In two long-form poems, Phantom Hour examines the elegiac importance of memory and lineage, both poetic and genealogical, as a mode of reclaiming a father’s narrative lost to dementia by embracing the incantatory and reanimating power of the sustained lyric project. The book builds on the idea that history is reliant upon memory and mythopoesis—how we mythologize our own stories. Interweaving threads of family history, the navigation of complex personal relationships, and an investigation into the causes and effects of dementia, Phantom Hour explores the erasure and reclamation of memory’s narrative and the mythology a son constructs around his father. It is Meetze’s most personal and most project-oriented work yet.
“In Phantom Hour, his third full-length collection of poetry, James Meetze continues his brutal investigation of metaphysics, following thoughts in mesmerizing lines of poetry as if doing so might indeed lead to meaning beyond musings. The goal of this particular book, though, is to understand whether the image or the memory of the image is more valuable, and to do so without being sidetracked by the foreboding sense that there may be no value at all. Or as Meetze himself puts it, ‘There is no quick brown fox to jump / over anything. / I’ve been outfoxed. / I’m waiting for something to arrive / in the phantom hour.’ This is a brilliantly philosophical collection of stunning long-form poems. I wish I had written it.” —Jericho Brown, author of The New Testament
“Unflinchingly honest. Heartbreakingly sincere. In Phantom Hour, James Meetze has written the tremendous joy and grief that is living with memory’s ever-fading light: ‘The myth of god in the lapse of memory is released, out of love, for the truth and the desire to bring it light.’ Part meditation, part lament, Meetze grapples with the loss of his father’s memory—and the hold he has on his own. To read this book is to remember the spark that connects you to all souls past and present, and to the words you use to call out to them. Phantom Hour will make you weep for its beauty, veracity, and bravery—but most of all for its love.” —kathryn l. pringle, author of fault tree
“‘Poetry is the darkest art,’ James Meetze writes in Phantom Hour, but the lines in this brilliant collection flash with an incandescence at once peculiar and vital. The poems brim with light—the light of Southern California and the interior light of the mind—and become a primer on how and why to sing in a world beleaguered by artifice, war, and doubt. Meetze limns the edges and undercurrents of our present-time condition for the relief of song: ‘I can say dark because I know / how light happens; every filament / burns toward its end like we do.’ Phantom Hour is a book that returns to you, as you return to it.” —Joseph Massey, author of Illocality
Dark Art 4
The moon is a burnt-out Edison bulb.
You can’t read by it, it’s so cold.
A realer cold gathering in the touch
of dreams of real people
as ghosts, saying words that won’t ever return.
The words have not unfinished business.
They are magicked into being
in our throats, our mouths, in air, to say
“where language fails, poetry begins.”
So we are present at its genesis
on I-don’t-know-what day.
We thump out its rhythms metronomically
like a phantom hand drums on our shoulders.
If the rhythm of all life, if you listen,
shines in the body like a celebration,
then why is it so hard to be happy
to be inside a life, and living it?
To not be darkness
or the absence of real light under a dark sky?
Why does the city’s glare subjugate the stars?
It’s the history of light being guided
to each of us, to illuminate a path
to follow the voices that lead us on our quests.
To find whatever the grail might be.
Copyright © 2016 by James Meetze
After graduating from UC Santa Cruz and finishing my MFA at Mills College in 2003, I spent two years living in San Francisco and typesetting books for a travel guide press in Berkeley. I felt a pull to leave, or maybe I was being pushed out, and as I’m drawn to change, I moved back to Southern California. I had a few book design jobs that I could do remotely. I’m very thankful for those jobs.
For a few months, I stayed with my parents in a small retirement community in the desert. At that point, my father, then in his late-70s, was beginning to show signs of significant memory loss, which would become dementia. To say that we had never gotten along is a revision out of kindness. However, the importance of knowing my own lineage, which is also his, pushed down on me until I gave in to the impulse to ask about it.
