It was a couple of months after moving my husband into a dementia facility that I first noticed it. The occasion was a concert of new music, the first such concert I’d attended in a long time. One of the composers whose work was being performed had known George; they’d been in graduate school together. The soprano had sung some of his musical settings, and it was she who had commissioned a piece, a setting of Whitman’s “This Compost,” which George had toiled on for a whole summer, pretty late in the period when he was still able to compose, and which she had then rejected as too difficult to learn.
At the reception after the concert, I knew who these people were—their names, their faces. Not that such recognition is tantamount to knowing someone. Still, my knowledge of them trumped theirs of me; the composer and the soprano didn’t know who I was. Nor, which is not the same thing, did they realize that I recognized them.
The sensation, one with which I was to become very familiar, was of invisibility. You feel transparent, insubstantial, a non-person, at once intruder and also possibly voyeur, in the sense that you are observing people who do not know they’re being watched for the simple reason that they can’t see you. One reaction is to want to make them see you. That reception was the first time (far from the last time) I remember experiencing the Ancient Mariner’s impulse to cross the room, buttonhole some hapless person heading toward the buffet table (wedding guest, concert-goer, the principle is the same), and tell my sad story. Or no, my husband’s sad story—which was which? I resisted the impulse, and it passed.
As months turned into years, my cloak of invisibility showed no sign of vanishing. Sometimes, as at that post-concert reception, I would notice its presence in a crowded room. More often, though, I’d be on Broadway doing errands. Walking to the bank or the farmers’ market or stepping out of a grocery store, I’d look up and recognize one of George’s former colleagues. Sometimes it seemed to happen several times a week. As I stepped out the door of the Garden of Eden market, X would go by, heading north on Broadway, talking animatedly to his wife. As I paid for my of jar of honey and dozen eggs at the farmers’ market, I’d see Y fingering apples at the next stand. As I chose a bunch of broccoli rabe in the crowded produce aisle of West Side Market, Z would be peering at the parsley and dill. Once I saw Z in profile (I think it was he) eating Sunday brunch, talking to a man whose profile I didn’t recognize, sitting at a window table at Café du Soleil. Then for a while these non-encounters would abate.
Of course on any such occasion I could have made my presence known. But when I imagined the short, awkward conversations that would have been likely to ensue, conversations whose power to irk me would almost certainly be out of all proportion to their length, I always made the same swift choice: leave it. Let it go. What would they have said? What would I have said? Besides, I felt too proud, maybe too safe, to hail them from the impregnable disguise of my transparency. I wasn’t alone there in the realm of the invisible; I had company, having often seen the dead walking along Broadway—my mother, for one, who died in 1992, and the poet Rachel Wetzsteon, who took her own life at the end of 2009. I’ve sometimes seen my husband, who isn’t dead, not exactly, striding along. Perhaps I’d caught the condition from my husband, who while he was still living at home, still stalking around the neighborhood and taking daily walks in the park, had become—it’s hard to explain, but those versed in dementia will know what I mean—invisible in plain sight.
With variations, the pattern of my invisibility continues. One more instance: recently, waiting for the light to change as I walked south on West End Avenue, I saw P. cross from the east side to the west side of the street. This short man, who was walking a suitably miniature dog, wasn’t one of George’s former colleagues. He was someone I’d known since high school and had always liked; someone, moreover, who had been very kind when, back in 2005, I had sent friends an impossibly naïve and hopeful letter to explain George’s illness. That is, he’d actually answered the letter.
Of course it was sheer chance that I saw P. and he didn’t see me; he was in my sightline and I wasn’t in his. I could easily have hailed him, and I almost did. Another day I probably would have. But I knew that the sight of me would elicit apologies and explanations. Having known P. for so long, I knew that he tended to blame himself for things, to be, or at least to sound, contrite, and I had no wish either to add to his burdens or to reassure him that everything was fine. I let the moment go, and he crossed the street with his little dog.
Avoiding unsatisfactory conversations didn’t keep me from brooding. Various possibilities presented themselves. Were these people pretending not to see me? I don’t think so; I think they were just preoccupied by their own lives (“And they, since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs,” as Frost puts it at the end of “Out, Out—”). Or was it perhaps the encroaching invisibility that shrouds women of a certain age that was affecting me, rather than anything to do with my husband? That wasn’t out of the question, but was still too simple an explanation.
Puzzling at this conundrum, and beginning with a glimpse of the couple I’ve mentioned above, walking along talking to each other, I wrote this:
Quisque suos patimur manes
They might be any happy couple
except I happen to know them.
How do I know they’re happy?
