Phenomenology : Cheltenham Elegies (3)



In Cheltenham Elegy 412, what surfaces is the phenomenological reality of ghosts (apparitions or phantom presences), and the unsettling sense that they can reside either inside or outside the mind, be attached to persons or places, and (possibly) inhabit multiple entities at once:

Each thinks the other a lonesome reprobate.
That’s what I guess when I see the picture.
It’s Elkins Park Square on a cold spring night;
they’re almost sitting on their hands. One
went up, as they say, one went down, but
you’ll never hear a word of this is Cheltenham.
They can’t gloat anymore, so they make an
art of obfuscation. That’s why I seldom go
back. Elkins Park Square is scary at night.
There are ghosts by the ice skating rink.

The first hinge to our discourse, and chiasmus to/with Keats’ Odes, is 412’s partial resemblance to Grecian Urn— that, in the Elegy, the Elegiac Protagonist is presented with an inanimate object (a photograph) which contains a representation of human life. A photograph, like Keats’ Grecian Urn, is an objective, outside the mind reality— and what we get, in contrast to Keats’ enchanted forest, is the dinginess and haunted decay of Elkins Park Square, further made lurid by the assumed coldness of the temperature when the photograph was taken. The phenomenological leap is made by the Elegiac Protagonist into the photograph— he attempts to inhabit the minds of both represented figures (who are ghostly in their physical absence from the Elegy itself), and conjectures, from the phenomenological “break-in,” that both accuse the other of both isolation and lawlessness. Meanwhile, Keats’ leap into the mind of the “fair youth” reveals only ease, comfort, and engaged sensuality— a sense of timelessness within sensuality as well. If the “fair youth” is a phantom ghost/phantom presence, he is redeemed by the vainglorious conceit of inclusion within the parameters of art and major high art consonance; first, by those who built the urn; second, by Keats’ memorializing of the urn in a later era. The two antagonists in the Elkins Park Square photograph are redeemed by nothing; we learn that one has managed to find a place in the world against the other, but the details of the situation are caught and clipped by “coldness” and amorphousness. The Elegiac Protagonist demonstrably has back-knowledge of the situation between the antagonists, and is on intimate terms with their strife (while Keats’ intimacy with his “fair youth” is suspect); but the photograph freezes for eternity the essential mystery of a beleaguered situation (why the Protagonist must “guess”), and the situation and the mystery themselves become ghosts, as does Elkins Park Square and Cheltenham itself, as a phenomenological, as well as a physical, reality.

As we continue to interrogate 412, the mysteries, and the ghosts hewn into the mysteries, multiply— who is it that the Elegiac Protagonist is talking to, who is showing him this picture and demanding a reaction? Is it an Antagonist, as in 414, a competitive brother, as in 261, or some other combination of sensibilities and motives? The sense that the Protagonist is surrounded on all sides by phantom presences is difficult not to discern— whether in the photograph, showing him the photograph, or “ghosting” the entire scenario by having created the context out of which all these relationships and situations could have unfolded. Because the Elegiac Protagonist is beleaguered by ghosts on all sides, and the phenomenological tension of their presence, of whether they exist objectively or only within his own consciousness, it is easy to imagine why the Elegy ends with an apostrophe to the kind of nothingness Cheltenham place which generates phantom presences and apparitions— again, the fulsome, lurid banality of Elkins Park Square, and the ice skating rink which does, in fact, sit on one of its borders. What makes 412 a well-rounded experience, within all this empty space, is that all the situations and interrelationships are rendered with intensity, and with a certain intimate insight into the consciousness of the Elegiac Protagonist. Oddly enough, unlike 261 and 414, 412 ends with an outside the mind, tactile derivative image— the ice skating rink near Elkins Park Square— which can serve as a metaphor towards understanding the coldness (iciness) of apparitional life, the way it stays on the surface of things, forces interiority to objectify itself, gives concrete form to cognitive-affective desolation and abandonment. That ghosts are a phenomenological reality, objectively existing both encased in and free from human consciousness, seems to be not only a subtext but an overt theme; and the elegiac nature of the poem incises that a haunted realm like Cheltenham not only generates ghosts out of its fraudulence, pettiness, and cruelty, but makes it so that once Cheltenham is an inside the mind reality, ghosts and apparitional presences must accompany and animate it.