,
they never rise, who sell their souls
into a cleric's dull paradise;
they never fly, who think their wings
are promises, to be attached
in worlds not one can wake to see.
O fraud of frauds, and no recourse:
no lawyer can sue an evangelist.

Yet in my heart of hearts I wish
for ghosts. For here is the depth
of all possible woe --
to leave nothing behind.
Nothing to strain against stars
from the haunted tips of trees;
nothing to drift like summer heat
and catch a gable's underside;
nothing to gust from cellar doors
or brood with the trunks in the attic;
nothing to serve as a core for leaves
as they fly in autumn deviltry;
no remnant left to walk the town,
no shadow over the bed, no chill
or mystery for the nervous ones--
those living yet
who think they see the dead --
to be lost from the hands of conjurers,
not even a gleam, a shard
of phosphorescent ooze?

Oh, no, if the choice be
God’s heaven or earth-bound ghost,
I'll keep my anchorage to moonlit nights,
take deed to swamps and vacant lots,
turn houses to renounced estates
abandoned to fright's hostelry;
sunbathe on monuments,
dance wild in summer thunderstorms.

Then, I shall wait for the night
when a dreaming poet comes
to my scarcely-legible tombstone,
mad as myself, my laughing heir.
What things I shall whisper
into his modern, doubting, skeptical
ear, as I reach out ...
and take his hand.

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