After The Ghost Investigation by Christine Potter

After The Ghost Investigation

The local writer on the paranormal with her camera,
electromagnetic meter, and infared thermometer,
having stayed, as she explained she must, long past sunset,

came back downstairs egg white-wan, silent. Her colleague,
with his day job in law enforcement, looked lost as the ring
of brown feathers left after a cat runs into the bushes.

You have them. We found you two. In the room across from
our bedroom, in the room behind my office. Her voice might
have been shaking. Just old spirits who don’t care to leave.

Not harmful. The one upstairs doesn’t know he’s dead.
I offered brandy, which no one wanted. Later, alone, or
perhaps not, my husband and I went to bed and addressed

our new-found guests: How are you, Mr. Ghost? No–that’s
disrespectful! No–you can’t really believe… When I turned off
our bedside lamp, darkness I’d once understood occupied itself

fully as it grew larger and larger–a black bloodstain, a backwards
mirror glinting what sorrow? A distant headlight? Or just
the flickerings ghosts know, caught here if they are here, never

driving away. These walls, see how they’ve changed from
what they used to be? Our bodies, too: how they change without
our permission! And see how long, how very long night lasts?

by Christine Potter

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Editor’s Note: This poem at first seems lighthearted, but the ominous dread of the investigating characters slowly bleeds into the living hosts of the ghosts’ house.

Singing My First Funeral by Christine Potter

Singing My First Funeral

I think his last name was Messerich. His first…Charlie?
Probably. I hear my father’s voice saying it with

that friendly lilt men use to mean a good guy: Charlie
Messerich, church sexton during those few years Dad

tried believing what the rest of us did. Charlie’s funeral.
Everyone else was still alive. Sextons cleaned, fixed things—

but clearly not everything. Like having to die. Zion Church
looked embalmed as ever: dim, airless, polished, Victorian—

even with Sputnik twinkling in circles over our heads.
Someone else must have cleaned, I thought, and wondered

why I couldn’t cry. I knew you were supposed to. One girl
whose name I’ve also lost crayoned a picture: a man labeled

Charlie Messerich leading the Junior Choir skywards, all
our arms out straight before us like movie monsters, all

our kimono-sleeved choir robes dragging behind us on
pink and orange clouds. Melissa, maybe. I’d watched her

roll Italian bread into little balls and swallow handfuls
of them at the Spaghetti Dinner. Kids said her parents had

to call the ambulance and get her stomach pumped. Would
she have died? She cried at the funeral, and I could not.

Hymns. An anthem. It was just more church, and not
even Good Friday. I never asked her about her stomach.

Afterwards, I took off my starchy collar and freed my hair
and bobby pins from my choir beanie for The Reception

in the Parish Hall. Everyone’s mother smiled through
a haze of heated-over ham and pineapple slices too dense

for me to want any. I don’t think I ever cried, even later,
back home. I scuffed the soles of my patent leather shoes

all the way to my parents’ car. All afternoon, everything
was too bright, like staring at a bare light bulb. Like Heaven.

by Christine Potter

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Editor’s Note: The detailed voice of the narrator meticulously leads the reader through her first experience with death as a singer, and offers the realization that nothing is as simple as she thought. The last couplet is a killer.

Dr. Haller Nutt’s Half-Built, Octagonal Mansion by Christine Potter

Dr. Haller Nutt’s Half-Built, Octagonal Mansion

Longwood Plantation, Natchez, Mississippi

For one hundred years, his family lived on in its cellar,
the upstairs walls sketched in raw lumber on bare brick.
Construction steps still spiral a rough, dizzy geometry

five stories up inside the dome. But by 1861, he’d frilled
each porch column in wooden lace. The huge roof and
Great War were on. Dr. Nutt owned 800 slaves. He died

before the end of hostilities. Left his daughters to play
with salesmen’s models of never-delivered chairs. Left us
this unimaginable eight-sided loss: pneumonia, poverty,

a paralyzing void passed generation to generation. Left
the smell of clay, of dust swimming in sunlight, a bench
lined in rusty tools, a piano’s empty shipping case tipped

on its side, grey as an cast-off bandage. You can buy a ticket
or rent the place for your holiday party. Everyone knew this
could never be finished. Everyone knows it still isn’t done.

by Christine Potter

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Editor’s Note: Sometimes the decay of a place stands in for the decay of a family (or of a country). This poem about Longwood Plantation illustrates that beautifully.

A Thanksgiving Anthem, by William Billings – Christine Potter

A Thanksgiving Anthem, by William Billings

Ye dragons, whose contagious breath
People the corridors of death
Change your dire hissings into heavenly song
And praise your maker with your forked tongues
—William Billings, 1794 – (a paraphrase of Psalm 148)

For-ked, with two syllables, and six or eight
sixteenth notes on “for”. Repeatedly. For
measure after measure. Breath control,
says my husband. He reminds me it was

my idea our choir sing this anthem. It’s what
I deserve for having cocktails with him and
a Sacred Harp CD. William Billings, leather
tanner, street sweeper, composer, missing

an eye, one leg shorter than the other, loved
dragons. Hissing dragons, especially, because
he could win even them. So what if they
smelled bad and King James gives them just

one word in Psalm 148? Billings turned his
anthem into dragons, turned his whole choir
into dragons, turned choirs into dragons two
hundred and twenty years into the future.

