DeWitt Henry

On Ghosts

Ghosts haunt guilty dreams,
Richard’s and Brutus’s,
though no one else can see
other than the audience.  Horatio  
speaks to the ghost on the battlement,
yet only Hamlet hears its news, 
its call for revenge.
Then in the closet scene, the ghost
appears to be Hamlet’s hallucination.  
“Whereon do you look?”
his mother asks, and Hamlet: 
“Do you see nothing there?”

Banquo’s ghost unmans Macbeth,
prompting his outcry before guests: 
“Shake not thy gory locks at me!” 
And his Lady’s hushed rebuke:  
“You look but on a stool.”
The audience of course, looks on
actors (the Lady, a boy),
props and stage.  Director’s choice
whether to show the ghost or not.

Shakespeare’s ghosts suit all
the critics argue.  A skeptic,
Catholic, or Protestant
would each leave the Globe
with her/his idea of ghosts confirmed.

We’re spooked by needing 
more to love than death.

Horatio asks the ghost
Why do you come back?
To pass on clues to buried
treasure?  To forewarn?

In James Agee’s  
A Death in the Family (1957), 
Jay’s wife Mary is mourning 
with family when they all sense 
a presence, which she knows as his.  
“Stay near us all you can…” she tells him;
“[The children are] all right, my sweetheart,
my husband.  I’m going to be all right.”
Hallucination the others think.
Thought transference. 

Paranormal researchers call such visits
“crisis apparitions,” theorizing
they might be telepathic signals 
sent while dying; or perhaps 
“produced unconsciously by mourners 
to console themselves.”  Others
consider them “guardian angels
sent to comfort the grieving.”
No one has hard proof.

Psychics, swamis, fortune tellers,
spiritualists and voodooists abound.
Virginia Woolf ’s Mrs. Ramsey
(modeled on her mother)
is still a unifying force
ten years after her death;
brings her scattered family 
together to resume their expedition 
to the lighthouse.  
“If they shouted loud enough 
Mrs. Ramsey would return,” 
thinks Lily Briscoe, her friend.  

Spooky!  Spooked.
Cartoons make the afterlife 
cute in Casper’s case,
though the Friendly Ghost
died as a child.  He interacts
with mortals.  Floats around
and passes through walls.
He seeks playmates.

Ghost in the machine 
(a closed-circuit TV 
in the case of Almereyda’s ).

For romance, we’ve got
Bruce Rubin’s Ghost (1990),
invoking wishful lore such
as spirits learning to kick cans
and borrow living bodies. 
Hence Whoopi Goldberg
volunteers to be Patrick Swayze’s way
of kissing Demi Moore.  
Ghost Busters (1984),
pits a team of parapsychologists
against malevolent ghosts.
Who you gonna call?

Stephen Speilberg’s Poltergeist (1982) 
goes for horror instead of laughs.  
A greedy developer builds
tract houses over a cemetery, 
stirring spirits to attack 
one unwitting family; 
reach through TV screens, 
animate toys, and abduct 
their youngest child.

Pale as a ghost.
You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.
Not a ghost of a chance.
If he knew, he’d turn
over in his grave.
Ghost writer!  Client takes credit.

Halloween fun
with fake blood and make-up, 
sheets for costumes 
(recalling winding sheets)—
give or take the Egyptian Mummy
wrapped in Ace Bandages.

Decaying bodies.  My neighbor’s
yard decorations, tombstone with
hands reaching out of the ground

Philip Guston painted ghosts 
as convivial klansmen,
hard-drinking, burger-chomping, 
chain-smoking, free behind masks
to trade opinions about life.

The ghost of the past.  The burden
of tradition.  Great works, great lives
precede us.  Shoulders to stand on.
My father’s spirit is within me;
or my mother’s, or both, still fighting.

Spirits of absent ones
live in my heart. And mine
in theirs, to comfort and inspire.

I did hear voices once, alone,
during a long run in the Sierras:
mother, father, brothers, nephew, 
friends, all gone.  Keep going,
each said.  Do your best.

Young Hamlet 
one mission accomplished
forever haunts Horatio
restless for words.