The poetry of ghosts
By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
I enjoy watching television shows like Ghost Hunters — on the rare occasions I find time to watch them. I don’t necessarily believe them, however. While I don’t believe that we have all the answers and know all there is to know, I don’t think people go about the business of ghost hunting in the proper way. In other words, television ghost investigators aren’t even looking in the right places. If they want to find ghosts, they need to go where the ghosts are.
If they really want to find ghosts — and if ghosts truly exist — then Ghost Hunters should go to Kabul or Baghdad. Go to the site of a suicide bombing and spend the night poking around. If ghosts do exist, as the premise of such television shows frequently suggest, you’d think there would be a now-deceased suicide bomber or two coming back from the beyond or the gates of Hell or wherever to say, “Now that wasn’t a good idea. Tell people: Don’t be a suicide bomber.”
Instead they go to old houses and long-closed penitentiaries or even Civil War battlefields to listen for creaks and moans. Why do they need a 100-year-old spirit to tell them what a more recently created one should have such incredible urgency to say? “Don’t suck. It wasn’t worth it. It just got me and other innocent people killed. And now we’re dead.”
Yeah, we have problems. There is no fun in looking for a job or in owing more on the mortgage than your house is worth or even in losing your home. But we’ve got nothing on the people in Kabul or Baghdad. We have no problems like those our troops see everyday. Losing your house to foreclosure is nothing compared to having it or yourself or your family blown up by a lunatic.
Despite the chaos in the world, woe is me. Will the hardships of our generation ever end? What with the economy and foreclosures and lost jobs and would-be terrorists, now we have a ginormous oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico that may wash up in Florida. Somebody needs to do something! What can we do?
Here’s what you can do: go to your neighbor’s house and ask him for a beer or a glass of iced tea, put your feet up on his lawn furniture and spend the afternoon just talking (if you live next to a meth lab, try the other neighbor). Talk, disagree, solve the world’s problems and laugh a little. Sure, there are other things you could do — you could go to Louisiana to volunteer to clean up the oil. You could volunteer at a shelter or a food bank. But do that tomorrow, visit your neighbor first.
What could it hurt? Seriously — what harm could come from it? There are enough ills in the world that don’t seem to want to go away and there will be time in another day to roll up your shirt sleeves to help the greater good. For now, kick back, have a beverage and make a human connection without using a computer as an intermediary.
We will all soon enough become ghosts — in whatever manner you choose to believe. We rush to do this and that, and we seem to forget the lessons of those who came before us. One lesson is: don’t strap bombs to your chest to blow up yourself and innocent people. Most of us, of course, know that. The better lesson for the non-lunatics is just to appreciate the beauty that is here — in our surroundings and from our fellow man.
I’ve always appreciated the technical aspects of poetry but have never really appreciated poetry itself. I never saw the point. But as a writer, I can understand how difficult true poetry is. I can understand it is more than the meshing or rhyming of words into clever or witty phrases. I can appreciate that for a true poet, writing a poem is akin to bloodletting. The poet is letting something out that is inherent to them. They open up something private or personal, like opening a wound.
I came to that conclusion after reading “Men at Forty” by Donald Justice. He was born forty years before me but we have trod in the same dirt. Born in Miami, he died in Iowa City, just 25 miles from where I, up until recently, lived. In that poem, I realized that poets lay bare their souls. Whether the words appear by necessity or by force is irrelevant. The words cast light on parts of the human soul that rarely see light. But that is the ability of poets. Selfishly, because I saw myself in Justice’s poem, I now appreciate poetry in ways that I could not previously. Because of distraction or because I simply convinced myself I was too busy, I did not appreciate the simple beauty of poetry and in seeing life through the eyes of the poet. Justice turned on a light in my soul.
He speaks of men at forty seeing themselves in the mirror — remembering the boy, but seeing the man. Looking in the mirror, I see something different. I see that I am the 12-year-old boy of adulthood. At the age of 12, most boys are — well — less than attractive. Different parts grow at different paces and the result is something of an oddity. Boys of that age are slowly becoming men yet are still very much children. They are gawky and irregular. In the mirror, I see a parallel. I am an older man, but not yet an old man. Wrinkles mark my face. My hair is thinning, but not yet gone or even gray. I am standing on the cusp between being a man and being an old man. I don’t belong solely to either world — nor do I look right in either.
But that is life. It is and has been a good life. There have been ups and downs like most lives, but I’ve never had to encounter a suicide bomber or grapple for gruel just to survive at a Saharan Desert feeding station. Any woes I feel will not slow down the unrelenting cosmic steamroller that is history. My life is essentially a blip in time. I can make of it what I choose. For all of us, it will always end the same.
And to that end, poet T.S. Eliot has already tried to say as much. In No. 4 of Four Quartets, Little Gidding, Eliot wrote:
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.
And so it shall. Please say hi to your neighbor for me. Tomorrow we’ll get to work.
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