Poetry, Pedagogy, and Ectoplasm

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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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4 Responses to Poetry, Pedagogy, and Ectoplasm

  1. Rod Smith says:

    I’m never quite certain where psychology leaves off and the psychic begins, or even if there is a where, but Lesley’s post about the Quija reminds me how few humans can survive without some sense of the numinous, whether it’s addressed through convention, the unorthodox, the completely eccentric (“wild nights, wild nights”). Her description of the ritual and protocols also reminds me how, yearning for the mysterious, we approach it through the known and the disciplined — here’s how the planchette is held, here’s the way the alphabet is arranged, here are the actions likely to scuttle a reading. We so often hear the name of this board as weeja, it’s easy to forget that it’s oui – ja: yes yes, as if to insist that the portal is there, if only we’ll concentrate and listen.

    As usual, this brings me back to the art of writing. We have our protocols, our lore, our conventions: a sonnet’s thrust and counter-thrust, lunge and parry operate this way; a tragedy’s movements are orchestrated like that. But we’re always hoping that our “craft and sullen art” will lead us to the unknown. As Heaney says, “All I know is a door into the dark.” The Ouija ceremonies sound like another door. For my money, there can’t be too many of them.

  2. Davis Enloe says:

    Which raises for me the question of why some people choose or seem to need art as a tool for seeking this portal. Otto Rank felt that neurosis was not a failure in sexuality but a failure in creativity. He explained the impulse to create “as the struggle of the individual against an inherent striving after totality, which forces him equally in the direction of a complete surrender to life and a complete giving of himself in production.” To me this sounds an awful lot like the surrender of the individual in relationship to others, to work, to a Divine power, and perhaps ultimately to death; and if your beliefs are Christian, immortality? In art, are we trying to immortalize our own mortality? And don’t we do this again and again with every new artistic creation? Which brings up other intriguing questions. Are humans more biological than theological? Which is to ask, are we humans wired to believe in something greater than ourelves? Are we wired to always seek our cosmic identity, the one we lost at birth? OR, are we not wired at all, but are in fact only separated from what lies on the far side of the portal by our inabilities to perceive what is always there, has always been there? Is this where the unifying act of artistic creation comes in? Rank felt that the unity of art work “implies a spiritual unity between the artist and the recipient . . . the potential restoration of a union with the cosmos which once existed and was then lost.”

  3. Pingback: Poetry, Pedagogy, and Ectoplasm | the cave, the hive

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