He’s chuckling, turning toward her
as they hurry north on windy Broadway.
From under her fur hat she smiles at him.
Spell, curse, or blessing, the by now familiar
law operates: I see them,
they do not see me.
Color of bruise and shadow,
the cloak of invisibility
settles over my shoulders.
The afterlife turns out to be not quite
an afterlife. I am alive; I live there.
I step over the threshold
into a penumbral zone. I move
from solitude into a ghostly precinct,
a place of dimness, of transparency.
I’m stepping out the door of the Garden of Eden
as they stride past. Obedient to the law,
they do not see me. They are carrying
bags of provisions back to the apartment
they will unlock, go in, put down their bundles,
take off their coats, and shut the door behind them.
In one of those uncanny coincidences that seem most frequent when life presses in on us, I happened, not long after writing “The Cloak,” upon a poem by Edward Thomas entitled “What Will They Do?” This poem, though I can’t claim to understand it completely, seems to have been inspired at least in part by a somewhat similar experience of perceived invisibility.
What Will They Do?
What will they do when I am gone? It is plain
That they can do without me as the rain
Can do without the flowers and the grass
That profit by it and must perish without.
I have but seen them in the loud street pass;
And I was naught to them. I turned about
To see them disappearing carelessly.
But what if I in them as they in me
Nourished what has great value and no price?
Almost I thought that rain thirsts for a draught
Which only in the blossoms’ chalice lies,
Until that one turned back and lightly laughed.
In her Notes to The Annotated Poems of Edward Thomas, editor Edna Longley comments that Thomas “often suffered from the paranoid belief that he was less visible or necessary to other people than they to him . . . he was perversely pleased when the changes effected in his appearance by the army confirmed this: ‘Nobody recognizes me now. Sturge Moore, E[dward] Marsh, & R. C. Trevelyan stood a yard off and I didn’t trouble to awake them to stupid recognition.’”
Was Thomas’s belief really all that paranoid? I suspect that Edward Thomas and I are not the only poets, or the only people, to have felt invisible. On the contrary, I’ve come to feel that it is probably a universal experience. I’ve also had occasion to remember that several of my poems that have nothing to do with George’s illness are about crossings or farewells, encounters in which one person fleetingly but significantly sees another one: “The Red Hat” (1994), for example, where our son walks to school alone up West End Avenue and George and I turn back home; or “The Golden Road” (2009), in which my now grown son and I, having walked in opposite directions on a country road, encounter one another before going our separate ways. Frost captures a related feeling at the end of his poem “Meeting and Passing”: “Afterward I went past what you had passed/ Before we met and you what I had passed.”
And there’s more to say about this ghostly realm. For that invisibility is akin to ghostliness is something I must have known without knowing I knew it, when I chose the epigraph to “The Cloak”: Quisque suos patimur manes. This darkly luminous phrase is from the sixth book of the Aeneid. Anchises, in the underworld, is explaining to Aeneas what happens to souls after death.
My recent path back to Vergil had been an unexpected one. Last Christmas, my son gave me Ursula LeGuin’s latest novel, Lavinia. I’d already read it (not that I told him so at the time), but now I reread the book, slowly and with more relish. In this novel LeGuin attempts with a measure of success to give a voice and personality to her eponymous heroine, that figure who in the Aeneid comes across as shadowy and faceless, a plot device rather than a character.
The eerie scenes early in the novel where Lavinia converses with the poet Vergil—or rather with his emanation (for of course Vergil lived centuries after the character he created)—are, provided one can suspend disbelief, among the book’s most evocative. One passage among these improbable conversations that I kept coming back to quotes, in translation, the mysterious phrase I’ve already referred to. Lavinia is thinking about her twilit colloquies with the poet who will immortalize her (or at least her name) centuries hence:
No doubt I will eventually fade away and be lost in oblivion, as I would have done long ago if the poet hadn’t summoned me into existence. Perhaps I will become a false dream clinging like a bat to the underside of the leaves of the tree at the gate of the underworld. . . . But I won’t have to tear myself from life and go down into the dark, as he did, poor man, first in his imagination, and then as his own ghost. We each have to endure our own afterlife, he said to me once, or that is one way to understand what he said.
We each have to endure our own afterlife. Although I hadn’t looked at the Aeneid in Latin for many years, I was somehow able to summon up the words from its sixth book, the words I knew LeGuin was thinking of: quisque suos patimur manes. The phrase seemed to be a natural epigraph for my poem “The Cloak,” which I was working on at about this time, because it seems to refer to both survival and ghosts: to what happens after we die. To Aeneas’s plaintive question to his father in the underworld, when he asks “Father, do some souls really soar back skyward/ From here, returning into sluggish bodies?/ What dreadful longing sends them toward the light?” I quote only part of Anchises’s magnificent long answer, with its Pythagorean and Lucretian overtones:
But when, on the last day, a life departs,
Not every evil sickness of the body
Wholly withdraws from the poor spirit—many
Are long grown in, mysteriously ingrained.
