If there were such things as ghosts

This entry is part 15 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems

Walking obelisk

They would be white & watery
as boiled potatoes.

They would shimmer like the moon in a ditch.

They would have no eyebrows.

They would frequent banks & stock exchanges
instead of cemeteries.

They would step into traffic
like swimmers into a cold mountain lake.

They would be able to murmur
only a single word: Ah.

They would be afraid of the dark.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

75 Comments


  1. Spirits

    But they do shimmer like the moon in a ditch,
    or glare, baleful, back from the shallow depths

    of a pan among the boiled potatoes: and if
    the latter is the case, what they’re saying

    is, believe it or not, old longings come back,
    so please lay a plate of food on the counter—

    savory or sweet, a little something
    with which to wash these morsels down.

    They speak in more than one syllable,
    but only if you listen closely for their voices

    in the middle of your dreams. If Woody
    Allen can whisk you into another century

    so you wind up drinking wine with Zelda,
    shaking hands with Hemingway, and

    dropping into Gertrude Stein’s parlor
    in Paris, what’s so difficult about spirits

    that hover at the edge of your bed? Like you
    sometimes they’re a little afraid of the dark,

    like you sometimes they only want the warmth
    of a hand to hold as they ford the traffic, over and

    over again from here to the other side and back.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for that, Luisa. I particualrly like the ending.

      I love the idea of feeding the spirits, but it’s just too foreign to my culture. This is the second time I’ve associated potatoes with ghosts in a poem, though, and I think it’s a combination of the Irish Potato Famine and the general creepiness of potato eyes sprouting white roots.

      Reply

  2. They flicker, afraid to go and afraid to stay:
    afraid of their own reflections in the mirror,
    afraid of the empty glass.

    Reply

  3. Your Highgate poem is a fantastic reinvention of the tradition of ghosts, Dave, post-modern eerie in a way that has me thinking ‘How right he is… I never thought of that… of course they’d be scared of the dark!’

    ‘They would be white & watery
    as boiled potatoes.’

    Clever. So banal and yet oddly disturbing.

    I always think ghosts an entirely implausible notion, but yours stay in the mind.

    Reply

    1. Thanks, Clive. See, this is why I prefer poetry to religion: one can play with superstitions without having to commit to them.

      Reply

      1. I have a poem about people as potatoes–part of my Red King series. He is peeling them at night in the kitchen. Nothing like insomnia.

        I like that they have no eyebrows.

        Reply

  4. Dave, this is so wonderful. I especially love the line about stepping into traffic. I would love to use this poem with my middle school kids this fall- would you be up to a few pesky poetry questions from some very bright 13-year-olds?

    Reply

    1. Sure, Donna! I’d enjoy that.

      Also, feel free to add your own poem to the thread.

      Reply

  5. Trapped in the mist
    In the raven black air
    As restless corpses rot
    And the living quake in fear
    You could see them, like me,
    If you were more clear
    If you only had the gift,
    Or perhaps, another beer.

    Reply

  6. An exceptional skill, seeing ghosts:
    A Ponzi scheme selling plots
    In the afterworld.

    Reply

    1. Yes, there would have to be some utterly pedestrian way to monetize second sight, wouldn’t there? I love it.

      Reply

  7. If there were ghosts
    they would be
    brooding malevolent
    derelict houses.

    they would spy 
    through cracks in siding,
    skeleton key holes,
    and the gap ‘tween
    door and jamb.

    they would drop windows
    with a smash,
    flinging shards of glass
    cartwheeling
    across slanted floors.

    their rust-seized hinges
    would squeal
    and shriek,
    while mysterious thuds
    erupted from root cellars.

    their ill-fitting panes 
    would sigh and moan
    like tones issuing
    from a dissonant
    aeolian harp.

    punky cornice mouldings
    would break loose
    at inopportune times,
    flipping tall ladders
    groundward.

    pull-cord lamp fixtures
    would flicker eerily
    then spit forth
    crackling sparks and
    plumes of smoke.

    if there were ghosts,
    they would be derelict houses
    with doorsteps fashioned
    of salvaged tombstones.

