Yet coupled with the logic that “whatever you do is forever done,” the ghost takes on the image of the static or rust that all things are capable of becoming, caught in the machinations of “the endless endlessness that replaces us.” This foreclosure of foreclosure in the discourse of the afterlife finds its paradox in narrative’s seal, which dices history into lean, episodic folds in time. If we attempt closure, if there is no possibility of redemption, if there is “nothing for which you’ve been saving,” we will undoubtedly murder the dead. 

 

(University of California Press, 2012)

 

 

 

Cole Swensen presents a collection of poems that are not in and of themselves fragments, but proceed from the question of fragmentation—those small ruptures in the ordinary; splinters and remnants found in daily existence. These fissures argue formally that the ghost, Swensen’s inquiry, shifts and revises time, such that life appears cyclical, and what once lived “indentured to the sun,” reappears, if only a part of it. “Most words for ghost are pieces,” Swensen writes, reminding us that the ghost story is a narrative incapable of coherence. From antiquity on, the ghost has been a memory capable of devouring a house, as the Orestia elucidates. But what shifts in the ghost story also concerns representation itself—like the novel, the ghost story draws our attention sharply to the bizarre interludes within the perfect banality of modern existence: “Before the modern age, the ghost story was not a genre as such—but was something that accrued.” Swensen’s poems chart a historiography of early ghost ontologies, a sort of materialist occultism, concerned with the fact that “want has greatly changed across the ages.” Formerly, the ghost coveted forgiveness, or restitution, “but our ghosts, recent ones, don’t ask much,” because they cannot experience desire. In antiquity, as now, spirits figure as the antithesis to our sight, proving its limits, and annotating the real with what is not exactly perceivable: “for sight is always second to a subtler precedent.” In these poems I hear the vocative, the call; I hear wailing. The primacy of the oracular, as well as the primary of its metaphor, are put into question when one is charged with rendering visible through language that which is miraculous:

 

A friend, a bird, at first          someone else            called out                         and gestured if

 

like   rain   on   a   lake, like wind      can  never  be  painted                          is constrained

to  its  effects                on leaves       on trees                    on things                   in the world

 

The modern encounter, so often individualistic, focuses on the singularity of the living and the dead. A ghost to a house, a house to a family, a family to a ghost: all this isolated and quotidian—and the pain of that, preserved in death or the image of it: loneliness. “And so the concept of a ghost was itself something that returned…for it had been known that the dead are not at peace.” Ghosts come to be a miraculous property, such that “they” are “ours.” They are also a form of privation: the loss of the transcendental, homesickness, the inability to communicate the endowments of the past, failing to be historical, always returning. “Well not seen, but once when as a child I answered the phone / and my grandfather said hello and asked to speak with my mother. I went to get her but / she refused to answer because he was dead.” In each story, a break occurs, and fragmentation begins, as if the narrative cannot hold itself together. As to why, there are casual explanations: for example, “a piece of grief or survival,” causes phenomena to exceed the bounds of reason. There is a sense, here, that perhaps what’s dead is very much alive—and that it is specters formulating the current organization of the world, as “ghosts appear in place of whatever a given people will not face.” As the ghost is definitively a “glitch” of the present, access to the now makes the present, not the past, a reliquary. Yet coupled with the logic that “whatever you do is forever done,” the ghost takes on the image of the static or rust that all things are capable of becoming, caught in the machinations of “the endless endlessness that replaces us.” This foreclosure of foreclosure in the discourse of the afterlife finds its paradox in narrative’s seal, which dices history into lean, episodic folds in time. If we attempt closure, if there is no possibility of redemption, if there is “nothing for which you’ve been saving,” we will undoubtedly murder the dead. 

 

 

 

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