blackbirdonline journalFall 2013 Vol. 12 No. 2
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Ghost Confederacy: Meditation on the Haunted Lyric; Richmond, Virginia; and Three Debut Poetry Collections

The dead make the best neighbors. I used to say this when I lived in a narrow brick row house on South Cherry Street in Richmond, Virginia, just two blocks down from Hollywood Cemetery. The graveyard, designed in 1847, rises on one side of the James River in a labyrinthine sprawl of grassy hills clustered with its namesake’s deep green holly trees, gnarl-kneed magnolias, bark-sloughing sycamores, and cedars that smell like burnt sugar when damp after rains. Beneath the trees lie the ivy-draped headstones of an eclectic mix of skeletons: Confederate generals; victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic; the editor of The Richmond Times–Dispatch, Virginius Dabney, who wore sharkskin trousers and won a Pulitzer for his work championing civil rights; the suffragette Lila Meade Valentine; James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States; and the Irish schoolteacher, William Burke, whose pupil was the teenaged and not-yet-famous Edgar Allan Poe. In the middle of the graveyard arch several horseshoe-shaped “whispering benches” of white marble, with specially designed curves to amplify echoes. This way, a person seated at one end of a bench can whisper over her shoulder and send her voice, with perfect ghostly clarity, to the ear of the person perched at the opposite end. The cemetery’s baroque mausoleums bear surnames like “Slaughter”; others glint their windows of jewel-toned stained glass; another’s rumored to house the legendary Richmond Vampire, who’d sprung, it’s said, from the bloody wreckage of a caved-in railroad tunnel.

During the time I neighbored Hollywood Cemetery’s southern gothic wonderland, I studied poetry as an MFA student in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. In the fall, when the steamy tidewater humidity diffused into a smoky coolness, I used to carry my classmates’ poems to the cemetery and sit, barefoot, beneath one of the ancient magnolias. I’d write “use ‘to be’ verbs sparingly” in the margins, advocating for more colorful verb choices. I’d raise an eyebrow as I paused to sip tap water from my canteen, thinking that the dead folks lying a few feet beneath me would surely be happy to employ any “to be” verb at all. And when the paranoid carpenter who lived directly across from the cemetery’s sloping hillsides erected a six-foot cross made out of chicken wire in his side yard (to ward off spirits, I imagined), I felt lucky to live in Richmond’s ghoulishly atmospheric neighborhood, Oregon Hill, with its old Victorian row houses of multicolored brick; art school punks sipping cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon on cornflower blue porches; weedy gardens crowded with pinwheels and plaster gnomes; and a brick wall that still flaunts, in faded paint, the nineteenth-century painted sign for Victory Rug Cleaning. If I sat on the warped boards of my wooden porch on Cherry Street, on my left rolled the pleasantly lukewarm James River and the lush hills of Hollywood Cemetery. Behind me lay other shaded streets named for trees—Laurel, Pine—and inhabited by students, professors, and the occasional descendants of folks who had moved to the neighborhood to be closer to inmates housed in the nearby (and now defunct) Virginia Penitentiary. To my right sat the campus of VCU and the offices of my mentors, their shelves in Anderson House filled with books.

No matter how far away I get from Richmond—whether it’s the three and a half purgatorial years I spent slogging through my PhD in the swamp and concrete of Houston, Texas, or ambling the jasmine-sweetened beaches of Venice, California, where I live now—it will always be my home. Anyplace else ends up feeling rootless and blanched, alarmingly ahistorical. I couldn’t wait to leave Richmond, actually. After going to art school as a clay-covered undergraduate and then an MFA student in creative writing at VCU—for a total of eight years in the city—I was ready to leave. But since I left town, I’ve realized that Richmond, for better or worse, will always haunt me. Its slow, brown river and abandoned ironworks plant. Its horrifying past ties to the slave trade. Its Victorian estate-turned-park with koi ponds and a wisteria-roofed pergola. Its dense cemetery and pocked cobblestone alleys. Its diner with the tattooed waitresses and walls studded with antique doll heads. It’s where all my own ghosts lie. My ex-boyfriends: the glassblower-Deadhead who went to jail; the jazz-and-bluegrass bassist who returned to the mountains. My former apartments: the flophouse on Grove with my sewing machine perched on the coffee table; the one-bedroom on Hanover with the perilous blue balcony; the place on Park in which my fashion-design-major roommate knitted a quasi-Victorian bustle of bulging roses she called, gloriously, “Butt Garden”; the row house on Cherry where the dead and I slept equally well. My various career choices: waitress, cashier at Lowe’s, minor drug dealer, potter, and, finally, poet.