    Reply

    1. Being long familiar with your blog Bev, it strikes me that you write from experience! Having been restoring an old house of our own these past five years, I recognise many of your ‘manifestations’. I’ve certainly been on a ladder flipped groundward by a ‘punky cornice moulding’ and been showered with sparks from faulty lighting systems. (Now all stripped out and replaced with new!) Your ghosts must have family over here in Wales!

      Reply

      1. Thanks, Dale!

        Oh, Clive, you recognized my house as my ghostly nemesis. Yes, I am certain that this house has family in Wales, and perhaps in many other locales!

        Reply

    2. Such an imaginative poem, Bev — but like Clive, I can’t help wondering how much of it is true. Do you really have a doorstep made from a tombstone? And does the house really seem malevolent to you?

      Reply

      1. Dave – Just about everthing in the poem actually happened. although not much into ghosts, I sensed a malevolent air about the house when I arrived, but thought it was all but gone by midsummer last year. However, a friend who is into shamanism and such things, came to visit last autumn and would stay only one night. She would not sleep in the house – slept in her car as she felt the house was hostile and had something very evil about it.
        Regarding the headstone – I did find a peculiar chunk of concrete with a woman’s name and a date writ into it – it rolled out onto the grass from an odd place in the lintel of a basement window when I was closing the place up last autumn. Still trying to figure out who she is/was. Hopefully she was just around and signed her name in wet concrete when there was some pouring going on and that there isn’t anything more to that story. I borrowed the bit about the doorstep though. My neighbour’s family home down in the village has an old tombstone for a doorstep – the name and date are turned downward. I believe it may have been an old Acadian gravestone. These old houses hold many secrets.

        Reply

        1. Your door-step story made me laugh out loud Bev. We have a slate door-step here at Ty Isaf that for a few weeks on our arrival I was convinced was a tomb-stone placed face downward. In fact it turned out to be the slate top of an old billiard-table. However, when we paid a call on a local monumental mason to purchase some slate for a terrace, we saw stacks of nineteenth century slate billiard-table tops being re-processed into grave-stones! Apparently this is a common practice, as the slate in these old tables, long protected by felt and baize, is of fantastic quality.

          I’m glad that your house has shed whatever malevolent air it once held. It’s the living who leave their mark on a place, and your meticulous restoration work will be adding a handsome patina of love and care to the old dwelling that will help form its new, benevolent presiding spirit. Bad things happen everywhere. Nurture restores the balance.

          Reply

          1. Clive, I love the final two lines of your comment!


          2. The house next door to mine has a tombstone as part of the patio. And I once had a house with a grave and headstone in the backyard. Elizabeth… Elizabeth what?


    3. here’s one for your out of doors:

      Oh to live at home in Round Hill
      With Raccoon ghosts in the bush
      Oh to find vague apparatus
      As the Cherries sway and swoosh

      Reply

      1. Thanks, Fred. Raccoons certainly can make some banshee noises! I’m sure they are responsible for more summer-camp terror than any other critter, including screech owls.

        Reply

        1. no, these were a cache of Raccoon skulls, found in the bushes behind Bev’s house of dubious past.

          Reply

          1. I had forgotten about those skulls.
            All kinds of weird little hand-me-downs around here.


  8. If there were ghosts,

    they would marvel
    at our disrespect
    for flesh and blood
    and find our follies
    laughable.

    They would weave
    themselves in and out
    of dark corners
    and linger upon
    the scent of lilacs.

    They would pull at us
    with spider web hands,
    and remember everything
    we have decided to forget.

    Reply

    1. Webs do have a way of retaining ugly truths. (I’ve been studying spiderwebs a lot lately.) Nice conception.

      Reply

  9. Pisasu (Ghost)

    At the southern edge of the village
    near the graveyard they levitate, feet-less.

    The robust ones make home in tamarind tree:
    Mohini in particular with teeth of pearl

    her tresses all tangled on the long dark pods
    lets moonlight pour through her.

    She’ll take the strand of jasmine
    from your hair my grandmother warned.

    Vedalam prefers the drumstick tree,
    the lanky dude is a perfect nerd;

    breath reeking of undigested animal gut,
    he quizzes kings as he takes piggyback ride.

