SUNNYLYN THIBODEAUX Reviews
On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson
(Solid Objects, 2013)
ON GHOSTS ON MY MIND
I quickly raise my brow at the common use of the word ghost(s) in today's grapplings with language and especially in the generic use as it seems handled in poetry of late. "Ghost" has become just as sterile and/or blasé in its overuse as "gourmet" has become in conversations about food. Don't get me wrong. I use both. But I do not take ghosts lightly. Although some professionals recommend that I should. So with trepidation, I opened On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson, brow raised.
I found myself quickly shifting to a defenseless gripped engagement with every note that she tells and every wrought idea she wrestles with. On Ghosts is articulately mindful of the sensitivities to the phenomena of ghosts. Not a leaning of one way or another, just a poetic captioning of the energies that require an honest perspective. It is all perspective.
A straight read, zero interruption the first go-around, in the bright sun of a mid-forty degree morning. Zero interruption is absolutely how I preferred it, but there was one: a backlit female that approached without invitation and began speaking about her dream the night before and how she's struggling to make sense of it and she should go to church and she is put off and it would be nice if she could make sense of the racist positions that people take and she loves her jewelry and she wishes she could play PLUNKO with the game show host. She laid it all out there, then smiled youthfully and moved on. It was a curious interruption that blended right in with the snapshots Robinson transcribes. In matter of fact, the backlit woman was hardly an interruption at all, but an energy that possibly leaped off the page -- a visitation of someone needing to be heard. After all, reading is listening; we just use our eyes (or sometimes fingers) to hear.
Robinson excavates so many truths in this book. I could quote from near every page. What truth is may be just as debatable as ghost itself. But with On Ghosts it resonates deeply within, to a core -- a physical, emotional, and philosophical root. "That to be alive is in so many ways to be haunted anyway, to be coursed through with hesitations." (24)
This collection has an intimate balance of story and poem and anecdote, as well as a combination of all that sings a beauty of possibilities. To ignore the possibilities of energy being trapped and revealed to receivers is, frankly, to ignore the poem. Robinson wraps up tightly with the fibers of others and wraps the reader into these woven tales.
Who is dead that is not dead? Or not dead that is? "The poem is the unburdening of ghosts of the past who have come to haunt the writer exposed to the labyrinth." A quote Robinson uses on page 42 without attribution. She lists on the colophon page that all unattributed quotes deserve credit to Robin Blaser and Barbera Guest. There are numerous other quotes that do receive their authors' tag mid-poem. I like knowing the specific reference but also like being forced to do my homework. The author tag could be left off all quotes to allow uninterrupted flow of this poem/essay. But neither ear nor eye was too easily tripped by this.
On Ghosts was given to me by a poet friend with the statement, "I thought you might dig it." Knowing my affinity for ghosts and both our minimal tolerance for bullshit, I figured it'd be worth my attention. He followed with saying, "I wish the photographs would've accompanied the text" and opened to page 40, which read:
Because the bedroom is dim,
it is hard to make out any figure.
Look to the upper right of the frame
for a grey smudge. It looks
a little bit like a scowling face.
At first glance, and as my introduction to the text itself, I agreed. How can we "Look to the upper right of the frame" if it isn't there? But later I realized to play bibliomancy in this sense was to take things out of context. The gripping of Robinson's language and content is so much about perception -- an internal picture: what we want to see and how we want to see it. Providing an actual image would only hinder this.
The particular description in Photograph #4 reminds me of when I was about the age of twelve and some family members had just returned from Medjugorje, where the Virgin Mary was to've appeared. Rocks were brought back from this sacred ground. And we sat with magnifying glasses to examine each one for a sign or a remnant of a sign. We discovered many faces. Was it Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or Grandpa? I was fixated, not to mention terrified. To this day can find faces in anything, from potatoes at the farmers' market to the wallpaper in the bathroom. And sometimes they still scare me.
Robinson beautifully stretches at the fabric of these myths and superstitions, these emotional accounts of grief, fear and comfort in the signs we all long for and conjure. This book is not for ghost-lovers or poets, for critics or sentimentalists, as much as it is for those who recognize that we all are of different energies and perceptions of energies. Each of us receives these and puts out into the world that which we can create, whether it be a poem, a photograph or an apple pie. We all want to be seen/heard as human beings. This is the human condition. We seek this affirmation from either side of the plain. Robinson calls on this contact as a complicated intimacy of intrinsic desire with the most artful of language, dark at times and matter of fact.
"When the apparition has whittled down your resistance, then you are less of who you are than you used to be" (5) The fabric of self is forever changed. You cannot unlearn an experience. You cannot unhear a call. You cannot unbelieve the way Robinson grips you with a relational deconstructing of ghosts as something that simply is other. Just like the faces that present themselves wherever I look, or try not to look, On Ghosts will be a go-to as an ideological reference on the phenomena of receiving signals as contact from either side, as both curiosity and need.
Sunnylyn Thibodeaux is the author of Palm to Pine (Bootstrap 2011) and As Water Sounds (Bootstrap 2014), as well as the small books 88 Haiku for Lorca, Room Service Calls, and Universal Fall Precautions. She spends her days kissing invisible bruises and picking up smashed noodles from the floor. She lives in San Francisco with her daughter Lorca and husband Micah, with whom she co-edits Auguste Press and Lew Gallery Editions.