At the same time, I was digging up and transcribing James Schuyler’s unpublished poems in the Mandeville Special Collections Library at UCSD, where I would later spend 5 years teaching creative writing. The project of excavating Schuyler’s papers and extracting information about my own patrilineage, in many senses, blurred. I was interested in getting as much story from my father as he could remember, but as that memory began to falter, the stories became clipped; there were lacunae. These stories and fragments lived in a notebook while I settled in San Diego, started teaching, sold medical equipment, formed a dream-pop band, and kept teaching.
My first book was published in 2007 by an upstart press that quickly folded. Nothing much happened with it. In 2010, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems by James Schuyler and Terrence Hayes selected my second book, Dayglo, for the Sawtooth Poetry Prize. It was around this time that I’d begun writing in a more mystical mode, but I couldn’t tell where it was taking me. On a friend’s recommendation, I spoke to a psychic. She was atypical of the stereotypes and knew things about me that she shouldn’t have known. She knew immediately that I was a writer and told me that I was writing something and didn’t yet know what it was. She mentioned Merlin—yes, the magician of Arthurian legend—but was clear to note that he was the only character of legend that could be proven to have lived. She said that writing is magic and that it flowed from me like a river. No joke. It was this that spurred me to revisit Arthurian lore, and delve into a deep engagement with the history and literature of prophecy and mysticism. The poem became “Dark Art.”
It was this quest for historical information that brought me back to that notebook full of my father’s stories. Dementia had now erased a much larger portion of his memory. My project became genealogical in nature. I traced the Meetze line in America to one Hessian soldier, conscripted against his will, and made to fight for the British in the Revolutionary War. He quickly deserted, assimilated with the other German immigrants, and became the first Lutheran minister in South Carolina, where my father was born and raised. From this new trove of information, a poem took shape. In the time it took to write it, my father lost most all of his faculties for language, save for a few single-syllable words. The trace of that language is here. I called the poem “Phantom Hour.”
My research and writing process led me to enter the doctoral program in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. I am currently writing a dissertation on Robin Blaser, the lyric self, and the construction of a rhizomatic, intertextual poetics. With Ken White, I have also written scripts for a television pilot, LIT, and the high-concept supernatural horror film, The Orpheum Circuit. With my partner, the artist and designer, Kerry Hyatt, I live in Los Angeles and San Diego, where I teach creative writing and film studies at Ashford University.
Phantom Hour is a book of ghosts. It is haunted by genealogy, by memory, by voices that are no longer able to speak. It is a representation of how history and the body—the narrative of bloodlines—shape the mind. It is the product of careful excavation. It interweaves connected lineages with the purpose of discovering the many formulations of identity. It also serves to memorialize the memory lost in my father’s struggle with dementia. Phantom Hour is a very personal book, always attuned to the ways in which narrative shapes the psyche that writes it.
If we read grammar as spell, then language has the capacity for magic. If we read word as wound, then language can also be weaponized. Such is the power of narrative. The narratives we tell ourselves and the narratives told to others shape the way we move in the social sphere, why we respond to certain things and not to others, and how we feel toward ourselves and toward the public world.
When my father began to forget—at first they were little things, then whole stretches of time—I felt a profound sense of loss. It was a loss of both this person who so shaped me, but also a loss of the narrative I didn’t yet know and would soon lose access to completely. The traces of this narrative were fleeting, fading, and so I set out to capture what I could. I dug into various networks devoted to genealogy and to the history of South Carolina, the state in which my father was born and raised, and about which I knew so little.
From the fragments, a narrative cohered: the Revolutionary War, the Lutheran Church, the U.S. Navy, one family, then another. The way violence and lyric have made me are the way that punctures and punches, directives and correctives make the poem. The horst und graben of its architectonics follows the repetitions and the gaps in the narrative and emulates the actuality of dementia’s grasp and release on the afflicted. Alternating between lyric and prose, Phantom Hour fixes and speculates on what was, what is, and looks for meaning in its genetic code.
This book pulls from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini and The History of the Kings of Britain, Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and texts on the history of the Lutheran Church in the Carolinas, from Whitman, Wittgenstein, Spicer, and Duncan. It samples songs and oaths of allegiance. It collages medical texts and historical documents to collide particles and make something new from the forgotten. Phantom Hour is as much about taking back the narrative as it is about the process of letting go. Phantom Hour is inhabited by all of these voices as much as it ekes out its own.