    There is Curse- Sin languishing
    at the threshold of an old temple –

    he killed a Brahmin; in that liminal space
    he sits cradling his severed head between his knees,

    waiting for me, you:
    keep off the southern entrance of the temple.

    Reply

  10. oh, ghosts are everywhere. just like potatoes.

    this furniture
    is made of ghosts

    (brittle snaps
    through skin)

    unseen weight shifts

    (old wicker sighs
    into new pillows)

    I sit on
    phantoms     my bones
    creak

    Reply

    1. oops — forgot the space:

      I sit on
      phantoms   &nbsp my bones
      creak

      Reply

          1. thanks, dave.
            (and thanks for the space.)


    2. Love this poem Angie… absolutely LOVE it.

      Our own, well-loved old furniture shows evidence of the many who have gone before us. Chairs creak and sigh and flex whenever we occupy them, rocking gently on feet worn uneven from the damp flagstones of the past. The Bergere sofa cracks like a pistol shot as we settle into it. (And no, the new upholstery and the restoration of its joints have neither taken from its character nor silenced its protests.) One chair leg is worn thin from clawing, the legacy of a long-dead cat. Your poem, Angie, magnificently captures all of this, only more succinctly and poetically.

      Reply

  11. A GHOSTLY ENCOUNTER

    Oh, but they exist in a parallel world—
    much like the wall seen from the other
    side. Who was that who caught me then

    when as a wiggler of a baby on her bed,
    I fell to some cushion of air or hands
    from the nether world? The herbolario*

    (who would brush away the elfin spirits
    with herbs and leaves galore to ward
    them off and flush the fever off my face)

    traced the kind catcher in rice grains
    floating in a tea cup of boiled water:
    “the ghost of his grandfather saved him.”

    A shaman after my heart, he gathered
    the granules “into” an egg fresh off
    grandmother’s layer basket, and mumbled:

    “the spirit is back in his enchanted world,”
    then threw the uncracked egg into a banana
    grove, profusely intoning a song of gratitude:

    “O father, O brother, O Great Spirit, hail,
    O hail your coming to save your little boy,
    lest he be broken now and gone forever!”

    Now at ninety, Mother concludes all my
    birthday anecdotes with her discovery of
    an unbroken egg pitched into that grove:

    On my birthdays now, I ask the walls:
    If there were ghosts, would they leave us
    guessing if, indeed, there is a life hereafter?

    —Albert B. Casuga
    08-04-11

    *herbolario — an herb Shaman, (also a “witch doctor” to doubters)

    Reply

    1. Thanks for that anecdote, Albert. Fascinating ritual! I think folk-healers the world over, in order to be successful, must become very astute students of human psychology.

      Reply

  12. if there were such things as ghosts
    their form would slide your eyes right past them
    just before you noticed them
    and they would try too hard to be noticed
    their fungal flesh would overtop their shoes, their belts, their chains
    they would bulge in the wrong places
    and all the sorrow of their lives and their insipid deaths
    would be of their own making

    Reply

    1. Thanks, Shannon. I like how many of the poems in this thread have such unexpected endings!

      Reply

  13. If ghosts should resemble their old human form
    Then my own will be white as potatoes.
    At least where my body does not meet the sun
    When I’m tending my plants and tomatoes.
    And I find my reflection quite scary as well
    When I gaze in store window or pond.
    The face that I see, wavy, jittery
    Is not one of which I am fond.
    But fear of the night, from a ghost? That is sad
    Cause I know that bad feeling quite well.
    They are obviously freaked cause at night they can’t sleep
    And to me that’s a form of ghost hell.

    Reply

    1. Yeah, an eternity of insomnia would be hell, for sure. Thanks for the chuckle, Joan.

      Reply

  14. Here’s one from my book Eden in the Rearview Mirror (Word Press)

    Apparition

    August, but the nights
    are too soon cold.

    White moths spiral
    translucent in the streetlight,

    vanishing as if they flew
    too near and into candle flame.

    The way the family story goes,
    they had to sell

    the old Green Valley farmhouse
    because one muggy night

    my mother saw a ghost
    walk through the bedroom door,

    a man dressed all in white,
    wearing a white hat,

    and when she rose to lift me
    from my crib, he turned

    and left the way he came.
    Already she knew she was leaving too,

    dreaming into slag light, smoke
    rising from her shoulder blades.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for that, Susan — a good poem from a great book, which I think it’s about time for me to re-read.

