on hauntings and synchronicity

This is a disjointed, meandering, incomplete post on the subject of hauntings and synchronicity. Thanks to Deborah Poe for allowing me to use the transcript of her 2010 AWP panel, A Chorus of Hauntings, and to Marcia Giri for her video of Kampung Lama revisited, 2011.

I first encountered Deborah Poe, author of the poetry collections Elements (Stockport Flats Press 2010),  Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords 2008), and several chapbooks, as the ficiton editor of Drunken Boat.  Not because she wanted a piece of my fiction. Because the editorial team was seeking a fiction reader to join their staff.

I wrote Deborah a letter, introducing myself. She asked me to tell her something about my reading interests and where I situate myself aesthetically. Situate myself aesthetically? I responded with an excerpt from an essay I had just read by Tobias Wolff, “Reconsidering Paul Bowles” (Narrative, February 2011), presuming that she would be able extract from it something about who I am, what matters to me, “where I situate myself aesthetically”:

In the thirty-five years between The Delicate Prey and his death in 1999, Bowles published some twenty books–books of stories, books of poems, travel books, translations, novels, and autobiographies. He also did duty as a modern scribe, writing down the life stories of interesting but unlettered men and publishing them under their names as well as his, a practice that, if generally observed, would leave many novelists with nothing whatever to call their own.

And what books they are! The novels and stories come to you from every direction, told from the points of view of men, women, Europeans, Arabs, priests, lunatics, murderers, merchants, beggars, animals, and spirits–[. . .]

His talents are at once austere, witty, violent and sensuous. They move with the inevitablitiy of myth. His language has a purity of line, a poise and authority entirely its own, capable of instantly modulating from farce to horror without a ruffle and without giving any signal of delight in itself. It never goes on parade. [. . .]

I have the feeling that Paul Bowles was not much disturbed by the ebb and flow of reputation. I didn’t know him, but I know his work, and there’s a telling calmness in its attention to flapping arms and strident voices. Better to take the long view, like the old Arab whom Bowles saw lose a fingertip in a truck door: He looked at it an instant, then quietly scoooped a handful of that ubiquitous dust, put the two parts of the finger together and poured the dust over it, saying softly, ‘Thanks be to Allah.’

Which perhaps was another way of saying that, as a reader, I gravitate towards the spiritual, the understated, things wabi sabi, the plain lit by lightning, and run for cover when I encounter flapping arms and strident voices.

I noticed that I was nervous as I awaited her assessment of my suitablity for Drunken Boat. Was surprised, frankly, when she told me that she would like me to join. I always imagine my taste is going to be thought too conventional, too conservative. Perhaps because my mother was visiting.

As I waited, interested in learning something about her, fiction editor of Drunken Boat that she was, I poked around a bit and in short shrift found the transcript of a panel discussion she led at the 2010 AWP Conference, A Chorus of Hauntings. In the following days I found myself not only absorbed by its subject, but thinking about the word synchronicity.

* * *

A Chorus of Hauntings: AWP Panel, February 2010, Deborah Poe


Because I had been reading Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, it dawned on me that notions of haunting frequently inhabit responses to haunting across genres—both in theory and in practice. Avery Gordon writes: “…haunting…is often a seething presence…the ghost is…the sign…that tells you a haunting is taking place. The ghost is not simply a dead or a missing person, but a social figure, and investigating [that social figure]…lead[s] to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life…The way of the ghost is haunting, and haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening.”

* * *

It was early February. I had been taking note of the weather:

Ice bright day. I open the door to snow falling. Grainy spheres of ice pelt the top of my head. Collect in the goat path the dogs have tracked to the fence. 20 degrees F feels like 13. In my room, shadow and light tremble on the nubby white paint of the wall.

I also had begun noticing and taking note of the repeated call of an owl in the middle of the night.

As I mentioned, my 89-year-old mother was visiting. We often sat up late. When we ran out of things to talk about, she told family stories. One night she told me about my grandmother’s older brother who had raised her when their father, my grandmother’s father, abandoned the family. When the father left, he moved to a town in Texas near Austin. Gonzales, Texas.

My mother when she speaks can go on and on. Frequently I grow impatient. And then it occurs to me that no one alive knows what she has told me. If I don’t listen, if I don’t remember, no one will ever know.

* * *

I first approached the writers for this panel for the ways in which their work engages issues of haunting(s) [. . .] I wanted to consider writing that bears witness to the “seething” and “muted presences” of which Gordon speaks. I wanted to create, here, a chorus of hauntings.

* * *

I want to begin with my own tale of haunting. [. . .] I’ve used the chapter headings of Avery Gordon’s text as section headings of this short piece because I find them so provocative and appropriate.

her shape and his hand

At the end of my third to last semester of graduate studies in 2005, my grandfather was pronounced terminally ill. My grandfather was an electrician who had set aside college funds for all of his grandchildren from their birth. I left New York to spend the summer helping to care for him. I had arranged to teach in China that summer, and was wavering by June. A PET scan showed 80% of his lung blackened with cancer. My grandfather insisted I fulfill this obligation, and so I left for China in early July.

During the end of the first week of teaching, the head of the school Tim took me out to lunch. On the way, we road along West Lake—one of the most beautiful places in Hangzhou that reminded me so much of Seattle. We walked across a small bridge with small minnows below in the water to a teahouse. It was not so hot yet, Hangzhou was still enjoying some cool with the third day of grey— the edge of the Thailand typhoon sweeping rain and strong breezes through the city for the previous two days.

