Quarrelling with Ghosts

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

Julie Bruck’s fourth full-length book of poetry, How to Avoid Huge Ships, borrows its title from an out-of-print mariner’s guide. While the connection appears tenuous at first, by the end of the collection, it becomes clear: both books are obsessed with the idea of avoiding the inevitable. In the original, the inevitable involves boating and related disasters, while Bruck’s poems explore the human, the inevitability of loss and grief, in a distinctly compelling way. These poems unfold in a lyrical, narrative style, examining everything from aging parents to a young boy possibly committing suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. The often melancholy tone pairs well with themes of memory and mortality, producing a kind of echo throughout the collection. In “Last Baby Girls of the 1920s,” Bruck deftly recreates the lives of her mother’s dear friends. She spans decades with sharp insights and precise images, such as “another who always wrapped her neck /
in bright scarves as if maimed, though / she wasn’t.” Throughout, the poems are surprising—the moments appear to be small moments, small stories, but Bruck’s generous observations make them more expansive. They both define and evoke these specific moments in memory.

The collection is broken into six sections, yet each one retains the meditative quality of Bruck’s writing. The use of alliteration is subtle yet effective in reinforcing this meditative feeling—the poems read with ease, but offer complex observations of human nature and the frailty of life. Many poems navigate death in some form, from terminal illnesses to aging parents, but despite the solemnity of the subject matter, Bruck’s language and images remain light, airy. In “Inheritance,” she writes about the death of her mother through the frame of cleaning out her apartment. Here, Bruck deftly balances the sombre subject matter with said airy imagery: “[she] never replaced her hope / chest towels or sheets, no matter how frayed or thin.”

Deanna Young also explores the past in Reunion, her fourth book of poetry. The poems move through time, delving into the past and its ghosts in relation to the current memory of events. Young uses perspective and form to fully inhabit each poem, and in this way, the poems remain fresh. In the opening poem, “Ghost Prayer,” ghosts from the past are directly addressed, and welcomed into the narrative. This effectively positions the collection’s thematic content, but also asks that the listener (and presumably the reader) allow “Love / and mercy, mercy and love” to speak first. Young uses voices that range from immediate and intimate to larger and more communal. In this way, the landscape of the poems feels both familiar and surprising.

Young also uses a variety of forms to create a distinct atmosphere and tone. There are ballads and prayers, free-verse narrative poems, and prose poems; each form offers something new and distinct in terms of shaping the poem, bending the narrative in a specific way. Part of the success is due to the liberal use of Biblical references, and sometimes what feels like sermons embedded in the poems. The actual narratives within the poems are both accessible and closed to the reader; often the actions are implied rather than revealed, as in “Witness,” where the speaker says “the monstrous / speech of my father / which cannot be written down.” In this manner, the poems are demanding, asking us to forge connections and reverberations between narrative braids. Young’s language is spare and taut, further heightening the eerie effect. There is a decidedly Gothic feeling to the landscapes of the poems, both in their psychological nature and in the use of the pastoral to further highlight the darkness within the collection. The ghosts welcomed in the opening poem populate the narratives throughout, creating a kind of chorus—the ghosts are always there, always watching, as Young reveals in the titular poem, “Reunion”: “the warm-blooded creatures / thrashing about / and whimpering above.”

Eve Joseph’s third collection, Quarrels, is a slim volume of prose poems. The poems are untitled, and the collection is broken into three parts. The second comprises ekphrastic prose poems based on photographs by Diane Arbus. The pieces in this collection read as a hybrid of flash fiction and prose poems—straightforward vignettes coupled with startling language and distinctly drawn images. There is “the moon hiding in a bowl of blood oranges,” and “the blue coffin of trees.” Joseph manages to create connections and reverberations within the poems, and they feel like fragments of a larger narrative, distinct moments and memories that form a sort of collage for the reader. Characters appear and disappear without definition or explanation, creating a slightly surreal tone. In one, the speaker says “my mother was a white sheet drying on the line” who “taught me how to iron the creases out of a man’s shirt after all the men had disappeared.” Natural imagery populates the poems, from descriptions of the sea to rain-streaked windows, a variety of birds in flight, and “little moons spilled on the floor.” These tangible details help to ground the reader, balancing the surreal with the recognized.

The poems in part two, detailing Arbus’ photographs, are especially effective. Joseph not only beautifully and precisely describes the photos, but also offers insight to the subject matter and composition. In this way, she recreates not only the images themselves, but a larger framework of interpretation. This becomes a dialogue about art, as Joseph reimagines the circumstances revealed through the photos. In “The Junior Interstate Ballroom Dance Competition”: “Nobody told them that posing in the empty gym would be awkward like waking in a stranger’s bed.” Joseph gives voice to the people captured on film, and this in turn allows readers greater access to the (imagined) images before us. Joseph deftly moves between perspectives and voices, each one distinct and engaging, while consistently offering images that stay with the reader long after, “lit like lanterns floating into the night sky.”

This review “Quarrelling with Ghosts” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 136-137.

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