Recently, I discovered three debut poetry collections, published or forthcoming this fall and winter, authored by poets who’ve all spent a few years in Richmond as they studied creative writing (though at different times) at VCU. I wondered if through examining these collections as a group, I might discover similarities among their poetic sensibilities. I wondered, too, if their approaches to the lyric might also speak to my own experiences as a developing poet in Richmond. As I read Dexter Booth’s Scratching the Ghost (selected by Major Jackson for the Cave Canem Prize), Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam (chosen by Chad Davidson as winner of the 2012 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry’s First Book Award), and Emilia Phillips’s Signaletics (the Editor’s Choice for the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize), I’m struck by their poems’ lyric beauty and the subversions which complicate it: through the gothic or grotesque, the braiding of historical and personal narrative threads, and the construction of lyric speakers haunted by the past or by aspects of themselves. And though Booth is the only one of the three authors originally from Richmond (Faizullah hails from Texas, while Phillips is from Tennessee), all of them spent several years studying poetry at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I can’t help but notice the poets’ pronounced interests in the macabre, in ghostly figures, and in a particular mode of narrative braiding used to structure time in the contemporary lyric poem. Put simply: these authors write the haunted lyric. It’s a mode of layering fragments of narrative akin to those mottled cobblestones in Poe’s old city, the one that, set fire by retreating Confederate soldiers, slowly rose, transformed from the ashes. It’s a mode that perhaps first rooted itself in Richmond with the work of Larry Levis, who taught at VCU from 1992 until his death in 1996, and currently continues in what Linda Gregerson terms the “history-haunted cosmos”—that apparitional and eclectic juxtapositional mojo—of the poetry of David Wojahn, as well as in the work of other poets currently living in the city, such as Kathleen Graber and Joshua Poteat. The haunted lyric (one in which the author braids haunting personal details with historical, often ghostly, figures), while certainly not exclusive to the locale, may indeed be Richmond’s reigning poetic subgenre.

Larry Levis remains an abiding, if phantasmagoric, presence in Richmond. My first poetry mentor, Gregory Donovan, introduced me to Levis’s work while I was a twenty-two-year-old undergraduate student in art. I clutched my newbie efforts in my lap as I sat in his office to participate in one of his marathon two—sometimes even three—hour conversations about poetry. I remember Greg spinning in his swivel chair toward his printer to retrieve a copy of Levis’s poem, “Slow Child with a Book of Birds,” to show me how I might deepen my Narrow Poems about My Life through observing Levis’s braiding technique. Although Levis died nearly a decade before I entered the program, I seemed to encounter him everywhere. I couldn’t walk to campus, past the abandoned bakery on the corner of Cherry and Cary, without glancing at the spray-painted graffito on the boarded-up building’s front door: a black-and-white portrait of the poet above a rusty mail slot, with the epitaph, “Larry Levis, Poet,” scrawled over the image in a barbed flourish of red script. In autumn, I’d watch a breeze lift the scaly layer of aluminum mesh—half of what remained of the old bakery’s screen door—and flap it, like a tattered veil. The graffiti artist must’ve had to cut through the mesh to reach the wooden door’s white surface. Soon, similar images of Levis began to emerge on street signs or doors throughout the neighborhoods near VCU. In each one, he’s heavily mustachioed and glances skeptically to the side, as in that famous daguerreotype of Poe.