Tim said we were going to take tea—in the traditional style and that he was going to play teacher for a moment. He explained the best tea leaves, are the small leaves picked at the right moment. Leaves in three. Not too large, not ripped, not burned. We waited for the first more bitter cup to steep, served in a glass—clear glass so that you could see the tea. Plates of fruit and nuts came. Small saucer size plates, over 20 of them—bananas, melon, huge grapes, peaches, pistachios, peanuts and wonton soup too.

Tim began to tell me of a friend he had. They went to tea in almost every teahouse in Hangzhou together. I asked him why they had stopped having tea, if they’d exhausted all the possibilities of teahouses and lost interest. He told me she had died of cancer. He then told me my grandfather passed away, fast and peacefully the day before. My mother had e-mailed him and asked him to tell me in person.

When I returned to Texas I had obviously missed the funeral, and I made a sculpture as memorial to put at his grave. I built the sculpture with a breaker box. I glued 33 buttons and rocks representing his children, his grandchildren and his wife.


Outside with my cousin Sheryll and her baby Landon, on a hot Texas afternoon I looked at the sculpture again and saw a bird. A blue parakeet peered up at us.

the other door, its floods of tears with consolation enclosed

The bird began its half flight moving towards up in a swooping. But it frightened Landon. I told Sheryll to watch the bird for a second while I ran to some of the neighbors. There aren’t many. This is Gonzales, Texas, at the edge of the small, red-dirt windmill town and with half-acre tracts originally called homesteads. There was no answer at either of the houses behind my grandparents’ house.

At another final swoop, my cousin and her son went inside. It was too much for Landon, and I asked Sheryll to get me the cordless phone and the phonebook, to bring it out. With the phone and the phonebook, I called the other neighbors with no luck on finding an owner.

I looked for animal control. And in the meantime, the blue parakeet would come to me, crawling on my arm, swooping to my neck. The steady peck at the neck felt good.

Animal control suggested a box or a cage, neither one of which were readily accessible. This meant a search and leaving the bird behind. I didn’t want to leave the bird behind. Besides I wanted to keep the bird free. No, I told animal control. We have no box or cage, and this bird isn’t going anywhere.

After five minutes, the parakeet began to make its move—towards the garage and then further on towards Papa’s ladders. The blue parakeet flew to the low small mesquite with purple thistle-like blossoms. Then the blue parakeet gets closer to Papa’s shop and leapt to the larger tree beside it. I looked up and the parakeet had moved beyond, to the top of the shop, I presumed. And what did it matter. How far could it go?

not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there

When the animal control guy drove up, he helped me with the largest ladder. At the top, I expected to see the blue parakeet. But there was no parakeet, and I walked along the rusted roof. In the long, drawn-out yawn of the land just beyond the shop before the next neighbors, there was nothing. Only the brown of the long burnt summer grass, still recently mowed and manicured. The blue parakeet was gone.

When my grandmother returned, she knew of no bird owners. This was mid-august, and I asked for weeks. By September, she still had not found any news of a missing bird.

there are crossroads

A month later in upstate New York, I walked out the back screen door one fall afternoon. When I walked out to the back porch from my kitchen, I looked down and saw the blue bird. A dead blue parakeet, at the base of my door.

* * *

This is a story for which I have never had a simple answer. I have had a profound number of synchronicities in my life, but nothing like this one. A koan manifested as a result of this event, a paradox of freedom and belonging (I want to find the bird’s home, I want the bird to be free, I don’t want to put the bird in a box). This haunting will inhabit my stories and poems for many years. Because, as Avery Gordon writes at the end of Ghostly Matters, “ultimately haunting is about how to transform a shadow of a life into an undiminished life whose shadows touch softly in the spirit of a peaceful reconciliation. In this necessarily collective undertaking, the end, which is not an ending at all, belongs to everyone.”

* * *

Another chorus of hauntings

Between the ages of seven and fourteen I lived in an oil camp on a river in South Sumatra. I haven’t returned, but I have reconnected with some of the Indonesians I knew in the 1960s and with others I didn’t know, but who lived where I lived in Sungai Gerong at the same time, divided as it was, sociologically and physically by its two halves, Old Camp and New Camp, and New Camp itself, the finer Dutch colonial stucco houses with the red tile roofs on the riverfront, separated from the prefabricated houses situated at the back end of the camp by a street named Division.

Marcia Giri, an Indonesian woman whose father also worked for Stanvac in the sixties posted a video of Kampung Lama on Facebook not long ago. What we used to call Old Camp, so overgrown now with green stalks and leaves that it looks like a sunken shipwreck. A link to it is pasted below.

“Jangan saja,” someone wrote in response to it. “Jadi kampong hantu.” Just don’t. It has become a ghost village. Just don’t what, I wonder. Don’t try to go in? Don’t try to go back?

Someone else, Yanto, I think, wrote, “Rumah awak yang di Kp. lamo lah jadi hutan.”  The houses have become a part of the jungle.

This is Kampung Lama. This is where I used to live. This is where The Guest House in Old Camp, the first section of The Smell of Sulphur is set. Sometimes people return. I love listening to the chorus of their voices calling out, giving names to the things they remember. The clinic, the ballroom, the bowling alley, the swimming pool, a girl named Tuti, something sweet, something lost, something sweet.

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