Picturing: Ghosts

1,140 total words    

5 minutes of reading

I. to raise a ghost: to cause it to appear (Oxford English Dictionary).

To get this perspective,
     you must have wealth or wings.

II. The soul or spirit, as the principle of life; also ghost of life. Obs. exc. in phrase to give up (†earlier to give, give away, yield up) the (†one’s) ghost: to breathe one’s last, expire, die.

Three hundred-and-ten-million
     years ago,

     birds and humans shared
          a common ancestor.

    Take for evidence: we,
    in rhinestoned skins,
    recognizing ourselves
    in feathered ones
    recognizing themselves
    reflected in      mirrors, and,
    of course, in    beings
    teaching and taught
    to sing,                     pitching ahead

    as remembering.

Two million
    years ago,

    Peregrine falcons, like
    animated pollen
    wind dispersed
    from the family tree,
    braved, keen-eyed,
    unnamed Earth,           plunging
    into shaggy tundra, tropics
    bronzed by dusk,
    erupting sea islands
    adrift from skyey plain
    to forest-spiced cliff,
    and, at that time,
    in Africa, lived
    a chewingmachine,
    shady cousin of humanity,
    whose strapping jaws outgrew
    an appetite for everything,
leaving no survivors.

    Our hominin ancestors,
                                on the other hand,

    moved on with two feet,
    crunching termites with
    small canine teeth and
    fleshy tongues sucking
    flower buds nourished
    infant brains, who grew
    to wonder at shiny things,
    at their own wonder, and
    to dream of giraffes,
                                of running so fast,

Two-hundred thousand
    years ago,

                our species emerged. Lenape,
    who first arrived on this hilly place,
    called it their word,
                “Mannahatta,” where
    generations of Peregrines
    had hatched from
    sturdy-shell eggs laid
    in shady rock crags
    above the river
    that flows both ways,
                “Shatemuk” —
                            “Waiiiiik!” [1]
    the falcons scream—
                            through air,
                bulleting faster than the coming Express
    to talon-catch—slower birds
    on wing—
                now late Passenger
                pigeons, Mourning doves,
                Black-crowned night
                Blue jays,
                    White-throated sparrows,[2]
                        who learned first to sing,
                        still, in boreal’s summer,[3] conduct
                            midnight sun soul                to city
                            in dark mid-winter,
                            notes sparkling like
                            spruce tree lights
                                            jazz      ing
                            with silver trumpets
                            in Central Park.

 III. ghost-land

After other races vanished the Lenape
    with their words, they renamed the place
    “Central Park,” where
marshy blueberry thickets
grew in sea-salt air—     but not much longer—
over creek-gurgling schist, feeding
fed Raccoons and Meadow voles,
potato-famined Irish pig farmers
and German gardeners, in a free Black village
with three churches, and their school’s
Holy children wore cloth shoes
with leather soles. Red maple
    leaves turned
                red in fall and fell
then,      greened again in spring      overhead
trees’ clapping boughs the very                     stars
re-constellated in tune with the
mappists’ imagination—     grid lines
glittering gold on clear nights,
as subway lines
    carrying creamy-stockinged fares
to plays at
the Century Theater
between 62nd and 63rd Streets
on Central Park West.

    The theater’s greatest success was
Eleonora Duse, who, in 1923, aging,
one year before her death,
happily exited gloomy Europe,
    sailing to New York, where
she acted Mrs. Helen Alving’s part
in Henrik Ibsen’s


 [Muffled laughter of a young woman and man in another room.]

MRS. ALVING:  [Looks to the wall.] We are all of us ghosts. [Wrings her hands.]

[ELEONORA DUSE peers out the window, noticing the manner of people walking in the park. She thinks gratefully about the youthful innocence of a nation virgin to the horrors of invasion.]

ELEONORA DUSE:  There is something so buoyant. [Looks in the mirror hung on the wall, affixes her charcoal-wool hat with a crystal-head pin.]

IV. Philos. the ghost in the machine: Gilbert Ryle’s name for the mind viewed as separate from the body

Egg yolk is the color
of Peregrine toes, feet
of sleek-bulk
like a man wearing
well-fitting, four-fingered
leather work gloves
with long black nails,
smooth                sharp
as a saber tooth
hooks winged prey.
A darting bill-bite      severs
cervical vertebrae; he
delivers the plumy-puppet
meal to his mate.
    Clutch to clutch three
dangle-dance in mid-air
to mooring ledge where,
three into one,
she plucks and tears
flesh and eats,
    between wails
as he takes her back,
            flapping wings,
                            but for one nuzzling thing,
talons drawn in. 

Dark-artery breasts
turn brooding menace. Strangely,
as it appeared, the remedy
for bug-vectored disease
and crop pests was
feathered phantom
meat salted with
war-borne technology.

First swimmers
in original seas—
mute hearts—
slick out
of warm
flecked shells,
suddenly, a slight
barb’s breadth
too-thin for

V. the ghost walks (Theat. slang): there is money in the treasury, the salaries are forthcoming.

The steel-girded, masonry
Century Theater,
as it was widely recognized,
had “deadening acoustics.”

In 1930, after a mere
twenty-two years running,
the unprofitable Beaux-Arts
venue was razed.

In its place,
the Century Apartments raised luxury
again, despite the Great Depression.
The building towers Art Deco-confidently
as a well-lit, homey cliff, welcoming prosperity
restored with Peregrines, captive-bred
and released, safe from DDT,
an abundance of
rock doves to eat, yet,
with few sheltering
for nest scrapes.