In the poem “Ghost Confederacy,” which Levis wrote in Richmond during the same period as the poems in his final collection, Elegy, the author imagines a field of Civil War soldiers, some posthumous and some living. They speak predominately in first person plural, as “we,” as a host of fellow ghosts or maimed soldiers. (It’s worth noting here Levis’s shifting points of view; Levis employs first person singular, a lyric “I,” only once, toward the middle of the poem, and finally, in the last three tercets, addresses a multidimensional “you” who seems to be simultaneously the enemy soldier, the spirit, the naïve child, and, finally, the reader: “that captured soldier, that / Enemy, that risen dust, that boy, that stranger, you.”) The “we” of the collective soldiers narrows to allow the observations of a first person speaker who recalls a moment from the war-torn battlefield in which “failure and desire” mingle and fill his mouth, like dust. Here are a few stanzas toward the end of the poem:

                                                          It tasted

Like the wafer a friend said the Holy Ghost
Came wrapped up in. The Holy Ghost tastes like dust.
It liberates the body from the body so riddled

With rifle holes you can look right through us.
Look through us to what? To slums and shopping malls?
To one suburb joining another? Who grieves

On minimum wages? Look through us to that place—
Within sight of the trailer park and the truck stop—
Where Gettysburg could not be reenacted,

Where what was left of us on either side
Lay down our rifles, wept, embraced each other once.

In “Ghost Confederacy,” the league of phantoms here encompasses not only the seceding states of the Confederacy during the Civil War, but the additional, more inclusive meanings of the term “confederacy.” In the parlance of government or politics, for instance, the term refers to a union of persons, parties, or states; a league. In legal jargon, “confederacy” denotes a group of people who have united for unlawful purposes; a conspiracy. In the poem, Levis creates a phantom confederation of dualities, a combination of elements so strange or contradictory they can seem joined in an alliance as bellicose as the rebellious southern states and as conspiratorial as the vacating spirit’s faithlessness to the body. These uneasy alliances in “Ghost Confederacy,” we learn, involve the spirit and the body, the sacred and the profane, the past and the future, the mingling tastes of failure and desire. How to reconcile them?

The physical bodies of the dead soldiers in “Ghost Confederacy” unify to become the site of a macabre yet visionary capacity: “the body so riddled // With rifle holes you can look right through us.” Levis gets much mileage from his stanza break after the adjective “riddled,” which allows the reader to first absorb his diction’s figurative potential and then its literal meaning: the body is enigmatic (a riddle) as well as damaged (riddled with wounds). The vision offered to us by the battlefield’s carnage, however, isn’t a sublime one; it’s a grimly unvarnished and seemingly anachronistic view of “slums and shopping malls” and “one suburb joining another.” One era’s confederation of sacrifices opens into another time’s league of derelictions: the explicit violence of the Civil War gives way to the eroded particulars of suburban sprawl. Among these uneasy confederations, too, lurk Whitman’s wrenching Civil War elegies, and Levis’s speaker’s claim, “The Holy Ghost tastes like dust,” echoes Horace’s pulvis et umbra sumus (“we are dust and ashes”) as well as the reminder, in Ecclesiastes, that “all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” Levis’s “Holy Ghost,” unusually corporeal and dusty in flavor, is significantly the only one out of three in the league of holy persons present amid the mud and gore of the battlefield (the others being Christianity’s more fixed and remote figures, God the Father and God the Son). Are the absent figures from the Holy Trinity invested in or even aware of the suffering caused by this war, we might ask, or is the dust of the battle an earthly debris and not, after all, a cosmic one? And though Levis’s poem is filled with oppositional pairings, his vision of reconciliation, however maimed and partial (like the wish to “reattach the amputated limbs / Of boys”), remains an aspirational and not entirely hopeless one: “What was left of us on either side / Lay down our rifles, wept, embraced each other once.” Here, the ghostly and the haunted living embrace what is left of hope.


