A Special Feature Edited by Jennifer Loyd
though we all know that nothing happens / only when it happens
—Ross Gay, Be Holding
If she gave me a map to the world as she knew it, a world plotted by divine order, spirit in everything, I could navigate it.
—Jestmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
History devours the individual. One life at a time, it amalgamates individual voices into the maw of broad historical narratives. An archive, as history’s “museum,” is stocked with the extant and the documentable, and as such, any archive is also fraught with holes, static, and broken connections.
Who (and/or what) exists in these gaps? Poets working with (or against or around) an archive must grapple with this missing, with the difference between a curated archive and the unknowns of the past. Eavan Boland made this distinction when she described herself as a poet, not of history, but of the past, “a place of whispers and shadows and vanishings,” of “losses … and silences.”
All of which brings me to ghosts. One way of writing toward whispers and vanishings includes writing towards historical figures—known and unknown—or their ghosts, if you will. (Re)imagining a voice from the past can be an antidote to broad historical narratives, particularly when a voice was lost because it was not recognized by dominant cultural narratives. In the present moment, when we have been physically isolated from each other by a pandemic, and when the deadly effects of systemic racism and injustice are being reckoned with, the issue of whose voices are heard and whose stories are told is more important than ever.
In creating this feature, I asked poets about ghosts and archives. What whispers and vanishings are they writing towards? Are ghosts an antidote to, or a thickening of, official historical narratives? Are they a refusal of silence—or an argument for the value of silence?
These poems are their responses. These poems hold what I would call ghosts: saints, prophets, and ancestors—biological and intellectual—and unnamed, ghostly “you’s.” In these poems, grandmothers, mothers, and future-daughters share space in the same garden. Voices emerge from the Torah, from a monastery in the middle ages, and from a cello, to offer alternative narratives. There are also great-grandfathers, first loves, a brother-husband, a speaker translating for the dead of a Palestinian refugee camp, and an entire leaden family offering comfort from the bottom of swimming pool. Places, too, haunt in these poems, including a homestead in which everyone is still alive.
And archives. These poems draw from archives as diverse as the ghosts populating them. Addressed in these pieces are the news cycle, religious cannons, family lore, the theater, dreams, and medical photographs. What emerges is the sense that an archive is a beginning, an outline, a ladder to somewhere, but never a complete record. The ghosts haunting these archives offer “data” that may not otherwise exist.
“All language is littered with corpses,” Lena Khalaf Tuffaha writes. And we, the readers, witness the three-way seance that occurs between poet and ghost and language; we are “guests / of the aftermath,” of the past that is “both calamity and marginalia.” Ghosts offer a perspective, both human and non-, one in which we experience “the other side of emptiness,” and one from which we have a god’s-eye view of a past-woman “suturing a consolable wound,” as Jacobs writes. This alternative positionality matters. The ghosts in these poems are negotiating with the present. They ask to be noticed, they ask questions, they question what stories we are telling in the present moment and why.
From diaphanous voices come poems of profound texture and tangibility. Softness, heft, and stamina abound in these pieces. Jane Wong’s speaker caresses her “own face because it is the face of my mother and her mother and so on and so on.” Sumita Chakraborty’s speaker advises, “Sh, sh, make your voice a ghost. // Make your way through the deep.” And the family in Vi Khi Nao’s poem has an “aquatic hydraulicness—this pulling of gravity on their body and of lead not being lead” that gives weight to an otherwise slippery dream. The ghosts in these poems navigate darkness, but with a reciprocity that makes movement and life possible outside of visible channels.
Perhaps because, in the midst of a pandemic, I’ve been turning to poets like Ross Gay to remind me of connection in the midst of isolation, the overarching metaphor I take away from these poems is that of a web. Their speakers and voices remind me of an underground, under-seen mycorrhiza-like web running tangles through the pocked structure of the visible archive. To see such a web, to see our microscopic connections, requires us to consciously look for it. Similarly, to “see” literary ghosts, requires a change in perspective. A willingness to look beyond biography.
“Language is volition / – the rising up of a body,” Tuffaha writes, and the ghosts in these poems have risen up to question us about attention and perception. If history consists of the events we know and the present-moment lens we see them through, literary ghosts can strip a culture of dangerous mono-stories—those steeped in nostalgia or the American myth of the blank slate.
As readers, as storytellers, we chose where we place our attention, or where we allow our attention to be placed for us. A literary ghost enlarges the field of our visual (and temporal and spatial) perception. They appear, sometimes to soothe, but usually to trouble the status quo. If “a museum is not an act of kindness,” as Josh English writes, then, similarly, an archive should not be mistaken for abundance. At best, it’s an excellent beginning point for a literary haunting.
Jennifer Loyd is a PhD candidate at Texas Tech University. She holds an MFA from Purdue University, and she was a 2020/2021 Stadler Fellow and an editor for West Branch, Sycamore Review, and Copper Nickel. Her poems and prose, which explore the intersection between private voice and public narratives, have appeared in The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Poet Lore, The Shore, Colorado Gardener, and elsewhere.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha
Amsa Gives the Journalists a Tour of Yarmouk
*Yarmouk (in Damascus, Syria) is a Palestinian refugee camp that has endured siege and massacres.
*Beit Anya is one of several names for Bethany, a village neighboring Jerusalem.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her first book, Water & Salt (Red Hen Press) won the 2018 Washington State Book Award for Poetry. Her chapbook Letters from the Interior (Diode 2019), is a finalist for the 2020 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize.
Jane Wong is the author of Overpour (Action Books, 2016) and How to Not Be Afraid of Everything (Alice James, 2021). She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.