And because of his love, the dragons were
grateful. They unfolded their napkins and
ate turkey and Indian Pudding. Make sure
you hit the “s” in “hissings”, my husband says:

Hissssingss! Thus instructed, our lizard-like
scales include the whole world, as they were
intended to. See? The dragons are carrying
everyone’s plates to the kitchen sink. Alleluia!

by Christine Potter

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In lieu of my usual Editor’s note, I give you Christine’s explanation: “It’s an oddball piece I wrote last year about an early American Thanksgiving anthem with musical sound effects that mimic the hissing of dragons as they praise God, and so are redeemed. For real. Guy who wrote it was a nut!”

Editor’s addendum: Give thanks! I almost posted this poem for today:

There once was a turkey named Byrd—
had a temper as foul as a turd.
With Thanksgiving day dread
he hid in the head
and yelled: Go away, I’m a shit not a bird!

Hanging Out on the Old Croton Aqueduct by Christine Potter

Hanging Out on the Old Croton Aqueduct

Dobbs Ferry, the early 1970’s

The last thing we thought of was water but
long pipes to The City were still there, buried
beneath a grassy trail that led only to itself,

really. It was Middle Earth, or pen and ink
drawings from an old children’s book, with
round stone towers barely taller than we were,

like toy castles. Someone had heard they were
ventilators left over from 1840 and always
said so as we passed them. Then we all knew it

and forgot about them. What we drank was
beer, or when we were stupid, Southern Comfort,
which was like swallowing pine cones instead

of kicking them as we walked. Twenty-six
miles from The Bronx to The Dam, in Croton.
No one jogged then, so no adults—except for

someone mowing the shady back yard of his own
enormous house in Irvington. He ignored us,
we him. Back behind Mercy College, past the

nuns’ cemetery with its Stations of the Cross,
each sad and holy scene set in what looked like
a bird house. I found them beautiful and knew

better than to say so. We never walked the
whole trail. It could have been a foreign country,
even endless. Home from college, our guitars

dangling upside down over our shoulders.
We’d end up at Jimmie’s, order manicotti,
baked clams, Chianti in a rattan basket. And

my brother wiped everyone’s plate clean with a
heel of Italian bread. So the chef came out and
pounded his shoulder. You’re a good boy! he said.

by Christine Potter

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Editor’s Note: This narrative poem uses imagery to convey nostalgia and to compress a childhood into a few lines. At the end, even if you’ve never been to the Croton Aqueduct, you find yourself nodding along because you’ve done all of these things, either in this life or the next.

Tragedy Undone by Christine Potter

Tragedy Undone

I gave the assignment most years: how do you
make this end well? Do it in one scene, write it,
perform it for the class with your study group,

with simple costumes, on Friday. So, the Nurse
smuggles Juliet to Mantua, Macbeth tells his
wife to pipe down, Hamlet gets over himself,

Hester says Screw the Letter and the horse all
of you rode in on. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale
grows a pair. Daisy realizes that Gatsby and her

husband Tom are both trouble and walks out of
the too-hot hotel room to cool off at the movies.
Three skinny high school boys wrapped in

someone’s cut-up red and green plaid Christmas
tablecloth, someone in his uncle’s snazzy white
suit with big lapels, a red construction paper

A saucering the air like a frisbee. And laughter,
laughter. I never asked them What was the
thing you just lost? I didn’t want them to see it

that way, to get used to bleak relief that comes
after two hours of for-real tears, to expect sorrow
to roll around like a curriculum: Hester in the

autumn, Gatsby right after the daffodils finish.
That’s for the teachers. We don’t know for a fact
that Shakespeare’s birthday was also the date of

his death fifty-two years later. What I’m saying
is nothing is written in stone–not really. I loved
all of your scenes. Happy weekend! You all aced it.

by Christine Potter

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Editor’s Note: This poem pivots at What was the / thing you just lost? After slogging through college for a creative writing degree and raising two sons, I’ve noticed that the focus of literary studies is tragic. This poem spoke to me because the narrator deliberately avoids that common cliché. Not all the stories we tell each other are sad.

The Beatles’ Last Photo Shoot by Christine Potter

The Beatles’ Last Photo Shoot

Tittenhurst Park, August 1969

This is what I want to think about today,
not the sky gone twilight two hours past noon
and buzzards riding the predicted wind
past perfectly normal empty trees creaking

their old bones. Four young men, knee-deep
in late summer weeds and bloomed-out
flowers, Yoko giggling, Linda pregnant, air
alive with the scent of straw and dry earth.

A donkey, a sheepdog, an 18th century house
with its diamond-shaped windows and dark
woodwork. Beards, wide-brimmed black hats.
Ringo said he didn’t know it was the last time

they’d pose together. This is what I want to
think about: that last time, frozen solid in
what we hope we’ll remember, how when I
finally got to England there was some of it still

left there for me, a wall of trees, the lawn
already a little brown in spots, the possibility
of redeeming love–arranged for a few clicks
of the shutter–that didn’t seem the work of fools.

by Christine Potter

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Editor’s Note: The first line of this poem convinced me it was worth reading because the desire for a perfect moment is universal. This ideal inevitably breaks down, of course (“Ringo said he didn’t know it was the last time // they’d pose together.”), but the wish remains.