Poetry, Pedagogy, and Ectoplasm

 

I was just outed as a ghost-whisperer in Amy Balfour’s article about campus spirits. Balfour recounts several spooky stories about the building I teach in, Payne Hall, on the south end of Washington and Lee University’s historic colonnade, in a Civil-War-haunted town where garage doors are left open for spectral horses. My involvement in the local supernatural scene is entirely the fault of a certain formalist poet, friend of former Shenandoah editor James Boatwright.

I’ve never managed to shoehorn James Merrill’s whole Ouija-inspired opus, The Changing Light at Sandover, into a syllabus, but I have taught its first, best section several times. Once I assigned “The Book of Ephraim” in a first-year composition course during Hell Week. I do not recommend this. In upper-level courses, though, it works brilliantly. There’s a lot to talk about: wizardly formalism, genre slippage, occult collaboration, and all the fascinating ways U.S. history intersects with the book’s central romance, Merrill’s partnership in love and séances with David Jackson. One spring term, I threw the sequence into an island-of-misfit-toys seminar, something devised to fill a gap in our English offerings. I brought in a Parker Brothers Ouija board to illustrate the work’s structure. Pleas ensued: “Professor Wheeler! Can we have a séance?”

Dizzied by visions of parents protesting my satanic lesson plans, I agreed to a strictly voluntary spiritualist date with several students. We met after a lecture one May evening in what was then Payne 21, the spacious second-floor classroom where Robert E. Lee was inaugurated president of the college. I thought my skepticism would dampen the party but Aisha promised results. Andrea assumed the role of note-taker; she’d promised her mother never to touch a Ouija board. Eric, on the verge of academic suspension, seemed subdued. Allison, Briana, and I were giddy. As we sat on the floor in the dark, breathing loudly, our fingers touching on the planchette, I thought, This is really inappropriate.

Then the pointer started lurching around. I was surprised by everything it “said” and wondered if someone were consciously pushing it or if our involuntary movements and secret wishes might be driving the game. I never figured it out, but either we became more proficient or the spirits became surer, faster. As I told Balfour, we “talked” to a soldier who admired Stonewall Jackson’s daughter, then to Jackson himself, who grumbled about teaching cadets but who had cheered up significantly in the afterlife. I didn’t reveal that Merrill showed up and Allison asked him to be reincarnated as her firstborn (he seemed agreeable).

I also withheld information about the final voice. Someone asked if there were any unhappy spirits around and the skittering pointer landed on YES. The interrogators circled in on his identity through a series of questions: was he a student? Had he taken a class with Wheeler? Suddenly I was thinking of a young man I taught in Payne Hall years before these ghost hunters enrolled. When I learned of this student’s death, my own son had just been born. I never wrote the bereaved parents about what a bright, funny, promising kid their son was. Was the board reminding me of how guilty I felt? Maybe Eric’s struggles had jogged the memory loose?

NO, this visitor didn’t like any of the readings I’d assigned; this amused my current students, but I was indignant. I couldn’t remember what I’d been teaching that term. When someone asked the topic, the planchette zoomed around so fast I couldn’t follow it. The group broke into laughter; I looked into each of their shadowy faces, waiting for someone to tell me what he’d said. Finally, Andrea sheepishly read from her notes. “He said, ‘FAG ENGLISH.’”

You can see why I never pulled off a decent poem about this incident. That’s a lousy punchline for an iambic pentameter Merrill imitation by a straight woman. I checked afterwards and the course was a single-author seminar on Emily Dickinson. “Fag English” could refer to Dickinson’s sexuality, or Merrill’s, or it could mock our own alienated nerdiness—we were, after all, spending our evening trying to talk to a dead poet—but in any case, that’s an obnoxious answer. You can’t just leave it there. And Aisha channeling Jackson talking about Obama in the heart of the Confederacy—there’s clearly a racial current in this anecdote. I can’t write a good poem about it, though, if I can’t imagine that current’s outlet, its destination.

My spiritualists are out there delivering on all their nerdy potential, though. Eric worked hard during his suspension, graduated on time, and is in law school; Briana will soon have an M.D. if she doesn’t already; I’m pretty sure Allison has not yet procreated. Meanwhile, I disposed of the silent record albums long stored in a Payne Hall closet and we all cleared out for the building’s renovation. The building is light and peaceful now, and I’m teaching Rafael Campo in the séance room. My connection to this batch of students is a little staticky and I’m plagued by echoes of the ones who have moved on. Still, even though I’ve just been called back from sabbatical paradise, I’m happier than the ghost of Stonewall. We’re at that point past midterms when the best conversations happen—looser, but better-informed and smarter than in the early weeks. The planchette just flies around, as if I’m not in charge at all.

Lesley Wheeler

 

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About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.

 

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