Latent Print

Besmeared upon the plate, gelatin
cooked to harden with chrome alum,
cooled & then the layer of emulsion

poured center & tilted to cover
the surface entire. For two days,
Eakins frames the plates. The model

by the window fingers the sash
of her robe. Unnamed
in the photo, she sprawls, deadweight

in his arms, nude, hard shadows
beveling her curves. She appears
helpless with her fallen head, neck

exposed. If you’re ever kidnapped, bite
the car door, my father said one Sunday
after the divorce, Crown Vic en route

to his office. Teeth marks. I can find you
that way. Inside he sat me down & held
each of my fingers to an ink

pad, smothering ridges in black,
& then from left to right, prints
he rolled on a white card. These are yours—

they don’t change. In his portrait
carrying a woman, Eakins too is naked,
shoulders slung back. Behind him

an empty chair, three easels. Shuttered
by a student, the camera sears image
on dry-plate. As I stare

the woman grows heavier
& heavier in his arms. A lover maybe,
paid girl. Never let go, he will never.

I will find you. My father points to
the scans on the IBM. Whorl. Loop.
Whorl,      whorl,      whorl.

Emilia Phillips, in her debut collection, Signaletics, evokes her own macabre and improbable confederacy in which the body (and its sundry parts) becomes a locus of ghostly narratives both historical and personal. Her book’s title references Alphonse Bertillon’s nineteenth-century system of anthropometrical (yes, metrical) criminal identification, an apt allusion for a book of poems concerned with forensic science; arcane anatomical texts; ancient automata; the disorienting babble of cop radios; coded postcards sent from a speaker’s forensic-contractor father stationed in a distant war zone; and grotesque tumors that sprout hair and even a miniature lung: “peanut-sized, that trembled like a yolk.” Phillips’s broad erudition and her poems’ dazzling swirls of nineteenth-century science and art might seem wholly the modus operandi of a steampunk aficionado if it weren’t for the manner in which the author hybridizes the beguiling Wunderkammer of past centuries with her decidedly contemporary speaker’s restless curiosity, one that probes us to ask: What can be measured? What can we quantify? And though it would be easy for the author to ironize her allusions to Bertillon’s obsolete forensic technologies, Phillips approaches her received schema with an attitude of improvisatory earnestness and fascinated homage. Her juxtapositional technique often recalls her mentor David Wojahn’s particular vein of erudition-worn-lightly-and-slyly as a given poem vacillates between high and low culture, historical and personal realms, and grotesque and tender registers. The system of Bertillon’s Signaletics becomes, for the poems in Phillips’s Signaletics, a kind of tonal muse (its vigilance, its precision, its gravitas) as well as a provocative imagistic grab-bag (all those enticing body parts, study heads, and teeth).

In Phillips’s cinematic, incantatory lyric, “Latent Print,” quoted above, the author deftly juxtaposes two kinds of portraits, each obsessed, for different reasons, with capturing images of the body in time: an eerie black-and-white figurative photograph by the late nineteenth-century American realist Thomas Eakins and a contemporary speaker’s own fingerprints recorded in ink by her attentive, and perhaps overzealous, cop father. Phillips employs a braided narrative structure to create a hybridized—nearly holographic—portrait of a speaker’s relationship with her father, whose devoted precautions via forensic technology seem protective yet foreboding. “If you’re ever kidnapped, bite / the car door,” the father says. Here, Phillips creates tension through surprising enjambments and the suspensions they create. We expect, for example, the author to recount the father’s advice to bite the kidnapper, not the car door, though, upon further contextualization, we learn that the father is a cop (he drives a “Crown Vic” to work and has access to fingerprinting facilities). The father’s small-scale, scientific “portrait” of his daughter (her fingerprints) mirrors Eakins’s larger portrait of himself holding a corpselike model, though Phillips’s ominous diction as she describes the figure of the woman as sprawling, “deadweight // in his arms,” suggests an atmosphere of oppression. Even the play of light in Eakins’s photograph does violence, however artful, to the woman’s nude body: “hard shadows / beveling her curves.” Slyly, however, Phillips suggests that woman is not in fact helpless, that she only “appears” that way, the verb’s multivalent meanings implying that she’s literally been made visible, and, more significantly, that she only seems to lack agency.