      Already she knew she was leaving too,

      dreaming into slag light, smoke
      rising from her shoulder blades.

      Lovely.

      Reply

  15. The ghost I knew
    folded clothes in the basement
    or hid in the crawlspace under the house
    waiting for me to take a quick glance.

    The ghost I knew
    cried in the stairway at night
    or relit the embers in the fireplace
    casting new shadows on the walls.

    The ghost I knew
    waited for me to free him
    and so I did, with a chant
    I have now forgotten.

    Reply

    1. True story? I love the idea of a laundry-folding ghost! I could use one of those.

      Reply

      1. True story. Actually two ghosts. One in an old hotel in Asbury Park and one in my parent’s house in southern California. I could add so much more.

        The ghost I knew
        tapped me on the shoulder
        in an empty house
        and left me shouting, “who’s there? who’s there?”

        The ghost I knew
        turned the faucets on in the upstairs bath
        and laughed a wicked laugh
        but only at night

        In 1971 I had a friend who considered herself a psychic. The ghost was driving my father to distraction; so, I went to my friend’s house, thinking I would ask her what she knew about ghosts and how to send them on their way. I did not call in advance. Tamra opened the door wearing a black robe covered in moons and stars. She said, “Did you come to talk to me about your ghost?” Yes. She told me something to chant to it, and so I did. The ghost left. Yet, I still don’t “believe” in ghosts. They don’t make any sense, and I am a rational person. LOL!

        Reply

  16. the dead are all around us. to know
    the living from the dead needs
    a divining rod

    ‘the dead do not live,
    and the living will not die’

    say that again, or do I need
    patience? forgiveness?

    Reply

  17. They exist
    just not here
    not now.
    The way to see them
    is to wait
    for that moment
    before sleep
    when your eyes are closed
    but you’re still conscious
    I forgot what it’s called,
    never mind,
    that’s the moment.
    A little window opens
    as if you’re in a cave
    looking out
    to brilliant sunlight
    and there they are
    not pale zombies
    but ordinary people
    tiny figures moving about.
    I saw them last night.
    Some of them I recognised.

    Reply

    1. They exist
      just not here
      not now.

      That’s a great opening gambit. I don’t remember what that state right before sleep is called either, but it is very similar to the best state to draft poems in — a kind of suspended, abstracted state where words and images seem to flow of their own accord.

      Reply

    1. Thanks for joining in! I especially liked your first stanza:

      Our ghosts surround
      us. They stitch shrouds
      of lost dreams upon our skin,
      a lacy spiderweb of stretch marks.

      Reply

  18. If there were such things as ghosts, could I be
    lucky enough not to see their light–I’m thinking spectral
    white to green & somehow still beyond UV?

    If there were such things as ghosts, could I be
    lucky enough not to feel them pass through me, more shivery
    than waiting–December, midnight–for a Brooklyn-bound train?

    If there were such things as ghosts, could I be
    lucky enough to hear their chains & moans
    but understand their words instead?

    If there were such things as ghosts, could I be
    lucky enough to meet my father again and tell him
    about the towers that fell across the river
    from his boyhood home & about the countries
    where I’ve learned to live since the year I could legally drink?

    If there were such things as ghosts, could I be
    good enough
    to let him go
    again?

    Reply

    1. to feel them pass through me, more shivery
      than waiting–December, midnight–for a Brooklyn-bound train

      Great image, Elizabeth. I’m glad this prompt could elicit such a heart-felt response. I am loving the range of replies in this thread.

      Reply

  19. No one puts stock
    in ghosts anymore.

    But everyone has a story
    that begins with I’m not crazy.

    Maybe it’s the bridge on 97
    or the creaky floorboard upstairs.
    The chair they’ll swear was rocking,
    or totems of the dead discovered
    in strange forgotten corners.
    Lights on the Devil’s Backbone.

    Ghosts love these stories.
    They know

    there isn’t any darkness
    more forsaken
    than the end of memory.

