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By Another Route
One is haunted. Haunted, one must proceed nonetheless with the courtesy of a host. One assumes the ghost is lost and needs to be helped on its way. One sees things others do not see. Or rather, one sees things that others cannot see.

One surrenders. Gives in. Is overtaken. Possessed. One learns a new language that one speaks, as one reads, silently. Words given shape in the throat and mouth but not sounded. The experience leaves one short of breath, if not breathless.

How deeply a ghost hungers. It cannot eat. If it could, it would never be sated. Exiled as it is from the past and the future, a ghost resides in the here and now. The hour slows. Hardens. As translucent as amber.


The difference between this world and the next is slight, barely noticeable, what one might call a flaw in continuity or a bad splice. There: the wheeze of a concertina. Here: a drain coming unstuck. One crosses a threshold uninvited. One, invitation in hand, knocks at the door ajar.

The uncanny, Freud says, is something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light. One can recall the view from the palmist’s window: dim, featureless, but not the fortune read aloud from one’s own hand. The gaze is always introspective: dim and featureless.

Look: the grubby dun of a penumbral nocturne. One descends in the dark to the cellar to find the fuse box. Another worn set of concrete stairs, it seems, around each corner to take one deeper down in the mountain into which the cellar is dug.


One subtracts everything that is not God and finds a minus sign. One returns to the dog-eared pages and finds little of significance. The marginalia, although cryptic, is in no way noteworthy or evocative. To find one’s way, keep the mountain to the right.

Subtracted from the inventory: three thousand hand-carved ivory beads in a Cro-Magnon grave, a sieve to separate out prime numbers, the parabolic path of Holofernes’ blood-splatter away from the Judith’s blade, Heisenberg’s formal description of the relations among perception …

If sacrifice is necessary, Ai Weiwei says, it must be accompanied by the appropriate ceremonies, as an unceremonious sacrifice is a crime against the natural world. One removes layer after layer of the shellac’s sulfurous yellow, nonetheless, the painted mountain looks like a dung heap steaming.


The ladder’s shadow, more solid than the ladder, holds up the wall. Although the days grow longer, it gets dark early these days. The expected terminus never arrives. The wall leans a little now. One can hear at the base of the falls the water mend its breakage.

Dust alights evenly: a seamless transition. No skirmishes, no scrimmages, no play on words in a room with a single chair and a sign on the door saying: Space for forgetting. Here various pasts overlap. A line contains infinite points yet reads as an incomplete sentence.

There is nothing with which the night won’t merge: conditional probability, pared-back harmonic distortions, or the vexations of a chance encounter. One can dowse for a single point of light, but find instead latent notions and primal forms. How strange, how other a body.


Objects with an unobstructed line of sight with one another are said to be intervisible. One builds a house with sticks. Light and ocean seep through seams and cracks. Sea levels rise. The weight of the land sinks. Nonetheless, the view is uninterrupted.

In Bruegel’s “Triumph of Death,” a rickety wagon full of skulls passes. Two ships sink in the offering. Death on a reddish horse hauls an oversized scythe into war. In the lower right-hand corner, somehow oblivious to the battle, a lutist serenades his beloved.

As in the lightproof box of a camera, or in the depth of a cave, one finds a dark that transcends the absence of light, a dark virtually impenetrable, a dark that warps like an opaque plasma or malleable metal to touch. Then the shutter opens.


In a dream, a yellow snake insinuates itself beneath the foot-worn marble stoop. Each flick of its tongue causes feedback and interference on the kitchen radio. When I pry up the stoop with a crowbar, the snake refuses to budge. Coils tighter.

A mere touch is enough to shimmer a plumb line. A serpent sheds its skin, but a serpent does not emerge—rather a sensation. The sensation of a thought. To liberate the unknown, one exchanges intention for chance. The day, hinged like a book, blows shut in a bluster.

One breathes in and the house fills. When the house is asleep what does the attic dream? A spell loses at last its adhesiveness thus must be spoken again. One breathes in and the house fills. When one breathes out how does the house not collapse?


One comes burdened with maps, almanacs, and field guides. The source of the river is an underworld spring. To drink from it is to drowse, to forget the difference between cause and effect and happenstance, between yesterday and a series of irrational permutations.

(The repose of sleep refreshes only the body, Bachelard says. It rarely sets the soul at rest. The repose of the night does not belong to us. It is not the possession of our being. Sleep opens within us an inn for phantoms. In the morning we must sweep out the shadows.)