So souls are disciplined and pay the price
Of old wrongdoing. Some are splayed, exposed
To hollow winds; a flood submerges some,
Washing out wickedness; fire scorches some pure.
Each bears his own ghosts, then a few are sent
To live in broad Elysium’s happy fields,
Till Time’s great circle is completed. . . .
(Aeneid VI 735–45, translated by Sarah Ruden)
Quisque suos patimur manes. Ruden renders it “Each bears his own ghosts”; LeGuin qualifies this recognition: “We each have to endure our own afterlife . . . or that is one way to understand what he said.” Here are a handful of other ways the phrase has been rendered: “All have their Manes, and those Manes bear” (Dryden, 1697); “We all endure/ Our ghostly retribution” (Christopher Pearse Cranch, 1872); “Each our own shade-correction we endure” (T. H. Delabère-May, 19th c.); “Each of us finds in the next world his own level” (Cecil Day Lewis, 1952); “First each of us must suffer his own shade” (Allen Mandelbaum, 1961); “We each suffer his own shade” (Robert Fitzgerald, 1981); “Each of us must suffer his own demanding ghost” (Robert Fagles, 2006).
I love the ambiguities here. There is a suggestion of punishment, a punishment that seems not only earned—just, purgative punishment—but also reflexive. Are we not our own ghosts, or rather, are they not us? What we suffer is the consequence of ghostliness. And ghostliness brings me back to the invisibility I started from. What is invisibility if not ghostliness? There are other ghosts in this vicinity as well, too many to count. Dementia—especially when it is linked, as George’s is, to aphasia—is a guaranteed purveyor of ghostliness. I also think of what the dying Keats referred to as his own posthumous existence. Looping back to Vergil, I think of Aeneas carrying his father on his shoulders out of the ruins of Troy. It seems to me I’ve been carrying George for years now; even though he isn’t at home any longer, I am still carrying him. The people I have met in the past year and a half, people whose husbands and wives and partners live in the same place that George does, are similarly carrying ghosts on their shoulders. To each his own, her own: quisque suos patimur manes. If there is also some sense of karmic pattern here, as in the Buddhist notion that all beings are owners of and heirs to their own actions—well, the Vergilian phrase, however we construe it, clearly encompasses that, too. Did George do something to deserve this ghostliness? Did I? “So souls are disciplined and pay the price/ Of old wrongdoing.”
Invisibility puts you in an uncanny position, but it’s a position I’m getting used to. Seen from one point of view, it offers a safe vantage point: you have a good view, plus you’re uncapturable. But it can also be drafty and chilly and lonely. One meaning of quisque suos patimur manes is surely that—in certain circumstances, anyway—each of us becomes a peculiar kind of ghost. We may feel like flesh and blood, but if we’re invisible to other people, then maybe that feeling is an illusion.
We teeter uneasily between worlds. The anthropologist Michael Jackson, who seems to live in a constant state of transit and transition, has recently written a book entitled The Palm at the End of the Mind. Although he writes and quotes poetry, and although his title suggests that he feels some sense of kinship with Wallace Stevens, Jackson isn’t primarily a poet but a student of human behavior. When he uses words like “liminal,” “penumbral,” and “border,” I know he is in ghostly—which is to say, familiar—territory; as a denizen of some kind of border zone myself, I pay attention. When Jackson asserts that “border situations not only imply a radical break from the known; they presage new possibilities of relatedness . . . the human capacity for forming bonds knows no bounds,” I recognize the truth of his words and I take heart.
Jackson observes, perhaps evoking Wordsworth, “all new life requires a death, even if this death is only a forgetting.” Beginnings do require endings. The other spouses at George’s facility have begun to fill a space in my life that started emptying out years ago, when George’s colleagues ceased to see me. The human capacity for forming new bonds is predicated on the loosening of old bonds. How confusing, then, that these old bonds continue to tug at me, no matter how loose some of them appear to have become.
I’ve reached some kind of balance, poised between old bonds and new. The ghost’s invisibility is contagious, so I’ve now become a little transparent myself, and I keep carrying a burden whose weight I often no longer notice. I bear my own ghost. When I visit George in his realm of aphasia, our two ghosts converse together, without words, but not without feeling.
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