On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson
Recent literary history has shown a rise in texts that fit somewhere between the realms of poetry and essay. Authors such as Maggie Nelson and Jenny Boully have elevated these hybrid genres to their own art form. Nelson did it in Bluets, a dazzling text that meditated generously on the color blue while also incorporating snippets of memoir. Boully has done it a bit differently in each of her books, sometimes using the hybrid form to talk about love (one love affair) and sometimes using it to recast Peter Pan in a different light (not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them). Now, Elizabeth Robinson, herself thirteen books deep into a poetry career, has tried her hand at her own genre-less book, choosing ghosts and haunting as her subject matter.
On Ghosts is a small book (physically, the size of a greeting card). Within those pages, though, she lingers on heavy concepts, such as the soul, the self, language, loss, brokenness, and what constitutes presence itself. She also includes pages simply entitled "Photograph" (followed by its respective number), which describe, either in a prose poem or a simple paragraph, as you like, a photograph which somehow conveys the presence of a ghost. There are other narrative threads as well, the most compelling of which details the death of a grandmother to whom she had recently had the spontaneous impulse to pen a letter.
"It's not the question of ghosting that arises here, it's the question of doubt," Robinson writes in a piece entitled "Skepticism." This statement is quite an accurate summation of the volume as a whole, which simultaneously provides textual evidence for the existence of ghosts but also itself dwells in doubt. And not just doubt of the supernatural, but doubt of the body, the self, the narrative of existence: "The self has a sťance with its own-ness, with its leaving off. The body is the table on which all manifest clicks and taps occur," Robinson writes, positing the ordinary body as a vessel haunted by the general life spirit. Later, Robinson writes, "Another child speculates that it is in the nature of the ghost to be broken [...] From this the self continues on to wonder: of what unbroken, or whole, model is the ghost a broken version?" Robinson ends this passage by differentiating between broken and gone, but themes reoccur here; "It's always the broken that holds the universe in place," reads a Kazim Ali quotation Robinson includes.
Like Maggie Nelson or Jenny Boully, Robinson has chosen the perfect form for her content. The two marry perfectly since she muses on doubt, vagueness, maybes, and uncertainties. The sum total of this musing does indeed haunt the spaces between genres, and a book investigating the same subjects in a more rigid genre would not have the same, well, haunting effect. The haunting would be far more pronounced had Robinson extended her investigation; she could have developed many thoughts further. This is not to say that closure is necessary in a book like this; rather, a greater length could have helped Robinson entertain her central questions about doubt more fully, as well as develop other threads that glint throughout the text (such as the role of language in "Analogy") but never really get brought to the surface. Similarly, she relates a ghost story from her youth near the end of the volume without leaving herself much room to unpack it or unite it with the surrounding material.
The greatest weakness of On Ghosts, though, is its opening. The book opens with a passage entitled "Explanatory Note," one that labels the text "an essay on the phenomenon of ghosts and haunting." While such a comment (or the whole remark) could well be red herrings, designed to induce still more doubt in the reader, that kind of humor would be out of character for a book like this. Rather, it seems that Robinson is too rigidly trying to inform readers what they are about to read and how to read it. Robinson errs similarly with her subtitles of shorter passages, such as "Skepticism" and "What is Alive?" These subtitles are unnecessary, as they do not add extra dimensions or information to the text. Instead, they disrupt the ectoplasmic flow of Robinson's thoughts and memories. The book could also benefit from starting in a less vague realm and with virtually any of the hauntings Robinson describes or even the story of her grandmother's death.
On Ghosts provides many contemplative seeds for existential questions, and one gets the sense that, given more time and space and less worry about organization, Robinson could produce quite a thought-provoking tome on the given subject matter. As is, however, it is a lovely way to pass an hour, though unlikely to provoke more than a shiver at a well-timed shift of the light.
On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson