The LA Times announced its book prize finalists for 2013. Among those listed for poetry was Elizabeth Robinson’s On Ghosts. On Ghosts is a brilliant collection and the strongest work among the LA Times finalists.
Amy Pence reviewed On Ghosts for Gently Read Literature’s Winter 2014 issue, below is her review. If you’d like to read more reviews of contemporary poetry and literary fiction, please consider subscribing to Gently Read Literature.
On Reading On Ghosts: Amy Pence Reviews Elizabeth Robinson
Solid Objects, 2013
1) That I am reading Elizabeth Robinson’s On Ghosts on Halloween could be pure accident. Or is it? Could occasion be one of those “conditions” that Robinson writes in her “Explanatory Note” that “calibrate individuals or places, make them vulnerable to the heightened perception, which is hauntedness”? (p. 3)
Robinson’s hybrid book—a blend of poetry, essay passages, personal narrative, quotations from writers manifesting the ghostly and a descriptive cataloging of murky photographs— proceeds—as she tells us—circuitously—and meditates less on what ghosts are, than how they “infest” (Robinson’s word) us metaphorically. An image of a building’s support beams once infested with termites—then painted over—initiates the book: how are we like these “porous” beams, and so, vulnerable to being haunted? How are we broken?
2) That I listen to Schubert, that poverty-stricken musician—the Romantic hero who went to an early grave—was it typhoid or was it syphilis?—as I read On Ghosts might be another condition of my hauntedness.
After Robinson discloses a personal narrative involving her self-effacing grandmother (now deceased), she vividly shows us how the “ghostly” presences in us. In the passage “Aftermath,” she writes, “That to be alive is in so many ways is to be haunted anyway, to be coursed through with hesitations”(p. 24).
Hesitations define the book. Robinson’s prose style: the insistence on the declarative combined with her technique of stopping and starting, her tendency to erase what came before, or to merely adumbrate a thought or an image gives the book its peculiar power. In “Incident One,” a particularly tragic and beautiful prose poem, she writes: “Over and over the loop of his life rubs on its seam until the stitches rough up his skin and the garment comes apart. Dual ravel” (p. 13).
3) That I am beginning to regret my ticket to ride the “Terror Train” later this evening while reading On Ghosts also heightens my perception.
Most admirable are Robinson’s statements that ring like flashpoints: her narrative style may seem random, plain even. However, as the prose piece “The Nature of Association” unwinds, for instance, we may think we are left with a sketchy description of the narrator’s preoccupation with a pore on her shoulder. The piece concludes: “I hope you understand this and its relation to haunting. Embodiment always troubles us, but here you have no clearer example of its effect” (p. 48).
4) That the gloom crawls in and around the leaves of all the trees as far as I can see out my window, so that leaf and tone become indistinct while reading On Ghosts further “infests” my reading.
We begin to expect, in addition to an accumulation of “Incidents”— narratives in which the speaker reveals her own specific haunting—the attendant accumulation of word photographs; some are related to what she has encountered, others not. Not coincidentally, these are practically non-descriptions in that they trace what isn’t there.
…it is hard to see anything of significance in this photo. Note however the
ghost’s baby tooth crumbling in a dish on the kitchen counter
(foreground) and further back in the room, the boom box that
went on at random times, always when there was a Harry Potter
story tape in it. (From “Photograph #1,” p. 15)
By resisting description, we are left not-seeing the little we may have seen.
The nature of ghosts, their incessancy, the way they activate…
5) That the screen freezes and the cursor will not move when I type the words above, so that I hastily handwrite what I’ve already written, then CTRL-ALT-DEL and recover my document with all but this last half-thought while writing about On Ghosts seriously spooks me.
Nonetheless, or perhaps moretheless, On Ghosts, once read, redirects the reader to attend to presences of all kinds. Once haunted, Robinson warns us at the outset: “There’s now a little alleyway, between the self and the not-self…The new not-selfness is exquisitely sensitive to presence but its own absence has been thrown into the realm of the nonlinguistic” (“Explanatory Note,” p. 5). Hence, the not-I has been moved to a wondrous silence.