Furthermore, Phillips suggests, the speaker’s fingerprints might enable her to defy helplessness in a future crisis. Perhaps the most affecting aspect of this portrait of the speaker’s potential strength, when juxtaposed with the cool artifice of Eakins’s photograph, is the love that drives the speaker’s father to fingerprint his daughter. “Never let go, he will never,” Phillip writes, deliberately leaving vague the pronoun “he,” so as to encompass both Eakins’s embrace of his model and the father grasping the speaker’s hands. The double-vision here seems a twenty-first-century twist on the arcane genre of spirit photography where the image of a dead figure appears in the developed print alongside the living subjects. The double exposure allows distant times to inhabit and haunt the same lyric moment.

Phillips utilizes grotesque or sensational imagery in “Latent Print” (the speaker biting a car door during a potential kidnapping, the Ophelia-like lifelessness of the model in the photograph) for its striking visual textures as well as its psychological import, pushing the associations so they mirror one another to create a nuanced portrait.  Also, this layering of time and of art and science twists throughout the poem’s helix-like structure until the two threads finally unite in a crescendo of hypnotic repetition (mimetic of the computer noises and nearly liturgical in its incantatory rhythms) in a final resonant image of the swirls of a fingerprint: “Whorl. Loop. / Whorl,      whorl,      whorl.” By the end of the poem, Phillips reveals that whether or not a portrait works against verisimilitude (as in Eakins’s staged anatomical forms) or toward faithful replication (as in the father’s scrupulous fingerprinting), understanding and enacting modes of self-representation demand a close attention to those details that may lie dormant, as in finding the chance recording of a fingerprint—a “latent print.” Just as the latent ghost, a residual spirit, is revealed in the print of a spirit photograph, the identity of the girl is already present—and waiting to be revealed—in her fingerprints.


The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief

Sister, I waste time. I play
            & replay the voices of these
hurt women flowering

            like marigolds or thistles.
Something lost, forgotten—
            that picture of you, violin

sewn fast to your shoulder,
            bow in one hand poised
eternal. Again, the power’s

            gone out—tell me, what is
it to say I miss you? Because
            you won’t grow breasts, never

feel desire rippling across you
            like bolts of silk these many
lithe men unshelf daily

            for my choosing. Because you
can’t reassure me I have
            the right to ask anything

of women whose bodies won’t
            ever again be their own. You
can’t blot away this utter sooted

            darkness. You don’t hesitate
when another birangona asks you,
            Do you have any siblings?

For decades, you’ve been
            so small: a child tapping
on opaque windows. Now,

            through the veranda’s black
iron bars, I see you, dark
            silhouette hurrying past,

a bagged red box dangling
            from one slender arm—gift
for a lover or mother. Again,

            the generator shudders me back
into light. Isn’t this, Sister,
            what I always said I wanted?

Similarly to Phillips, Tarfia Faizullah braids historical and personal elements, often with a gothic verve, throughout the poems in her debut collection, Seam. Whereas Phillips zigzags kinetically through history, Faizullah steadily foregrounds in her poems a central historical event: the tragedy of the Bengali women raped by soldiers in the Pakistan Army during the 1971 Liberation War in which East Pakistan seceded from West Pakistan to create the independent nation of Bangladesh. Faizullah bases many of her poems in Seam on the research she conducted during her Fulbright Fellowship to Bangladesh, specifically her interviews with the women known as birangona, or “war heroines” (though many of the raped women faced rejection from their families and friends and thus the term carries with it a bitter irony). Rather than utilizing only persona poems to inhabit and reimagine the birangona’s narratives, Faizullah structures Seam as a kind of poetical Bildungsroman. The book’s central speaker internalizes the macabre details of violence, transforming the historical atrocity into a sequence of haunted self-portraits and elegies that explore, and at times indict, the moral and aesthetic complexities of what it means to witness and to write of the birangona’s plight.

In “The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief,” quoted above, Faizullah calls attention to her speaker’s paradoxical feelings of detachment from and responsibility toward the violated birangona as she labels the speaker, in Kafkaesque fashion, “The Interviewer.” And, as in Phillips’s poem “Latent Print,” Faizullah’s speaker in “The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief” interweaves images of a ghostly photograph with her understanding of the body’s vulnerability. Faizullah’s speaker offers personal recollections of a family member—here, a dead sister—troubled by the testimonies of the birangona, vacillating between the two worlds until they seem to fuse with the speaker’s own self-interrogation.

