The Ghost of Lew Welch by Evelyn Deshane

September 21, 2014

Lew Welch was a poet. Most people have only heard of him because of The Beat Generation and City Lights Books. He was good, though. Not just a hanger-on to the old crowd.

The story goes that Lew, in desperation to become a poet, moved away from the city. He wrote as much as he could at night, but he had to take a day job. Then he had to take extra shifts. Soon enough, he was too tired to write his poems at night. So, as a last compromise, he took a gun into the woods to end his life.

His body has never been found.

Some people spread rumours that he was still alive, living in a cabin and writing poems there. Other people said he killed himself and is now a part of the earth. Very zen, just like his later poems. Devon and I think that he’s still there, hiding. Whether as a ghost or an outlaw, we do not know.

In the morning, just before dawn, Devon and I get up and carry our guns into the woods.

“If a tree falls in the forest and there isn’t anyone around, does it make a sound?” Devon asks me with a laugh. He cocks the gun and steps over a rock.

If a poet goes off into the woods to kill himself, but no one finds his body, is he immortal? I do not know. If a poet produces work but cannot support himself, is he a poet? Lew didn’t think so. He wandered into these very woods, fed up with jobs in factories and being too tired to write. You buy the car to go to work and you go to work to pay for the car. In the modern age, this is our Sisyphean myth.

But there is another side to the story, Devon and I know. There is Charles Bukowski, who worked at a post office for ten years and never picked up a pen until suddenly he decided he had enough. He left to drink and write in his room until the end. There will always be outlaws who do not want to believe that they need to be ghosts in order to leave their careers behind. We can just wake up with guns and decide another fate.

Devon and I have left our jobs at twenty-nine. We wander into the woods because we think it’s going to be an easier fate. The two of us, writing partners like an ouroboros, go together so we can answer at least one question. If you wander into the woods in search of a ghost, does that mean you’re dead too?

Together, we know who we are. We see our reflections in the water, but unlike Narcissus, we do not fall in. We stop and get a drink. We move on.

“Who are your favourite partners in crime?” Devon asks.

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

“Bonnie and Clyde.”

“Jesse and Frank James.”

We step forward, past the pathway and into the thick trees. I check the map and old pages of poetry from Lew’s first published book. Things have certainly changed in forty years. There is more concrete and less woods. But we come upon a clearing that was the last place people looked. Poor Lew had no one to protect him, to help understand him until we arrived.

“Hey, hey Lew! We’re home!” we shout.

We get nothing as a response.

When we get to the centre of pine trees, we clear away the dirt. We sweep until we have a nice clean crop circle.

“What is your favourite book?” Devon asks.

“Catch 22,” I tell him. “What is your favourite myth?”

“Icarus.”

We wait under the hot sun, our guns melting in our hands.

“Hey Lew! Are you here?”

“Come on, Lew. How are you doing?”

We wait for the answer to our questions so we feel less alone. So we feel less like ghosts. Nothing comes.

“What is your favourite ghost story?” Devon asks me. “You know, aside from Lew?”

I think about it but I can’t come up with anything.

If we don’t find Lew soon, then Devon and I will walk away from one another. We will stand back to back, recite some verse, and then march and count to ten. We will turn around and fight one another, like outlaws, like cowboys. This is better than slam poetry. May the best artist – or ghost – win.

After an hour of waiting and calling for Lew, we begin to walk. Devon is taller than me and I feel his shoulder blades against the crown of my head. We begin to count.

“One.”

“Two.”

As we march on, we feel the earth shake in the distance. A loud crack echoes through the air, between the pine trees. I hear it. I turn to Devon, before we even reach five or ten. His eyes flare. He hears it too.

“Welcome home, Lew,” I say.

We hear another gunshot as a response.


Evelyn Deshane’s work has appeared in The Fieldstone Review, Hyacinth Noir, and Absynthe Magazine. In 2013, she was the runner-up for A&U Magazine’s fiction contest. She is also the poetry editor for Prosaic Magazine and has worked on the digital collections of poet P. K. Page. She lives in Canada.