You know what’s funny? Chris Toll asked me to refer to him as “my friend the Ghost.” This was after we’d had a fight about whether the new Mission: Impossible was good and he thought I was going to take him down in a blog post.
It bothered him that I didn’t like the new Mission: Impossible. He made fun of me a lot for complaining that it was unrealistic. I admit that mine was a stupid argument to make against a guy whose own mission was so secret that he didn’t know it himself.
My friend the Ghost was well known. He was well loved. Everyone who knew him can say many surprising things about him.
Like, I’m surprised that my friend the Ghost knew so much about football. He loved the Ravens but always said they were pathetic. He said either they were pathetic “or the mob really does run pro football.” After a disappointing loss he said, “Perhaps they didn’t realize they needed to win.” Everyone talks about how Chris went to all the readings in town. I know him as a person who would sneak out of a reading early to catch the Ravens game.
I was also surprised when I realized how strong he was. One time I drove us up to Philly for some sort of poetry reading and at 1am I was way too exhausted to drive home. Chris, 30 years my senior, had no problem staying awake until he pulled up to his house, or ghost mansion or whatever, at 3 am. I slept the whole way. A similar thing happened on a trip to NYC. I think he liked doing it because he was looking for vampires.
My friend the Ghost referred to himself as a berserker. He said, “If you declare war, you’ll want a berserker.” (This is when I asked him to proofread a book.)
Did you know that the Ghost loved to pee outside? It’s true, he did. He loved to duck into an alley and take a leak. Perhaps this is the most literary thing about him.
I’m not trying to say that it was a poem. You know the Ghost’s poetry. You know that for decades he’s been doing this thing where he goes “how come this word is similar to this word?” He’s really serious about that stuff. It isn’t just the words he’s referring to. I don’t think those words matter too much. Chris even said that “A poem is not the words.” He said, “A poem dances in joy, dances in sorrow behind the words.” He was doing moods.
In a note at the beginning of Chris’s book, Be Light, Justin Sirois said, “He, the body that I know, is immortal through a language that he’s poisoned, shot, stabbed, clubbed, castrated and finally drowned…”
Once my friend the Ghost and I argued about the way he uses guns in his poems. He’s got a new one where someone has a raygun in one hand and a sword in the other. I said, “Why not give him a sword and something peaceful in the other! Look, you already have a gun,” and I pointed to the grenade launcher a couple lines up. He said, “No, it’s history, a sword is from the past and the raygun is from the future. This is the battle of all time.”
In his poem “The United States of America” Chris writes, “I won’t get out of this life alive.” In “I’m Not Here,” he says, “I’m an army of ghosts.” “The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Inventions,” ends with the lines “I’m the clouds drifting over your roof. I’m the traffic streaming past your windows. I’m the floorboards creaking beneath your shoes.” “Make A Wish” begins, “I built my mansion on a falling snowflake.”
My friend the Ghost did moods extremely well. He said, “Art is a bed where I cry myself to sleep.” He’s a poet of desperation, but his are the least pathetic desperate poems you will ever read. How could they be, when they are called “Is the Bear in the Woods a Catholic?” or when they begin, “I call my sickness the Guest. The Guest will speak now.” Or when they end, “No one is forgotten and no one is left behind.”
What are you doing to us, Ghost?
I’ve been collecting memories about him from other people. One of the things that strikes me most is how generous everyone says he was. People recall him buying their book and giving them his. People write about how he was the first person they met in the scene, and how he was the easiest person to talk to in the room, and how he overpaid when they’d pass the hat at poetry readings.
He said, “Love is so hard, and it’s all we came to do.”
Here’s one of those interrogative lines I was talking about. It’s from “The Shaken is My Shepherd,” which Chris dedicated to me. It goes: “Why is cry in cryptic, and when will I stop?” I can’t begin to say how much I like having my name on that page. It made a tearful Friday a little easier.
I don’t think I want to remember Chris as a poet or a fan of comics or as a generous guy or a surprising one. I don’t want to remember him as irritatingly obscure. I want to remember those things about him, and I want to remember how funny he could be at dinner, how fast he could walk, how he would inflect the word “Interesting,” and calculate tips on his phone. I want to remember all those times he would speak to me in confidence and his numbered emails and his exclamation points. Those are memorable things—but the way I want to remember him is as my friend, the Ghost.
No, I just want to remember him as my friend.
No, forget that, I don’t want to remember him. I want him here.
I’d like to close by reciting “The Lard’s Care.”
who farts in heaven,
hollow be they name.
Thy bug rum dumb, thy pill be done
in birth as it is in leaven.
Give us this day our daily dead.
And forgive us our pets,
as we forgive our sweaters.
Read to us but not in a temp agency,
and eat liver for us at the eel well:
for thine is the checkbook,
and the skyscraper,
and the story, for a river.
Photo courtesy of BOMBLOG