40 YEARS OF CUTBANK: "Ghosts" by John Wesley Horton

From CutBank 77

Someday I’ll be like a prehistoric painter with a crooked finger

who left handprints on a rock face; remembered for making

a handicap into symbolism, threatened by oblivion every time

someone exhales. This is why I’d rather leave you breathless

than engage in conversation. This is how a spirit rattles chains.

Old gods challenged the imagination, visiting Earth like swans,

or else arriving like crepuscular rays, knowing dusk and dawn

to be the truest times of day. Lucretius believed all things

mattered, that even the least significant ideas were made up

of atoms. Great Caesar’s Ghost was just a film he sloughed off

like dry skin. All your recollections belong to someone else.

We know cicadas molt before they get their wings, leaving

flightless memories clinging to the trees. Lobsters must

feel the urge to come out of their shells. Maybe this is like

our need to be re-born. Maybe this is why we say we’re new

every seven years. But what is it with our interest in scars?

What about the impulse to apologize for what we can’t erase?

Captain Cook spied the sun through a state-of-the-art glass

and never discovered the secrets of Venus. But then, his sailors

returned from Polynesia with tattoos. Is it love, or the lack,

that makes us mark each other? Aeneas bore his father’s weight

in front of every conquering Greek. A microscope confirms

the wolf in every Border collie’s DNA. There’s a Trojan Horse

for you. There’s a little chimp in every Borderline personality.

Sometimes we channel our ancestors in the dining room

and wind up like F. Scott Fitzgerald in the garden eating dirt.

An Aborigine touching up ancient art will tell you spirits move

his hand. Like once I spoke to a man who said he was my dad

on a Ouija board. Once I read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians

under the influence of psilocybin. Some ghosts are better left

unread. Other ghosts are shadows of the most horrific things,

like the girl who survived My Lai pretending to be a corpse.

We can imagine so many angry ghosts. Maybe that’s why

Epicurus wanted us to believe death was the end of our days.

Maybe that’s why Yeats used his wife like a rotary phone

when he spoke with the dead. He imagined himself in death

as a mechanical bird. His readers would be voices speaking

his disembodied words. At dawn, I can’t tell the difference

between horizon and the sea. Lucretius understood the ocean

rose to fill clouds with rain. It always rains in Gothic novels.

English ghosts pass through the wainscoting. All the ghosts

are haunting future ghosts. Farm hands who listened to voices

telling them they’d be better off if they bought the farm

are buried in the cemetery with the rest. If you drive at night

you might catch a glimpse. There’s a difference between

windrows and the woods. There’s a vine wrapping the wrought

iron fence. If you appreciate someone’s work, Lucretius said,

it really is a part of them that’s gone to your head.



John Wesley Horton (aka Johnny Horton) spends many summers teaching creative writing in Rome, Italy for the University of Washington. A New Englander by birth, he grew up in the Midwest and now lives and works in Seattle. He’s recently published poems in Poetry Northwest, Borderlands, Notre Dame Review, Alive at the Center, andCity of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry (U. of Iowa).