Saturday, October 24, 2009

"The faintest restless rustling ran all through them," or, Frost hears a ghost story

A line from Robert Frost quoted in Tim Powers's sharp gambler's ghost story "Pat Moore" led me yesterday to Frost's "Two Witches" (1923) which I'd not looked at in years. It's a two-part poem, the first part being a dialogue poem, which isn't my favorite of Frost's forms; their vernacular often feels too folksy, and their willingness to sacrifice sound and line construction to the prosaic functions of the story they're telling can be frustrating.

In "Two Witches," however, the form works: offering a flickering, October-dark story of a speaker who,
. . . stayed the night for shelter at a farm
Behind the mountain, with a mother and son.
Two old-believers. They did all the talking.
And talk they do, provoked by the mere presence of the stranger to launch into an account of the mother's witchcraft:
MOTHER. Folks think a witch who has familiar spirits
She could call up to pass a winter evening,
But won't, should be burned at the stake or something.
Summoning spirits isn't "Button, button,
Who's got the button," I would have them know.

SON. Mother can make a common table rear
And kick with two legs like an army mule.

MOTHER. And when I've done it, what good have I done?
It's a case of the vernacular working: the cranky, everyday relationship the mother has to magic, the son's pride--and his striking description--immediately conjures up these two isolated figures, which gives the ghost story that follows a convincing ground from which to grow.

The story the mother tells is of a mystery visitor climbing the steps from the cellar--
. . . two footsteps for each step,
The way a man with one leg and a crutch,
Or a little child, comes up.
--and an animated skeleton that
. . . halted helpless on the landing,
Waiting for things to happen in their favor.
The faintest restless rustling ran all through them.
Ultimately, it resolves into a tale of jealousy, murder, and the sort of secrets that can poison a lifetime, that,
We'd kept all these years between ourselves
So as to have it ready for outsiders.
But tonight I don't care enough to lie--
I don't remember why I ever cared.
Ultimately, however, it's not the ghost story itself--however atmospheric and convincing it may be--nor the bitter monologue by a dead witch that forms the poem's second half that stays with you after you close the book. Instead, it's an earlier aside by the mother that closes with the unforgettable line Powers quoted* in his own ghost story:
Rather than tip a table for you, let me
Tell you what Ralle the Sioux Control once told me.
He said the dead had souls, but when I asked him
How could that be--I thought the dead were souls,
He broke my trance. Don't that make you suspicious
That there's something the dead are keeping back?
Yes, there's something the dead are keeping back.
Even the most skeptical of materialists would have to acknowledge the ring of truth in that, ringed as we all are by the silent dead.

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