The stag at the river’s edge waits with the ageless confidence of a god. It does not drink—instinct leads the herd to glacier-fed creeks and meadow ponds. One will not recall the errancy, but one recalls the thirst. Having tracked the herd this far, one gives into thirst.


The snow, earthward, is blown high again. Winter rehearses it single line of dialogue. Who can deny the ease of forgetting; deny the barbed precisions of each crystaline flake? Hidden behind gray clouds: a ruined weld of stars.

In the presence of a camera, time hesitates. It’s like that moment when the horse breaks into a gallop and one feels oneself untethered from gravity. One is not flying but falling. Call it what one has known all along. Call it the theory of unsupported transit.

Begin with a footnote. Misalign the syntax as spindrift residue, as what a body transcribes through space: an inherent ephemerality, the flux of a dance enacted, the fixed site the veering. Begin again. Draw from life as if from memory.


Looking out at the sea, one is far from home. One loses track of the truth, which has the substance of shadow, of a stain that blooms on a wetted surface. A horizontal line makes of emptiness a sky—gray hovers over gray—a record of incremental change.

One acknowledges the duration. One embellishes and mistakes the middle distance for the elsewhere of late afternoon. Looking out at sea, one is far from arresting the image, far from pinpointing the coordinates, far from completing the required reading.

One is far from home and just now beginning to appreciate the scribbled formula left up on the blackboard all semester, to appreciate the Romantic potential of the grid and the way it holds each element in place. Far from home, one loses track of the truth.


One is on a treacherous errand and finds Achilles among the breathless dead. He tries to speak but cannot. His face is a mirror of the past: blurred and distressed. One registers winter’s redundancy as the remainder of a remainder. One takes the rough path up and out.

The night leans in like a reader over a book. The reader’s own shadow make the words dim and barely legible. One is like such a reader, which is to say one is like the night. One settles into read just as the light begins its haggard retreat.

We are surrounded by curtains, Magritte says. We only perceive the world behind a curtain of semblance. At the same time, an object needs to be covered in order to be recognized at all. Yes, one can bribe the dead, sacrifice a bird or lamb, and let them wet their tongues. Yet one has come empty-handed.


With the best of intentions, one refuses to assuage a hankering. One habituates the out-of-sync background noise and hears, at last, a pulse. Don’t jinx it for me, one begs, but a spell cast cannot be uncast, only countered by a different spell.

How easily the objects become arrangements of shapes, shadows, and lines. The weather goes about its unmaking. The librettist awaits a collaborator. Awaits the interval, the harmony. Say uncle, one is commanded and one gives in, gives up, begs for mercy.

One limits the set of conventions, or limits the colors on the palette to, say, terra rosa, yellow ochre, and cobalt blue, and this, then, becomes the form, the constraint, within which and against which one works. As if by a spell, the objects reassert themselves as objects.


How to hold in mind all that might be of use: the Nile’s flood schedule, for instance, or how often to have the chimney swept? One keeps one’s eye open. The river widens, stretches toward the sea. Smoke uncoils upward like a length of rope.

If we keep the eyes open, Goethe says, in a totally dark place, a certain sense of privation is experienced. The organ is abandoned to itself; it retires into itself. The soul is dormant—suspended and asleep. Retired into itself, the eye cannot behold the soul as image or afterimage.

One attempts to fix and chart the ocean, to evaporate seawater to catalog the mineral residue. One holds one’s breath and goes under. One’s eyes adjust. But how to hold one’s breath long enough? How not to float back to the surface?


Furtive, fragile, one awaits a meaningful coincidence. Charcoal vestiges of the under-drawing muddy the clarity of the lead white. It does not take long to lapse into narrative, for the pretext to shear off the text like an iceberg from a glacier. One waits for such a coincidence.

What remains of prior decisions: erased gestures, a fault line visible at the surface. To enact a mirage, one hangs a turmeric-stained square of silk in front of a square of stark, rough white cotton canvas. To enact a monsoon, one waits like everyone else for the rain to fall.

Astray, one continues. One confesses to nostalgia, to the weight of longing. But one is merely guilty of mis-remembering. One sets out in search for the miraculous, but soon settles for trial and error. One had a plan, but returns by another route.

Eric Pankey is the author of many collections of poetry, most recently Augury (Milkweed Editions). He is the Heritage Chair in Writing and teaches in the BFA and MFA programs at George Mason University.