    Window ledges,
fresh laid eggs—
breast-sturdy shells regained—
                                                                                        to lashed-up wind and rain,
    elliptical geometry

                                to rolling, and—
    not sturdy enough for this—

                so many feet,
                on crowded sidewalks
                pancaked with chewed up gum,
                and      cast off plastic bags  
                                                        float east
across the street
                             to flap from trees,
                                                                        most spookily at night,
                             in Central Park, where
                                                                        black nannies                charged
                                                                        with white babies in strollers

VI. Sc. ‘A piece of dead coal, that instead of burning appears in the fire as a white lump’ (Jamieson).

    In the spring of 2014,
    a parking lot magnate
    and his wife,
    a gravel-filled box
    to the brick outside
    their 32nd floor
    Century Apartment

Two obsidian-eyed
nestlings fledged,
according to
landmark law,

That fall,
building management
said breeding ground
for predatory rebels
from that high ledge,
to which the parent birds,
quiver (again) quenched,
maintain fidelity.

The following week,
    in September,
            on the day of the parade,
this announcement:
    Appreciating the burning irony,
    John D. Rockefeller, Senior’s
    also philanthropic heirs—living
    the oil magnate’s hope for,
    in his own words,
                   “efficiency in giving
                    so that wealth may be
                    of greater use
                    to the present and
                    future generations”—
    inspired by a movement of
    that future’s fiercely
    present “Y”s
                    —will divest from
              their corporate legacy,
    aiming to keep carbon,
    good as gold, unburned,
    in the ground.
                    It is                                          “schizophrenic,”
                    their spokesperson said,                                   to maintain “investments
                                                undermining our grants.”

For all time,
    as far as we can see,
    the laws of physics say,
                    greenhouse gases
                    in the air—
                    carbon atoms with
                    two “O”s—
sucked hard
                    by        sun-flecked plants
long dead      (some
        chewed to flesh)
pressed to Earth
                        in quickoil breath
                        fossil           haunts
                        spiriting             again
                                                                            into the air—do
                        concrete,                soured sea,
                                                    crystal ice,
                        and naked soil,
                                                                                        the ecosphere

    the human species—          we running matters
                    high on
                ridged   fat-rich
                                     brains—        full of a certain ingenuity,
                                                                                now live in a different time
                                                                                on a different planet that
                                                                                need new names—for
                                                                                a self-made      mirror of ourselves
                                                                                              mirroring ourselves shading
                                                                                                            fierce green fires,
                                                                                                                        of glimpses
                                                                                                                        dimming, and
                                                                                                                        not dead.

VII. Television. A displaced repeated image on a television screen caused by a duplicate signal travelling by a longer path.

To blame the world,
    is to condemn ourselves.

VIII. ghost-dancers

September 21, 2014:
People’s Climate
south on
Central Park West@ 62nd and 63rd.


A Peregrine falcon
is perched
on the high ledge
too far overhead
for those on the street
to notice. No human being
knows what that bird
is seeing.

Of the 400,000 people
on the ground,
        over 50,000 are the Millennials,
                    the original human generation
                                born tongue-first      singing,
                                                “climate justice, now,”
into a shrinking   or is    it      an      expanding       world,
whose clenchedteeth
        dreams glimpse the stellar                                                                      Cosmos
        with scientific wonder,
giraffes, and,
        whose members know,
        in surprising, complex detail, that
                    to celebrate                            Earth—
                                                each and every other tangled other—is
                    to exalt
        our                   human selves
                                                                            pitching ahead

counting down . . . [4]
                                    as remembering
                                                                            silence . . . [5]
and a swell of voices.[6]

The young paint themselves pink, green, black, gold—
if you are old, they may paint you, too—and
dance buoyantly, music-footed gripping
shards of glass and oily pavement.
Resist not to resist. We will sweat
for as long as light lasts—
suns or moons. See your self
reflecting in others’ eyes
recognizing you likewise
as the mirroring other.
Flip that silvery drone
in pale clouds overhead,
but know the birds,
the extinct ones, too, even
their songs—Get
                                    carried           away,
artery-red, bare-breasted, sometimes
    clapping hands or
clasping hands or hand-like
    limbs, being wide-awake, re-named
    on the barren inside’s edge,
                                                snatching               that ghost
of a chance.


[1] Recording: http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/136378  (MP3 version without announcement in process).

[2] Recording attached to accompanying email. Same as link http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/15574/zonotrichia-albicollis-white-throated-sparrow-united-states-new-york-arthur-allen, but without announcement.

[4] MP3 recording attached to email of countdown, silence, and cheer at the People’s Climate March.

[5] MP3 recording attached to email of countdown, silence, and cheer at the People’s Climate March.

[6] MP3 recording attached to email of countdown, silence, and cheer at the People’s Climate March.

Thanks to the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for permission to replay peregrine falcon (catalog number 136378)  and  white-throated  sparrow  (catalog  number  136378)  recordings;  and  special  thanks  to  audio  production  engineer  Matthew Young of the Macaulay Library for his technical help in editing the recordings.

  • Julianne Lutz Warren

    Julianne Lutz Warren authored Aldo Leopold's Odyssey. Her other writings and activism also advance generativity—humanity's responsibility for others in the world-of-life.

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