    Reply

  20. Love your poem, Dave, esp. the boiled potatoes and the “afraid of the dark.” I don’t believe in ghosts really, but definitely in hauntings. Here are some of my ghost fragments (up on my blog, too).

    Among Ghosts

    When I try to speak French, Italian spooks me,
    less the form than the mood of it, the flighty rise and ebb.
    *
    People talk about phantom limbs, but rarely of the phantom itch.
    The itch occurs, but what’s under it?
    *
    At the Salvation Army there’s a ghastly rack
    of coats, the line-up of might-be ghosts
    *
    I know a slender woman haunted by her former heavy self.
    The body has been exorcised; the spirit will not let go.
    *
    The song in my head this morning, a song I didn’t know I liked.
    *
    The typewriter, too, is not extinct. It lives on
    in street work, factories, rivers, in feet descending stairs.
    My father’s boxy black one.
    My electric Brother.
    *
    in love, the ghoul of hate
    *
    When I was in high school, a boy in the next grade
    was decapitated by a train, stumbling home drunk
    by the overpass. Charlie. Everyone knew the story.

    I can’t go through that part of town without thinking of it.
    As if I’d been there. And it’s not Charlie who haunts
    that part of town, but what happened to Charlie.
    *
    The parts haunt the sum.
    The choir in the ostrich.
    The goon in kangaroo.
    *
    the past / the smell of lavender / a stroke that stays in the bones / trauma /
    fog / exhaust trapped in the atmosphere / abortion / childhood /
    perfume / regret
    *
    We’re all haunted by Auschwitz, even the deniers.
    We all stand here shoeless in the Polish snow.
    *
    to say nothing of graveyards
    only the dead really give up the ghost
    *
    As a noun, “haunt” refers to a place a man can frequently be found.
    He occupies it, fills and inhabits it, seeking
    something he’ll never come home with.

    Reply

    1. Wow. So pleased to have sparked this! Too many favorite lines to enumerate here, but in general I like the philosophical focus and the decision to write it in fragments — very very effective.

      Reply

  21. Dave, the missing word was hypnagogia – I looked it up and have now made it the title of that poem and its video now posted.

    Reply

    1. Yeah, I saw that. Good work! I will do my best now to commit the word to memory so I can slip it into casual conversation.

      Reply

    2. By the way, does your email address really contain the words “REMOVETHIS”? If not, your attempt to subscribe by email isn’t likely to succeed.

      Reply

      1. That’s probably an anti-spam measure, for those sites where people’s E-mail addresses are visible (thankfully, not many these days).

        Reply

  22. Variations on a Ghost Theme

    moon
    light
    from the window
    seeps

    around the ghost

    envelops it in a milky aura

    folds into its body as it glides
    through walls

    if there were ghosts, I would
    twirl in slow motion around
    their twirling pirouettes
    their disconnected
    hands and feet
    dangling from bodies
    that radiate a white gauze of light, the
    fingernails of silver scratches
    that graze the furniture

    hovering in the air of our
    mutual dreams

    Reply


  23. What fun! Grand collection, Dave… The instant anthology. Now I know what you meant!

    I’m afraid I’ll be scrubbing my novel for a few days more (and then am under the gun for promo materials) so don’t have poem, but you might like this, soon available in your local library or bookstore:

    http://www.amazon.com/Ghosts-Gaslight-Steampunk-Supernatural-Suspense/dp/0061999717

    “Edited by Jack Dann (World Fantasy Award-winning co-editor of Dreaming Down Under) and Nick Gevers (acclaimed editor and book reviewer), Ghosts by Gaslight is a showcase collection of all-new stories of steampunk and supernatural suspense by modern masters of horror, fantasy, sf, and the paranormal. An absolutely mind-boggling gathering of some of today’s very best dark storytellers—including Peter Beagle, James Morrow, Sean Williams, Gene Wolfe, Garth Nix, Marly Youmans, Jeffery Ford, and Robert Silverberg—Ghosts by Gaslight offers chilling gothic and spectral tales in a delightfully twisted Victorian and Edwardian vein. Think Henry James’s Turn of the Screw and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with a decidedly steampunk edge, and you’re ready to confront Ghosts by Gaslight.”

    Reply

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