In Faizullah’s poem we discover that the birangona’s recounted experiences of violence have triggered the speaker’s recollection of a personal sorrow: the loss of her sister, who died as a child. Addressing the sister as “you,” the speaker questions the efficacy of her own modes of expression: “tell me, what is / it to say I miss you?” Faizullah’s conflation of historical tragedy with personal grief, we learn, is an uneasy one, as fraught as that taste of “failure and desire” mingled in the mouth of the soldier in Levis’s “Ghost Confederacy.” Here, the sexualized nature of the violence in the women’s stories of rape conjures an unsettling thought in the speaker regarding the loss of her sister, whose death as a girl also meant the loss of ever maturing into a woman: “Because / you won’t grow breasts, never // feel desire rippling across you / like bolts of silk these many / lithe men unshelf daily // for my choosing.” The sensual pleasures offered by the silk merchants, so easily accessible to the speaker, remain unavailable to the dead sister. And because the sister remains a child in memory, the speaker notes, “you / can’t reassure me I have / the right to ask anything // of women whose bodies won’t / ever again be their own.” Neither the haunted bodies of the birangona nor the form of the sister can ever be “their own,” Faizullah suggests, claimed as they are by an effacing and enduring violence.

In the eighth stanza, Faizullah’s use of the pronoun “you” becomes slippery as the second-person address to the sister seems more like a stand-in for first-person, a self-address: “You don’t hesitate / when another birangona asks you, / Do you have any siblings?” Upon a cursory read, the lines slip past matter-of-factly, as we assume that one of the women responds to the interviewer with the question. The notion that one of the birangona might actually see and address the specter of the posthumous sister, however, suggests a level of identification and a shock of gothic phantasmagoria that destabilize the nature of the speaker’s interview. What’s reported? we ask ourselves. What’s projected?  And as Philips’s poem prompts us to ask, too: What can be measured through the body? Meanwhile, the voices of the birangona that the speaker “play[s] / and replay[s]” transform into images both floral and funerary (“marigolds or thistles”) as well as into the manifested phantom of the speaker’s sister: “I see you, dark / silhouette hurrying past.”

Although the sister has remained a child in the speaker’s memory for years, having died as a girl, the phantom figure finally transforms from “a child tapping / on opaque windows” into the figure of a woman. The “dark / silhouette,” we learn, is not that of a girl but a mature woman, one with the capacity for sexuality, and who carries “a bagged red box dangling / from one slender arm—gift / for a lover or mother.” This apparitional-adult version of the sister, Faizullah implies, may be a ghost, a shadow of a Bengali woman moving through a marketplace, or perhaps one of the birangona themselves. Yet if the sister has finally grown up, Faizullah suggests, she’s now a woman and is therefore not safe, as she, too, is potentially a subject of violation, like the birangona. “Isn’t this, Sister, / what I always said I wanted?,” Faizullah writes, allowing the pronoun “this” to unite her speaker’s multivalent desires: the wish for her sister to have had the opportunity to grow up and the speaker’s own hope for empowerment through offering voice to the silenced women.

At the end of the poem, however, it’s the clacking of the generator rather than the voices of the “hurt women” that “shudders me back / into light,” pulling the speaker from her haunted reverie back to the task of witnessing, though the speaker begins and ends the poem with a direct address to the sister, who remains the central preoccupation. Significantly, the sister is also the only figure in the poem who remains mute: the birangona speak, and even the electric generator, surging back to life, provides illumination. Faizullah leaves her speaker’s questions unanswered, and like Celan, remains troubled by her own culpability in the aestheticization of violence in the lyric poem. The sister, that enigmatic genius loci, hurries past, without absolving the living speaker or simplifying her task in asking the birangona to give a shape to their suffering, even as the speaker sees more than she asks for in their inclusive grief, as she finds herself called upon to give shape to her own suffering and loss.


