New Price:
Used Price:

Mentioned in:

Hearing Voices and Talking Back: On Bibliomancy


I. Bibliomancy is a form of divination in which one consults a book for answers and advice. The process is simple:

Stand the book up on its spine.
Ask your question.
Let the book fall open to a random page.
With your eyes closed, place your finger on the open page.
The passage on which your finger lands contains your answer.

Throughout history, sacred texts like The Bible and the I Ching have been prime bibliomantic candidates. The ancient Romans often used the work of Homer and Virgil.

I made my first foray into bibliomancy while reading Ronald Johnson’s ARK for a graduate class on serial poetry. It was partly a matter of coincidence: In “Ark 73, Arches VII,” Johnson references the “sortes vigiliane,” or “Virgilian lots,” the proper name of the ancient Roman bibliomancy by way of Virgil. This was the first I’d ever heard of the practice, and I was curious to try it out.

I had another motive, too: I was looking for a way to reanimate the text. ARK is by no means a boring work, but it is an imposing one, a textual architecture thick with imagery, reference, incantation, and meditation, often collaged together fragmentarily. It is Whitmanic in its scope and joy, but this yawp endures for hundreds of pages. It’s a poem best savored in bits and pieces over time.

Unfortunately, graduate seminars necessitate speedier reading, which can harden Johnson’s oracular collage into an impenetrable surface of image after image after image—a stultifying litany instead of a kinetic careening. Bibliomancy was a way to foreground the sense of playfulness inherent to ARK that I had lost in marathon reading sessions. There’s a certain undeniable thrill to hopping from verse to verse according to the whims of the book and your blind finger.

An excerpt from my Q&A session with ARK:

Q: I would like to know more about my future in general.

Head deep
in neither
aether, nether

Q: I want a new job. What kind of work am I best suited for?

f lux f lux f lux f
lux f lux f lux f l
ux f lux f lux f lu
x f lux f lux f lux
f lux f lux f lux f
Q: Where is my path taking me in life?

into pool of being being
hommage floréal
ripple to what Ends ring going, gone
This being my first crack at divination, I stuck with your basic first-time-at-the-palm-reader’s set of questions. The answers, as you can see, arrived obliquely. Part of the fun of bibliomancy is hashing out the message for yourself. Ghosts wouldn’t be so connotatively rich if they made perfect sense. The occult, etymologically speaking, is that which is hidden.

What bibliomancy does is break the voice out of its monologue, placing it into a dialogue with the reader. It shepherds the figure in the crosswalk to the other side of the road, where you stand waiting to strike up a conversation.

Indeed, the voice is what one encounters when bibliomancing a text: not the author’s spirit, but the recurring figure locked in space-time, the autonomous consciousness birthed into language when the writer’s moment and the world’s moment touched and were forever rendered an object apart.

Bibliomancy isn’t a Ouija board; it doesn’t summon the spirits of the dead or distant. In only places the textual voice into a more dynamic relationship with the reader. We prod it with a question; it pushes back with an arcane response. That dialectical moment is where the magic happens.

Is a book a kind of ghost?

Yes, but depending on how we define “ghost.”

The folkloric and pop cultural ghost, at least in the traditions with which I’m familiar, is a disembodied spirit, a soul lingering on past its body’s exit. The exact mechanism of ghost production is hazy at best. All we know is, on occasion, death hiccups.

I’m not personally interested in this class of ghost, except when it comes to B-grade horror flicks. Its existence depends on a type of too-neat dualism: soul here, body there. Where the soul goes, there go consciousness and agency. The ghost rattles chains, spits blood from the sink spout. The body rots.

Consciousness, though, is profoundly embodied. Subjectivity arises at the continuous moment when self meets world, a process facilitated by means of matter. We forget how physical even the act of seeing is, but the eye is nevertheless an organ. It is the corpse that transforms light into imagery—and further up the chain, the fleshy masses of our brains arrange the sense data into more or less coherent understandings of the world, which the self navigates accordingly.

If a ghost is a disembodied soul, then we can’t call books ghosts. For one, books fail the “disembodied” test by virtue of being physical objects. And from what living creature was the book separated? The author? Can’t be. Authors tend to walk and talk for at least a little while after their books have come into being.

There are other, kookier definitions of “ghost” available to us. As with most things in life, this is where it gets interesting.

One especially outré theory goes that ghosts are not disembodied spirits but space-time glitches. To wit: The fabric of space-time itself gets kinked up in such a way that an event plays out at the right place but wrong time. According to this theory, your garden variety home haunt is not a dead person’s spirit, but the dead person themselves. They’re just “happening” at the wrong time.

