creative writing


Research has been at the core of my poetic work for the past 15 years—largely because it gives me the chance to pursue questions of language while I pursue a subject in the world at large that interests me.

image_pdfSave to PDFimage_printPrint

Ghosted Mirror

of the double layer             they used to place the reflective material
directly against the clear glass        off-set        in accelerated tangent

of the splintered           and drifted           in which something shifts
from one            to what opened            a door             most ghosts

are like water          colorless and clear          if you look at a mirror
edge on               there is someone at the door              as you stood

at the mirror and adjusted your hair              the door reflected there
swung back                             while the one behind you stayed shut

Ghost Stories

Edith Wharton      standing at the open window      said a woman is a mansion      and half the rooms
unentered                and lost                 in the rooms                it’s the soul that splits                into

times you don’t recognize            that the soul squanders            or is squandered             by curtains
she couldn’t sleep for the terror                    of knowing there was a book of ghost stories downstairs

in the library          would burn all morning         all her own, like James’, are relentlessly ambiguous
one believer             and one in his bones               transparent as lightning              against a garden

that swerves       as a child        she lay dying        as a woman        full of trees        it is always love
that steps into absence            in the hall, decked out in the palest of cream, of ecru, of ivory, of bone

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 therefore inherited, especially through dancing, in which one dies for a minute

        Then saw I                the many plainly

Wovoka’s vision of non-violent 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.

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 some 25,000 records       ashless        the voices; we have come no closer

that blank that stills 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.


The man simply walked through her she said                  she saw him coming and felt
at an intersection                        standing on a corner                          a man slipped

over traffic, a woman      sensed his fingers      “inside my chest”      a caress of which
I think he was completely unaware           he never even saw me          until he passed

and then was scared.       And silently         trailing through me         Will you ever be
a sound in an empty house              an inexplicable mark that, washed off, grows dark


Statement of Poetic Research

Cole Swensen

Research has been at the core of my poetic work for the past 15 years—largely because it gives me the chance to pursue questions of language while I pursue a subject in the world at large that interests me. As far as questions of language go, one that’s always in my mind is how poetic language differs from all other uses of language—what can poetic language do that other language can’t? And what can poetic language do for a research project? For one, it has qualities, such as greater ambiguity, more flexible syntax, and a focus on image, that can evoke things that cannot be said, and so can point to aspects of a subject that can’t be stated.

I thought about these aspects of language very much in this current project on ghosts because ghosts are themselves so ambiguous, so difficult to talk about. Even for people who’ve seen them, they resist description, and certainly resist explanation. So I wondered whether poetic language could address aspects of ghosts and ghostliness that more direct language could not.

I wanted to explore ghosts first from a sense of their communal basis, the sense of their being a sort of communal hallucination, even though they’re almost always experienced individually—and what does the individual experience of a communal creation say about isolation? What do ghosts in general say about isolation and about our inability to share some of the deepest of our problematic emotions, such as grief and guilt?

In doing the research, I used two sources: interviews with people I ran across in my everyday life, and ghost stories that I found in books. I was curious to see what the differences in these two different narrative structures would be—the first is the narrative of experience, while the second is the narrative of invention, and the ghosts we invent through literature can be and are sculpted to serve certain social functions. I found that the ghost stories I encountered in books routinely had a shape curving from a beginning through rising tension to a resolution, be it good or bad, and that the ghosts that drive them have a moral role and purpose. On the other hand, the ghosts actually experienced by the people I talked to had no message, no moral point, and no role in anything but their own movements and gestures, and their sightings were simply that: fleeting glimpses without narrative arc or dramatic development. Ghosts actually encountered seemed to be ends in themselves, and this very refusal to mean anything beyond themselves perhaps incites the people who see them to create the meanings that the ghosts themselves can’t provide. This has an echo, above all, in language, those series of articulations uttered out of immediate experience that, over millennia, have been made to mean more than themselves.



image_pdfSave to PDFimage_printPrint