Under the Weather

A child once told me the sun is the deadliest animal—
violent, never blinking. On Sundays
I sit on this mountain with a bottle of water and a book—
any book—not reading, jotting balloons in the margins.

I don’t go outside enough, and I know it, imagine
the landscape circling my window at night,
mountains angry and foaming with weather.

There are reasons I sleep until noon,
Ignore the hours, patchy and corn-yellow on my eyelids.

Up north they say the hills move slowly like tongues . . . 


I saw a video once of people gathering to burn
letters to loved ones who had passed.
They were sick with grief, but shuffled around the fire
waiting for someone to speak.

I once heard you whisper
            The decision to give words to suffering
            is still a decision.

A man robbed a Wal-Mart in Ohio.
When the cops were called he ran and hid
in a dumpster. The not-so-funny part is that he was
picked up by a truck and compacted
for an hour. He called 911 from the truck, screaming
that he was being crushed, that he couldn’t feel his legs.

It took the cops another hour to pinpoint the truck
and they tried but couldn’t pull him out. They dumped
him on the street and said all they could see was an arm,
dangling from a mound of flattened boxes.

I only laughed because of how easily it could have been me.

Dear pomegranate,
dear wild iris and seed, I will do things differently the first time—again.


Before I peel the curtains back like flaps of skin,
what I am rolls over in the body,
restless—the window chattering,
             the voice of a truck moving through everything
                          like a ghost.

I fear the news the way I fear the truth.

On the mountain the sweat coats my face
like pollen. The higher I go the more anxious
I become. My heart is swollen as a calf
bitten by a spider, the body
dragging itself in delirium, going everywhere
but home.

In Dexter Booth’s poem, “Under the Weather,” from his debut collection, Scratching the Ghost, the author evokes a speaker’s fear of mortality as well as his own restless interiority. Booth utilizes the circular structure of M.H. Abrams’s greater Romantic lyric even as he defies its conventional gestures toward a culminating epiphany. Additionally, whereas Faizullah’s speaker in “The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief” appears haunted by the birangona’s tragedies and her apparitional sister, Booth’s speaker is largely self-haunted: by his sense of failure and by the darkly fated atmosphere he projects. Just as Booth’s title “Under the Weather” suggests that his speaker is beneath or subject to the clouds under which he moves, it also evokes the ominous seafaring term in which the names of ill sailors, once they had filled up the proper column in the captain’s log, were then recorded in the column dedicated to the weather. Because of the close quarters of the ship, disease spread rapidly, putting more sailors’ names “under the weather.” A claustrophobic preoccupation with one’s own past failures, Booth implies, can become a kind of illness.

Tonally, Booth’s speaker wields a casual deadpan: “I don’t go outside enough, and I know it,” he says; “There are reasons I sleep until noon.” Quickly, however, Booth’s imagery in the poem’s first section takes an ominous turn: “Up north they say the hills move slowly like tongues . . .” The hills, tongue-like and undulant in shape, may also appear to the speaker as a kind of Pentecostal glossolalia, or language of the spirit, that, while speech-like and seductive, remains incomprehensible, at least by linguistic standards. Similarly, the speaker recounts another befuddling ritual: “I saw a video once of people gathering to burn / letters to loved ones who had passed.” The speaker’s recollection of a friend’s advice echoes the often problematic plight of the poet, and perhaps more specifically the elegist: “The decision to give words to suffering / is still a decision.” Like Faizullah’s braiding the grief of the birangona with her speaker’s own anguish, Booth’s self-reflexivity operates with ambivalence.

