Recently, I had the opportunity to do a reading with my friend Colin Hagendorf (author of Slice Harvester: A Memoir in PIzza) and musician and poet Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz. The night was hilarious and lovely, and I am still so honored to be asked to read with such a crew. During her reading, Sadie said something that caused me to reflect for days after.
She said that often, when people use the word “ghost(s)” in poems, they are using it as a filler word, merely as poetic device and not as people who truly believe in the existence of the supernatural. She got a laugh when she said that this was disrespectful to ghost, and while I did chuckle I also evaluated my own use of the word.
For a long time, I was that kind of science nerd that laughed at people who believed in the supernatural, life after death, anything that was beyond the tangible reality of chemistry. Even as that science nerd, I had been having interactions or experiences with ghosts since I was a kid. I’ll say here that I don’t care if you don’t believe. Go flex that intellectual superiority elsewhere. Even though I am a believer, for me anything that is capable of dying can have a ghost. Sadie’s introduction to her poem made me ask who are the ghosts in my poems? and I’m here to ask you the same, and also to answer that question.
To figure out who the ghosts in our poems are, and if we are doing them justice, we have to ask:
Who or what has died?
Why have they stayed?
I jumped into my manuscript and searched the word. I’ll sample a poem here and break down it’s use:
from Black Death, originally published by Slush Pile Magazine:
Sometimes my breath is
a tulip of fear.
dark hue of bruise; skin
like a plum, so sweet the world
surrenders its jaw to the flesh.
i see hung ghosts in the spit.
This poem in particular is about Antwon Rose Jr., but in a greater sense about violence against black people. The world I speak of is the white supremacist beast that “surrenders its jaw” to the people it views as both disposable and beneficial. The “hung ghosts in the spit” are the ghosts of black men, women, and children who have been lynched. I chose to keep the action of hanging here because the lynching as a practice has not disappeared, it has simply become more modernized. In Jesmyn Wards, “Sing, Unburied, Sing”; the past, present, and future exist simultaneously, on the same timeline, able to interact with one another. Though I wrote this poem before I read the book, the same concept is expressed here. The I in the poem is watching the past swallow the present, from the standpoint of the future (hung ghosts instead of hanging).
The ghosts in Black Death are imagined and painfully real. In some poems, maybe who or what has died is an idea, a love, a tightly held belief. In a different poem, I am in the kitchen preparing food when I hear this loud, sharp ringing. It was as if someone had struck a bell at the same pace for days. The sound started appearing after I had performed a ritual to cast a love out of my heart (I know, dramatic and gay, such a Scorpio). I looked everywhere and could not find the source. As I wrote the poem, I didn’t know that it was going to come to this end, with the ghosts of this love appearing, but it only made sense. I had to ask myself why she was still lingering, and still being in love with her was too easy of an answer. The poem ends with the ghost singing to me, in an almost taunting way, because she knows the ritual was desperate and perhaps a bit disingenuous. She knows I didn’t want her to leave, or at least not that way, that i was taking a route that drove me right past the heart of my feelings for her. In this case, the ghost stayed because I truly wasn’t ready to let her go.
As I look over my manuscript I ask myself again and again, who are the ghosts and why are they here? I become at peace with the reality that some ghosts can not be willed away or forced out with incantations and sage. Some of them have to stay and be put into poems until we figure out how and why they died, and what their purpose is.
Look at your essays, your poems; look at your words and ask if any of them are wasted. If you find that they are, inspect the space around the gap you are trying to fill. It will tell you something if you listen. As for ghosts, they are everywhere. I have a ghosts in my apartment right now. She’s a trickster. She hid my glasses case from me for months only for me to find it under my bedside table, where I had checked dozens of times. Whoever they are and whatever they do, show some respect. They are likely here for the same reason that you are.
ps: buy Colin’s book and Sadie’s book: Mouthguard!