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It took place in London at the end of the seventeenth century—a man was spending the evening at home, often thinking of a friend of his, a woman, who was very ill, worrying about her, hoping she would live, when there was a knock on the door, and she entered, looking fine, thriving, in fact, and sat down in a normal way and began a normal conversation, though she seemed a little more serious than usual until he began to cry, at which she continued quietly, discussing things of the soul, aspects of time, and he began to sob, and she continued speaking quietly, as he sobbed and sobbed, and when he finally looked up she was gone.

This story is not unusual and belongs to a subgenre in which the dead person seems to drop in on a few old friends on the way out, giving no indication that he or she has died, but stays and speaks, saying the clear water at the bottom of my hand will make a turn and my hand will go bottomless like a mirror forgets my face at the slightest glance, there

was a man              standing beside the clear water             pooled in the rock beneath a tree. The bright leaves  tore up the light  you would have seen that he was part of the light                  and asked him to help me climb down.



Sheridan Le Fanu offers a variation on this story in which the whole family hears a carriage arrive late at night, just at the time that (they later learn) their older daughter has died miles away. Even the dogs start barking, and they all clearly hear the folding down of the carriage stairs, but when they open the door, the courtyard is empty and the dogs recoil in fear.

So that the sight of anyone in an unexpected place                so that the voice now traveling alone                out on its own on a quiet day                I saw a friend I knew to be in Japan                                             I once saw my sister on a train.

Sometimes it’s only a strong resemblance, and you wonder if the person in question hasn’t had a close call, crossing the street with an absent mind, or walked out of a building just moments before it blew up. Caught a cab on the corner and never knew. It happens every day. We are made

in a thin thread             or of the line incised into the pane            which may be only a photograph, she said, whenever I look at a photograph, I see not the man who died years ago but the one who will                or in a window                 turned and touched his fingertips to his lips.



In Henry James’s version, an unnamed narrator discovers she has two good friends who’ve had the same experience—a woman whose father came to her in a gallery in Italy as he was dying in New York, and a man whose mother showed up in his rooms in Cambridge just after she’d died. Determined that her two similarly gifted friends should meet, she makes numerous plans, but oddly, something always comes up to thwart them. Finally, after she has become engaged to the male friend, our narrator decides that she really must arrange this meeting, so she fixes up something so simple that it cannot fail. However, at the last minute, she gets it: these two are destined to fall in love—there’s really no other possibility—and so she herself, and through subterfuge, prevents this last attempt. Last because, by sheer coincidence, her female friend dies that night. In the morning, overcome with guilt and remorse, the woman tells her lover what she has done, but he declares, “That’s not possible! She came to my rooms just before midnight!” The woman insists that it must have been her ghost, while the man insists that she was alive. They finally agree to disagree and get on with their lives. Except that the woman notices a change in him, and one week before the wedding, gently declares that she knows he has been keeping up a liaison with her dead friend ever since that fatal night, and though he denies it, he doesn’t do so very vigorously, and allows her to break off their engagement.
Neither, needless to say, ever marries.
And as it always is with James, we are never sure if the ghost occurred, or if the woman was not simply eaten up by a jealousy engendered by her guilt, or, much more likely, by a different jealousy, a jealousy for that other world, which her obsession with that aspect of her friends’ lives tells us she preferred to her friends all along.

James’s version is unusual too, in that it is the only ghost story I know in which a ghost is genetic, a kind of corner-of-the-eye that can’t stop in time                and heard the other arrive                though way across town  or felt a line drawn taut
and could not
respond                        although a light comes on                   all on its own
every day at just that time                time, they said                is stone. I once had a heart
made of string                                                         and hung myself, my love.



To bury the heart in one land and the hands in another says the legend, always

the heart is buried alone no matter what you    buried    the heart is a grave

in the legend                    is an hour invented                    and here the long
road lined with poplars.

I have a friend who draws nothing but clouds.       As they speed across France,

nothing is lost from view. The train was invented     to shred a sun,        to
carefully cut the blind spots out         Again,

a scene, and everything that once was light came along.     The sun is always

alone while the heart has all of France

like a stone

under the tongue

and like a stone

under the tongue      it stays aloft     despite    which buries
itself like
a face in hands

What you see

from a train is what has escaped.                                       A simple operation

in which they take out the heart and lay it on a table.   I have a friend who

had a job holding the hearts at certain points in the procedure.             They’d
literally            She actually exactly

the weight you’d think they’d be           intuitively             Trace the meridian
with a spare pair of scissors

Replace the map with a razor and an anchor. You find           you have buried

your friends in your hands.

Cole Swensen has published twenty collections of poetry, most recently And, And, And (Shearsman Books), which was long-listed for the Griffin Prize, and a volume of critical essays, Noise that Stays Noise (University of Michigan Press). She has won the Iowa Poetry Prize, the SF State Poetry Center Book Award, and the National Poetry Series and has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the LA Times Book Award. Also a translator, she has won the PEN USA Award in Translation and divides her time between Paris and the SF Bay Area.