In the poem’s second section, Booth’s subtly foreboding imagery becomes more explicitly grotesque and corporeal as he evokes a burglar who, after fleeing the scene of the robbed Wal-Mart, jumps into a dumpster and gets compacted, even as he tries to call 911 for help. “I only laughed because of how easily it could have been me,” he writes. Booth’s speaker’s identification with the ill-fated burglar seems at first like a startling instance of gallows humor, though we come to understand the similarities between the men not on a superficial level but on an archetypal one. That is, the speaker is less like a thief and more like a man who hides aspects of himself and risks destruction. Like the soldiers with amputated limbs in Levis’s “Ghost Confederacy,” both men in Booth’s poem become sacrificial figures. And like Persephone, bound to the Greek underworld by the fateful seeds of the mythic pomegranate, the speaker’s invocations of the spirit by way of the beguilingly resurrective spring foliage seem impossible to fulfill: “Dear pomegranate, / dear wild iris and seed, I will do things differently the first time—again.” The speaker’s promise of change, however, seems short-lived, as before he can even “peel the curtains back like flaps of skin, / what I am rolls over in the body, / restless—the window chattering, / the voice of a truck moving through everything / like a ghost.”

An oddly dark sense of fatedness governs Booth’s poem—there’s no home for the speaker, and no sense of consolation, either. And even though his speaker’s invocations to spring may address the spirit, he remains ghostly, even to himself, and the body seems like nothing more than a fatted calf (or a human’s “calf / bitten by a spider”) offered up for sacrifice, a restless spirit driven over the face of the earth, “going everywhere / but home.” The speaker tries to ascend from the world and his apathy, that Hades-like realm, but his ever-present fear of mortality haunts him, “the voice of a truck” (like the one that compacted the hapless burglar with awful, impersonal omnipotence), “mov[es] through everything / like a ghost.”

There are many ghosts moving through the poems in Booth’s debut collection: memories of the speaker’s beloved deceased grandmother who admired Kenny G and suffered from phantom limb pain; his sister who doubts her own beauty; his absent and unknown father; and the domineering presence of a man referred to only as “my sister’s father.” And like the phantom limb pain to which the title of Booth’s collection alludes, the desire to ease one’s own hauntedness (or that of a loved one’s, in the case of the grandmother with an amputated limb) requires a complex reckoning with one’s past and oneself—through memory, through art—an imaginative resurrection that’s something like “scratching the ghost.”


“That dust you taste in the Holy Ghost is us,” says Levis’s host of phantoms in “Ghost Confederacy.” They continue:

Dust ground into the windows you gaze out of,
And whether those windows burn or whether lights
Come on again in rows of quiet houses is a matter

Of how you treat him, sitting over there and still
Bleeding from a bad haircut, that captured soldier, that
Enemy, that risen dust, that boy, that stranger, you.

Sometimes that “captured soldier” is an enemy, we learn, and sometimes it’s the grit of a cosmos-permeating spirit: “that risen dust.” Sometimes it’s a boy or a stranger. Any of these figures, Levis implies, could be “you.” “And whether those windows burn or whether lights / Come on again in rows of quiet houses is a matter // Of how you treat him,” Levis writes, suggesting that an act of compassion could prevent the burning of a conquered city, could allow lights to illuminate the houses instead of an razing fire. We know, though, Richmond burned.

As I sat in the upper bedroom of my brick row house on Cherry Street, my window lit, my copy of Elegy slowly filling with that first year’s worth of scrawled marginal notes, I didn’t yet know that I loved my city. I didn’t know that a cemetery (of all places!) would become a landscape that eclipsed all the others I’d encounter. There’s a double exposure of my life in Richmond which emerges in the least likely of places: I’d see the James River move through the algaed white oak swamps as I attempted what passed for hiking in Texas. Or now I find the familiar limbs of a magnolia in the muscular silhouette of my front yard’s California olive. I can’t get rid of the place and I’m not sure I want to. The haunted lyrics in these three debut collections are my reminder: Like Tarfia Faizullah’s “dark / silhouette hurrying past,” Dexter Booth’s “voice of a truck moving through everything / like a ghost,” and Emilia Phillips’s disembodied fingerprint, we all carry a confederacy of ghosts within us—at once a supportive league and a conspiratorial host.  end

“Latent Print” by Emilia Phillips was originally published in Signaletics (2013), and is used by permission of the University of Akron Press.

“The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief” by Tarfia Faizullah first appeared in Mid-American Review, Volume XXXI, Number 2, Spring 2011.

“Under the Weather” by Dexter L. Booth appears in The Journal, Vol. 38 #1, Winter 2014.

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