A ghost video on YouTube. The shadow at the center of the red circle is allegedly a ghost that haunts a train station.
A crisp autumn leaf. There’s something about fallen leaves that I’ve always been drawn to; they encompass the past and evoke a sweet nostalgia of sorts. A leaf. I would choose a leaf.
I was happily wandering around the Bennington campus back in October, trying to decide what natural object I would bring back to the poet Dorothea Lasky’s Ghost Class. I wasn’t sure if I had fully grasped what Lasky had announced two hours earlier, when the class had started: that imagination is a physical space. I was fixated on finding the perfect natural object that would have belonged to the ghost of the twenty-seven-year-old Jewish man I had been imagining. Settling on a leaf from an apple tree, I went back to join the rest of the class in Cricket Hill Barn.
Dorothea Lasky—“Dottie” to anyone who knows her—came to campus this fall to read from her latest collection of poetry, Rome (Liveright, 2014), take part in a public dialogue with literature faculty members Mark Wunderlich and Michael Dumanis, and teach a class called “The Materiality of the Imagination”—otherwise known as Ghost Class. It was all a part of Poetry at Bennington, the program that brings four prominent poets to campus each term for readings and brief residencies.
Dorothea Lasky has a strong presence. When she takes center stage, the room grows silent and eager to hear her speak. Inspired by her work, fourteen other curious students and I had signed up for her Ghost Class. There were no requirements to attend. You simply signed up first. Lasky lectured a bit, showed videos, and gave us assignments as the class proceeded. We had to write three different poems. Dottie provided the guidelines. The writing assignments didn’t have much in common except that they were all about ghosts.
Dorothea Lasky takes a selfie
Sure, I was weirded out when the class began with videos from the internet of encounters with ghosts. I’ve never been a fan of horror movies, and watching one YouTube ghost video after another wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for a poetry class. But the experience of Lasky’s Ghost Class was special in a number of ways. Seldom do visiting poets offer a special class for students. And even more seldom—as in, never before—has the class happened to be about ghosts. I wasn’t the only one who felt disturbed after watching a clip from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Some shut their eyes tight, in order to erase the image from their heads. Others grinned, enjoying the wickedness of it all. I even contemplated leaving the class at one point, but I knew the subject—materiality and the imagination—was a grand one, so I decided to stay even if it meant sitting through more ghost videos and being scared.
Like most classes at Bennington, Ghost Class was intimate. Lasky shared her experience of first seeing a ghost while she was a teacher-in-residence in Italy. One of her students had seen the same ghost too. Had the ghost really existed? Or was it just a figment of their imaginations? Nonetheless, they had had shared the same imaginative space. It turned out that poets who don’t believe in ghosts, and ghost believers who aren’t poets, have much more in common than one may think. Poetry, like a ghost-hunting, allows us to share an imaginative space. A space that is very real for us. A physical space. Poetry offers us the gift to turn this imaginative space into a place where things, and objects, and people, last forever. We can revisit this space, share it, and expand it with every word we write.
Ghost hunting on YouTube
Hearing this description from Lasky, we wrote fervently that day about the ghosts of our imaginations. At the beginning of the class Dottie had given us two objects. One that belonged to someone who had passed away a long time ago, and another that belonged to someone who was still alive. We weren’t told which belonged to whom. They were tiny, adorable, and eerie objects: a small horse covered in glitter glue, and a rubber scorpion. I chose the horse. Perhaps the glitter reminded me of the afternoons I’d spent decorating notebooks and greeting cards as a child, or perhaps it was because I was attracted to shiny objects, the grandeur and grace of a horse. The only memory I associated with the scorpion, other than a horrid scene in the movie The Mummy Returns, was the lizard that had crept through the exhaust fan and fallen on top of me when I was seven, causing me to lose the pleasure of taking a bath at my grandmother’s house without straining my neck and getting anxious searching for wild reptiles.
We were supposed to imagine the dead owner of the object we’d chosen, and describe them in detail. After having contemplated his weight, the time period he had lived in, and the three most important people in his life, in addition to other trivial details, I felt like I knew the ghost well enough to write about him. I concluded the task by writing a love poem in which the ghost I had imagined—the ghost who was now staring at me from the corner of the room—picks up the object that does not belong to him and brings it to someone he had loved while he or she is sleeping. I had spent time seeing the world through the ghost’s eyes, and I was ready to share this imagined space with readers. So I wrote this poem, in the words of my ghost:
Oh, beloved daughter of Solomon.
I bring to you on this lovely autumn evening
blessings from the shire.
Remember the night when we lay with our arms open by the stormy seaside
and somewhere, in the middle of the night
the desert’s demon came to bite you?
My sweet angel,
I would wrap you in my arms
in the linen hammock
As leaves swayed away and upon us,
amid the rust, yellow, and green
I found you, my dear Irene.
Come back to me, come back to me,
this waiting has gone on for far too long.
I finished the poem and left the class feeling a little weirded out. A different kind of weird than I had felt at the beginning. A little enchanted, with Lasky’s words of advice still ringing in my ears:
“If you love someone, and they die, make them come alive in a poem. Read a poem again and the dead don’t have to be gone. I promise you this much. Think of it another way. Read a poem. Then you won’t have to be gone one day, too. To hell and back again, I send you!”
A video of Lasky reading her poem “Death and Sylvia Plath”: