Letter to a Ghost

A sandy path between dunes leads to the hillier dunes in Provincetown

I first encountered Richard McCann, poet, essayist, novelist, professor, in the mid-90s, in Writers in Print and Person, a literature class at American University. His name, a guest author on the syllabus, accompanied the required reading of Ghost Letters, his poetry collection. It was a modest gathering, maybe fifteen undergraduate students, and on the designated day he took a seat at the head of the discussion table, maneuvering his swollen abdomen into a too-small chair. He had a mottled complexion, large hands, thin blond hair that brushed his eyebrows and earlobes. Ice-blue eyes that concealed glaciers of sorrow.

Before we delved into the Q&A, he charmed—and disarmed—us all with a few witty, self-deprecating jokes. Still, even in laughter, his eyes were the saddest I’d seen, then and maybe still. He’d been through the unbearable: he was the last person standing in his family of origin, his partner lost to HIV. The multi-decade culling of his community; his own health crisis. He’d seen some shit. He wrote it all down. He polished the retellings, so what would stagger or even fell others became poems. He made the profane beautiful, and the beautiful sublime.

I learned of his death, Monday, January 25, 2021. I knew he had been chronically ill since the nineties. I knew he was 71. But it still stunned. He was the endurer. He was the recorder. I texted an old friend, who had also studied with him: It’s like the witness isn’t supposed to be mortal.

The spring semester of my junior year, I registered for McCann’s course, Literature of AIDS. This was 1998, and while the pandemic may have been somewhat muted compared to the previous decade, it still loomed and threatened. “Who signs up for this—are you all masochists?” he asked the small group of us, maybe twelve, on the first day of class. Perhaps we were. I only knew that, while we were heading into some dark places, I trusted McCann would be a revelatory guide. He was. Here were instructions on how to live with pain. Templates on how to declare one’s worth. Introductions to artists-as-warriors: Mark Doty, Jean Valentine, Tory Dent, David Wojnarowicz, Paul Monette, Tom Joslin and Mark Massi, voices that howled and wept and celebrated and refused to be silenced, even in death. Here were participants and witnesses, each class session such a shock wave of love and loss that we often stumbled out into the university quad, stunned into post-lesson silence.

Over the years, what I found enduring and remarkable was McCann’s invitation to witness, to have given our small collective a glimpse into how to stare down what tries to come for you, to break you and your loved ones, your whole community. The betrayer mattered not and could take many forms: a pathogen. A policy. Your own pathology. What mattered was, even in the midst of the attack, one could still say, I can create from this. I must create from this. McCann wrote and taught about the body—the ailing body, the desirous body, the decaying body, his own and others. How strange to think he has finally left his – to have at last cast off the source of frustration, creation, betrayal and beauty – and now leaves only a body of work.

At our last class, the appointed hour came. McCann said something poignant and kind to wrap up; I don’t recall the exact words, just the commingled sadness and gratitude that comes when any meaningful experience concludes. What I do recall is no one moved or spoke, as though we could will more time into existence. Of course, who knew better than McCann that we couldn’t? He looked at us, immobile and mute, and waited.  

“Go,” he finally said, and we did, reluctant, reverent.

Photo courtesy jenny k via Flickr Creative Commons