Elizabeth Robinson crosses genre to reveal what it means to be haunted.
On Ghosts, the most recent book by Boulder-based poet Elizabeth Robinson, explores the phenomenon of haunting through essay/poem compositions. The premise takes for granted those uneasy disruptions of daily reality—for example, the suggestion of a face in bedroom darkness or the sudden telepathic yearning for a dying loved one. Although the voice of this text is reserved and almost impersonal, the reader comes into intimate range of the speaker’s uncertainty about “presences,” life, and identity. The combined effect knits an uncanny emotional texture that rings both brutal and delicate.
A dozen prior works by Robinson have established her in the conversation of Spiritualist poetry, particularly recalling the highly intricate though coldly lucid work of Keith Waldrop, one of her former mentors. As with so-dubbed “cross-genre” literature, Spiritualism is a sub-genre resistant to definition in any watertight sense, and like other contemporary writers who welcome the tag, Robinson’s use of page and word is an ambitious attempt to apply poetry to the imperceptible, or paraperceptible.
Presented as a series of short essays, descriptions of photos, free verse poems, and a broken sequence of “incidents,” the most radical gesture of On Ghosts traces an ultra-fine thread of language to give contour to the experience of being haunted. The “Explanatory Note” that opens the work proposes termite-eaten support beams of a building (the most basic depiction of a haunted house) as a sample of haunting: that ghosts, like an astringent, corrode a person or place as if sloughing off a layer of skin, heightening one’s sensitivity to perception—and this heightening of perception speaks as well to what great art does (a painting that makes red redder). This heightened perception of one who witnesses an incident of haunting is to be understood as a presence defined by absence, the ghost as an entity that is both there and not.
Robinson’s rubbed-down, raw use of language accomplishes feats of perception akin to magic tricks. For example, the interpretation of the soul Robinson conjures is subtle and elegant though exceptionally eerie:
. . . Soul, disclose this soul. Madly repeat
Yourself. Like a fine mist in the air, one
Doorway thrown open after another.
Here, the ghost is not a problem of mind/body duality or of spirits weighted down by earthly indulgence, but rather an essential, circular riddle of the self. The self is exposed not as an individual being, but a corridor that leads to another corridor to another corridor. But then who or what is throwing doorway after doorway open? Every question leads to another.
These now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t twists of line and concept are not ploys to confuse the reader, but rather the expression of “the doubting of doubt . . . the ugly gap where the ghost gets in.” In other words, the back and forth logic of the mind attempting to understand what it can perceive but not prove by the accepted rules of reality is that opening to another opening. Is that the glitch in being when a door clicks ajar on its own? Is that a hymn or your grandmother’s hum coming through the white noise of the poem?
The narrative bits and descriptions of photographs further strip reality of rationality. A child ends his life, a speaker’s grandmother communicates to her through a medium, a confrontational presence is felt on New Years Eve, a man sings a tune that came in through a water faucet, a stack of books disappears into bedding. Deprived of the connective tissue of cause and effect, documentary becomes fiction becomes nursery rhyme. “Narrative is a falsification,” Robinson writes, “but still, inside it, strange things begin to happen.” The page is printed with words that communicate a shape, trajectory, and meaning, but there’s still nothing actually “on” them. The paper is a site corroded by the presence of language insofar as a reader can perceive the words. Is the act of reading itself a ghost-act? What if the afterlife is spent reading the book written in the margins of the invisible part of life?
At its core, On Ghosts is an exploratory excavation of the self, the very idea of which is revealed as inexact: “That to be alive is in so many ways to be haunted anyway.” There are no conclusions in On Ghosts, only extraordinary implications that both illuminate and abrade the boundaries between essay and poem, intellect and flesh, material and emptiness, death and soul. By rigorously tracing the intersections and gaps in these territories, it is a book that draws you closer to the sheerest veils of existence, attunes perception to the most exquisite wisps of reality, and articulates the incessantly whispering self.
On Ghosts is now available from Solid Objects.
Rachel Cole Dalamangas is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her @rcdalamangas.