Hilary Plum on Caryl Pagel

We’re delighted this morning to have Hilary Plum’s thoughts on Caryl Pagel. You can find Hilary’s first novel, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, here, and Caryl’s book of poems, Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death, here. — AS


I do not believe in biography, though I always believe in life.

The first or second or third night I met Caryl we went to a bar called George’s. You may have been there. It was the night of the seventh game of the NBA playoffs, Lakers vs. Celtics. Some nights a basketball game may suffice but this night life was greater. Caryl and I huddled to talk, heads close, drinks close. A man approached, terribly. He said: I noticed you two were pointed at the game. We two blinked. Do you follow basketball? he said. Not really, we said, meaning, dear God. Well, he said, do you know why they’re wearing different colors? and pointed at the screen. Reader, he was about to tell us what a team was. I wish I could report how perfectly I dismissed him. But I couldn’t even speak. As usual Caryl took care of everything.

I first read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience in college. I decided that semester that I shouldn’t have to buy books and every morning before class I’d go to the library to read that day’s assignment, and came to class with pages of handwritten notes, which I’d refer to throughout discussion. This was inefficient but intense. So when I met Caryl and perceived how deeply James had lived in and through her, I felt communion. If books are a means to commune both with the dead and one another. That is the hypothesis that we are endeavoring to prove. Or, to experience.

I say we because soon after I met Caryl I heard her read some of the beautiful the body poems that in her book comprise “The Botched Bestiary.” Afterward she was discussing the Society for Psychical Research, the organization founded in the 1880s in Boston of which William James was the first president. She mentioned forming such a group today, but not like that; rather she said that to her such a group was made up of all those who were thinking about these ideas and all those—like you two, she said, gesturing across the table to where we sat—with whom she discussed them. The unexplained, the presence of the dead: apparitions, patterns of grief, clairvoyance, collaborative research, testimony as proof. I don’t exaggerate to say a thrill went through me. That I might already be conducting (a conductor for?) this research; that I might be included in the labors and inquiries of a stranger’s rigorous and glorious mind.

What I mean is, knowing Caryl is comforting and thrilling.

I don’t know if it’s coincidence that this is how I imagine, how I might describe, what it would be to see a ghost. Profound thrill, radical comfort.

I took careful notes while reading Caryl’s first book, Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, but lost them. I like to think that someone found them and from them imagined a book, specter of Caryl’s.

From all this you’ll comprehend how I felt when Caryl invited me to work more with her at Rescue Press.

There are certain events (you are pointed at the game) that women live and witness, that women writers and teachers and editors and ______ live and witness, that we may come to refer to with the shorthand M v. W. It is important to discuss these events; it is important to be in contact with some formidable Ws for when one’s own spirit starts to flag.

James writes: Nevertheless, if we look on man’s whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can given an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions.

I quote this mostly to note how often Caryl may use that word dumb. It’s a joke, but a serious one: if the part of life for which the rational intelligence may account is relatively superficial. How do we know the rest? How do we live?

We investigate, we commune. Expand or dismiss or mourn or unname the self. Put your head close to Caryl’s.

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