Ephemeris by Elisabeth Gill


        Encore has been mysteriously inactive for some time, which may be chalked up to general summer vacancy of mind, or it may be chalked up to specific sources chaos and particularly to sudden and acute malaise of the appendix, that fearsome disease braved by small children the world over. And just as yours truly has been under the knife recently, so has this site been undergoing substantive interventions behind the scenes. Very soon, we expect it to emerge with vastly improved internal navigation and dashing new looks. As for Norm, he returns in two weeks, after an August hiatus. We hope he will bring solemnity and earnest, disgruntled self-control with him.

      To facilitate this, I trust you will forgive the use of a phrase that makes Norm peevish: Back at the ranch. Back at the ranch, there have been discussions of reconciliation and urgency over macaroni and cheese. To whit, a line misremembered from John Newlove’s On the Death of a Young Poet, occasioned by the death of a young actor of Newton, Massachusetts, a once-Hamlet, once-director-of-Amadeus, and many times life of the party, friend to the disconsolate, at 26. “And I was ashamed / to be alive / with all my sins still on me”. The guest of yours truly interpolated that he knew the feeling: the frustration that drunk drivers, Assads, shoddy poets, and fluffy-mopped politicos were still beleaguering us, while some of the good ones check out. His brother had been killed by a drunk driver. He explained that he hadn’t pressed charges because the driver, who in addition had killed another person, paralysed another, and given himself brain damage, was already punished by his own deeds.

    There’s that maddening Socratic cum Stoic notion, that vice is its own punishment, and vice cannot harm virtue. I’m not enough of an aesthete to believe it, what with torture regimes and mass incarceration. But there’s another piece to the story, too. The guest here yesterday on his way to Guelph dreamed of his brother on the night of his brother’s death: a goodbye. Whether you’ve dreamed about the dead or not, there is lyric precedent for returns-from-beyond. 

       Francis Child, the famous collector of British-American balladry of the 19th century records several ballads in which ghosts return to the grieving: The Wife of Usher’s Well (Child 79), The Lover’s Ghost (Child 248), and The Unquiet Grave (Child 78).

      All three songs have been rewritten recently as Three Little Babes by Joanna Newsom, Falsehearted Chicken by Sam Amidon, and Cold Blows the Wind by the satire band Ween (all hail the boognish). The first two have also been recorded by the very humble Alasdair Roberts of Glasgow.

     If the soul is like the music played for which the body is the lyre, as Plato suggests in the Phaedo–

“And when someone breaks the lyre, or cuts and rends the strings, then he who takes this view would argue as you do, and on the same analogy, that the harmony survives and has not perished; for you cannot imagine, as we would say, that the lyre without the strings, and the broken strings themselves, remain, and yet that the harmony, which is of heavenly and immortal nature and kindred, has perished–and perished too before the mortal. The harmony, he would say, certainly exists somewhere, and the wood and strings will decay before that decays.”

      –new lives for old songs can attest to returns from the grave. Anyways, from these songs and the scholarship on them we learn three important things: first, that the tree that grows by the gates of Paradise, readers, is a birch; second, that its bark when worn as a hat protects the dead from the corruption of the living world, and finally, that the proper time to grieve is a year and a day, no more.

     We have been reading about reconciliation, the classic variety, in Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea by one David Konstan, scholar of emotions in the Greek and Roman world. It is practical reading for those who have harmed others, and those who have been harmed by others. In the face of death (in the guise of limited timeframes) reconciliation where possible possesses a certain urgency: reconciliation with loss, with the corruption of the living world, and reconciliation with those who continue to matter, through ties of blood or affection. I’ve gleaned just two things from Konstan thus far, over macaroni and cheese: “God’s forgiveness, it will emerge, has special characteristics, such as the ability to cancel sin entirely […]”, implying that lowly human forgiveness never cancels sin, and that what is sometimes translated as forgiveness in ancient texts “more likely involved anger appeasement and reconciliation of differences”. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

     Elsewhere, one Toronto poet wonders why Jesus’ martyrdom should have any effect on the sins of humanity whatsoever. If a person can’t atone in this world, be forgiven on general principles, or pay reparations in one form or another, how does a single death balance the books for so much bad behavior? The mysteries of the church are ever mysterious to me. Or perhaps, over and against lists that get checked twice, three strike systems, or St. Peter’s ledger, etc., persons are more than the sum of their actions. The Shiva at the late actor’s house seemed to suggest this–the way his mother, father, and brother welcomed strangers into their house, packed with people, food, and photos–

     And perhaps we can turn our attention to those seeking another kind of second life: the refugees and migrants flooding into Europe–