This is part of a two-part essay series on the emergence of ghosts in poetry. Stay tuned for Wednesday’s post that will take us deeper into the trend, with a look into Matthew Rohrer’s Destroyer and Preserver.
Before Matthew Zapruder’s Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon Press) started haunting my bookshelf last fall I caught a couple blips on the old poetry-ghost detector: the apparition of poet-as-little-girl appearing and disappearing through the walls of the tightly-contained sections in Julia Story’s Post Moxie (Sarabande Books, 2010), and the disarmingly honest ectoplasmic-robot speaker in Ben Mirov’s Ghost Machine (Caketrain Books, 2010), so aware of his organs, origins, and his wires. Ghosts walk among us, or float. And if 2010 kicked off the ghost craze in American Poetry, 2011 is poised to become the Year of the Ghost.
Ahead of the curve, poets John Gallaher and G.C. Waldrep began an email correspondence a few years ago, which became the catalyst for a back-and-forth slew of poems that in May 2009, when the electronic dust settled and the poets’ modems stopped screaming, weighed in at around 600 pages of collaborative verse. Some of those pages have made it into a new collection, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, due out this May from BOA Editions.
This is not a typical collaboration. It is not a book of exquisite corpse poems or turn-based Mad Libs. It is also not a G.C. Waldrep or a John Gallaher book; rather, a hybrid speaker emerges wearing Waldrep’s hat and Gallaher’s sneakers. And his is a poetry of places: of elevator museums and future cities, of nightclubs in soybean fields and bridges that dream. And, of course, ghost trains abound. The landscapes they traverse are simultaneously foreign and familiar, futuristic and antiquated, and often suffering from a bad case of apocalypse.
The opening poem, “Automated Town,” suggests a way people used to imagine life in the future, circa The Jetsons, maybe, when the word “automated” seemed high tech. But upon closer inspection this town feels a lot like my town, and maybe yours. It’s a town “of cell phones and one is ringing. Of people having sex.” In this town “bugs are flying in and out of the open/windows. All the TVs are on.” And then it’s not like my town at all (and hopefully not like yours):
…these are the people in my
neighborhood. One works on cars. One works
at the town transfer station. One runs a distributorship.
One builds cabinets. One used to be
a sheriff, until he had to quit. It was
a movie once. The whole town killed someone.
The movie referenced here, I believe, is A Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), in which Spencer Tracy plays a one-armed war vet who arrives in the parched desert town of Black Rock looking for a Japanese-American man who (spoiler alert!), we come to find, has been murdered by the townspeople. This reference sets up two major themes of the collection rather subtly: Spencer Tracy’s train is the first to make a stop in Black Rock in four years, and the train’s perpetual passing is a serious point of tension in the film. Also, crummy desert towns always suggest apocalypse, a recurring atmospheric trope in many of these poems. Take “The Archeologists”: in this poem we follow a cadre of apocalypse survivors literally digging through history:
tumbled blocks, limestone, marble, basalt;
temples and parliaments.
Other times, even in the squalid light,
we could tell we were working
through more modest habitations:
a child’s doll, a burst wireless,
a few flaking pots and pans.
Think of this as the poetic equivalent to Fallout 3. Ghosts are part and parcel of the apocalypse. And just as the murdered Japanese man haunts the dying town of Black Rock, these poems are haunted, not just by ghosts of people, fathers, families, but of a modern way of life.
Now, lest you think this collection a bunch of boys’ sci-fi fantasies, Train of Ghosts deftly navigates us through its automated towns always to arrive at the place where we must wrestle with our—often paternal—subjects. For those familiar with Waldrep’s work, “The Anodynes” boasts some wonderful (Gertrude) Steinian language acrobatics à la One Way No Exit(Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2008):
All the fathers of Indiana
are falling from a window. All the fathers
of Indiana, for reasons unknown
The windows are bright and white,
like bridges. The fathers of Indiana
are so modern
they haven’t happened yet.
And the title poem—and a handful of others—uses the ghost train as a vehicle for elegy: “Your father steps on board the train of ghosts.” And from here the “you” loses sight of the father and is left to speculate what the father might be doing or thinking behind the “reflected glare” of the train window:
Maybe he’s watching the hot-air balloons
that have just appeared
all over the sky, ribbed like airborne hearts
of the giants Jack killed.
In the stories, Jack has no father.
This would explain a lot, you are thinking
as the train begins to pull away.
“Ghost” is most obviously the new, hip word for muse or inspiration or the chisel that lets us into that mausoleum of our past, but for Waldrep and Gallaher and their passengers the ghost, and more specifically the train of ghosts is a way to access loss and dream and an imagined city that sometimes looks like your city and other times doesn’t, where “past the museum displays of the kitchens/of the future…/You said this one thing/to your father and then fathers were done, and you/had to pick up his clothes/and do something with them,” where every night is “like in the falling dream,/trying to wake up/before you hit the ground.”
Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
BOA Editions (May 2011)
230 pages, $16.00
G.C. Waldrep’s first book of poems, Goldbeater’s Skin, won the 2003 Colorado Prize for Poetry. His work has appeared or will soon appear in Poetry, Ploughshares, Harper’s, Boston Review, Colorado Review,Gettysburg Review, Tin House, and other journals. He currently teaches at Bucknell University, where he also directs the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets.
John Gallaher is the author of three poetry collections, most recently, Map of the Folded World (University of Akron Press, 2009). His honors include the 2005 Levis Poetry Prize for his second book, The Little Book of Guesses (Four Way Books, 2007). His work has appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere, and in anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2008. He currently resides in Maryville, Missouri, where he teaches creative writing and composition at Northwest Missouri State University.