I’m no physicist, but I can see why this theory doesn’t have much truck in the scientific community. Space-time doesn’t actually work that way. Still, it’s an alluring thought, and one that poet Cole Swensen makes use of in her spirit-themed collection, Gravesend.

In the poem “Varieties of Ghosts,” the speaker describes a stranger’s hypothetical encounter with a ghost version of the poem’s addressee a century down the road. “[T]he day,” our speaker begins:
arrayed itself                in overlapping screens                a superimposition of scenes in which
someone a century later crossing a street    turns around too quickly        and there you are
A “superimposition of scenes” offers an apt way to analogize the space-time theory of ghostliness. Time doubles back on itself and superimposes an earlier scene of the universe on a later scene. Presto—a ghost.

Swensen never mentions the space-time theory explicitly in Gravesend, though her imagery and stylistic choices bring it to mind often, particularly her heavy use of caesuras, which fragment her poems into paratactic units of language that relate to one another more spatially than semantically.

The ghost as a kink in space time: It works for Swensen, but can we consider a book to be an insoluble knot in the fabric of the real?

I think we can. Every book is a hardened mass of space-time persisting beyond its predetermined endpoint, because every book is ultimately a product of its historical moment and of the contents of the writer’s mind, which are also, of course, historically determined.

Tristan Tzara’s instructions on how to write a Dadaist poem offer a useful illustration of this principle:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article. Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.

The Dadaist poem draws its language from the historical moment quite literally by hijacking the words of a newspaper article which, we presume, describes or analyzes some current event, as newspaper articles are wont to do. Tzara can say that the poem ends up “resembling you” because the poet’s authorial hand is at work, even if only in arranging newspaper clippings. At the thin and calamitous border between the inner-self and the outer-world: That’s where a poem gets born.

Non-Dadaist poems follow the same principle. They can’t help it. All poems are made up of words, and words exist in languages, and the forms and meanings of languages are shaped by their historical moments. Just look at the way the existence of the Internet has changed contemporary poetry. Something like Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem could never have existed before the age of plentiful Wi-Fi, not simply because Pico uses chat lingo like “ppl” or “u”:
oh, but you don’t look very Indian is a thing ppl feel comfortable saying to me
on dates.

What rhymes with, fuck off and die?

It’s hard to look “like” something most people remember as a ghost,
but I understand the allure of wanting to know—

Knowledge, or its approximate artifice, is a kind of equilibrium when
you feel like a flea in whiskey.
The animating tension in these lines—and throughout the poem—springs from the struggle between an almost existentially exasperated irony and a probing, risky, sincere empathy that exposes the speaker to all manner of fraught relations. That’s Weird Twitter in a nutshell: Sincerity and irony grappling with one another, so close in their charged embrace that each passes through the other and comes out resembling its own double.

The poet works with a historically determined language and its historically determined concepts. As it passes through the poet’s hands, the language acquires some of the poet’s characteristics and concerns. This happens consciously, as when a poet chooses to write about personal matters, but also unconsciously. A poet can try to remove themselves from the language, to write totally impersonally. It can’t be done. The poet transmits themselves by touch in the act of using language. When Rosmarie Waldrop embraced the impersonal art of collage, her poems nevertheless ended up bring about her mother. (See Waldrop’s collection of essays, Dissonance (if you are interested). )

I’ve spoken at length about poetry because it’s the genre I know best, but all the same things can be said about fiction, about nonfiction, about any linguistic art that produces a text. All writing depends on language; all writing is, in some sense, the crystallization of a hybrid world-historic and author-historic moment. This crystal persists past its expiration date; it occurs whenever the book is opened, whenever the text is read. Every encounter with a book is an encounter with a different hunk of space-time superimposed on your own moment.

We speak often in the literary world of a writer’s “voice,” their idiosyncratic style of handling language. A voice is a kind of strange consciousness, distinct from but yoked to the writer. It often has its own agenda. In workshops, I’ve been amazed time and time again by perceptive readers surfacing facets of poems I don’t remember carving—but sure enough, they are there.

“Our writing is smarter than we are,” a former professor of mine, Laurie Sheck, used to say.

Like a human consciousness, the voice is the product of a liminal space. It comes into being when the writer and the historical moment meet; it finds its body in the language that results from this encounter. Swensen’s stranger crossing the street at the wrong time is the figure of the voice. You turn and it’s there. It’s always there. It declaims—for pages and pages it recites its endless and endlessly reiterated litany.

But a consciousness can do more than monologue if it comes into contact with another consciousness. How do we crack open the crystal and slip inside? How do we break the shell surrounding this displaced moment and usher the figure out to speak with us rather than at us?

We bibliomance, of course.

Image Credit: pxhere.

Surprise Me!