Maria Callas Interviews Harriet Smithson Berlioz
M : So you kept the child while Hector slept down the street?
H : Louis swings in the curtains, a drapery cradle.
M : And the marriage, his affair?
H : His mistress strolls bright red in all my dreams. He says I’m too in love with l’art dramatique.
M : What did you think of the piece he wrote for you, Symphonie Fantastique?
H : I liked the piece until the witches pulled my hair through the trumpet. I escaped into a cello. For a while, I curled inside there, watched the bow swing in front of me, slow as a pendulum.
M : But Hector made you feel alive?
H : He made me feel permanent.
M : Artists make a habit of singing to ghosts.
H : The stagehands are always reaching through my body. Between scenes, I take my clothes off and nothing’s there. The feeling of air, the audience just steps away. Perhaps I was the ghost.
M : When did you first meet Hector?
H : While playing Juliet at the Odeon Theatre. He sent me letters and moved to the apartment across my street. Reminded myself to close the curtains. Sometimes I reminded myself not to. Have you ever stood in an empty theatre, singing?
M : Would you call it empathy?
H : I’d call it plunging your arm into the bed of a lake. My parents were both actors, but I don’t remember their faces. Artifice felt natural to me, but I learned from watching others, the way we all do.
Maria Callas Interviews Hildegard von Bingen
M : Were you scared?
H : There was never an I. There was a mouth and voice, a body and His Word. Pineal gland rubbed dry to stringed meat.
M : As a child, you were enclosed in an anchorage with one meal a day, one window and companion.
H : The thunder always clattered my body into blue: visions tailed by illness, ashen sleep with geodes of daybreak, birdsong. Those days, Jutta and I worshipped and healed, read and wept. I opened into faith from my cell, myself, mucous-wet and shining.
Forbidden from composing, I dictated. Women like me are always in translation. I slipped beneath a veil of voices. To make men listen, you disappear. To be heard, you hide.
M : What was it like founding your own monastery?
H : I opened a door into snowdrops. Everywhere, like specks of snow. Even women dressed in white, hair to their thighs. We walked into dew-grass and kept walking. Disibodenburg shrank to a diorama atop the mountain.
When they tried to stop me, I became ill. When they acquiesced, I recovered.
M : And how did the music begin?
H : I tried to swallow the Shade of Living Light. For ages, like a sword. Until the voice of God pried my mouth. Thus, music.
Amanda Hodes is a writer and sound artist. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and is currently an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech.
Josh English is a PhD student in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston where he is an Inprint C. Glenn Cambor Fellow. His work appears in Crazyhorse, Cutbank, Denver Quarterly, Third Coast, Prelude, and elsewhere.
Vi Khi Nao
I wrote you, “I desire you very much.” & then sleep took over. A boat swims down the river of my psyche. In my dream, you are reclining on a bed. The swimming pool has been tucked away underneath the room like a sock drawer from a chest cabinet. You are teaching me how to use the internet. How to use texting three-dimensionally. I move the Instagram tiles around. I fear the DM messages would be vulnerable to your gaze. I trust you. You are so tender, not berating me when I fail to move the tiles back to their proper home. I lay next to you. And, you tell me that this swimming pool (the foundation of the home is a swimming pool) is filled with synchronicity. My entire family have arrived early. They have taken a short swim. The water is made of dark matter: of lead and water. When they swim, their bodies sink down, but they do not drown. They even have the opportunity to make a big splash. The lead keeps them down. It is this aquatic hydraulicness—this pulling of gravity on their body and of lead not being lead. But the swimming pool is very dark, like enigma dark. But since no one drowns, it can not be that dark. I recline next to you. We are being very affectionate. My whole body caressing yours. You are affectionate. Touching me left and right. The weight of sleep pulls me back into the center of my desire for you. It pulls me to you and I feel deeply loved. Like I have not been here before. Like I have not been tailgating the moon. My gaze is here. My entire family is here. And, then there is you. When I wake, the light is low. All day, the sky is desolate of sun. Big grey clouds stroll back and forth like a mother in a baby stroller. The clouds keep on wailing, like a child not being fed. But no tears fall. The clouds—they are large blankets of fog. Yet, the sky refuses to weep and everything dies quickly. Even the palm trees do not know what to make of the lugubrious clouds that won’t mourn and lament. Meanwhile my cunt is on a verge of transformation. My cunt has become a small plastic sleeve the shape and size of an eye and it’s filled with water and desire and every second, water floats above it, exciting it, and it drifts a glass of water overflowing with water. There is so much buoyancy on my cunt. Water slips, flows, glides, sails across my clitoris like it’s a summer day on a sailboat. Except that sailboat is my desire. I let the buoy of my desire undulate on my body. Each time I breathe, my whole body is wrecked from ardor. The verb “excipere” is from Latin: it means ‘taken out.’ I think: do I want my desire to excipere or to escape? When I submerge beneath my dream, my phone is next to me, sitting on my pillow like a cat that is sipping my breath from a straw made out of four ingredients: sleep deprivation, sleep intoxication, lucidity weakness, and some type of postmodern grogginess, where a dream moves like reality but wears a garment made from opium. I have woken up from a reality that has left me. I am dazed, but not confused. The glass of water inside my body is full to the brim. Each time I walk, the water overflows. Each time I walk, I drip with fierce ardor and assiduity.
Vi Khi Nao’s work includes poetry, fiction, film, play, and cross-genre collaboration. Her poetry collection, A Bell Curve Is A Pregnant Straight Line, and her short stories collection, The Vegas Dilemma, are forthcoming from 11:11 in 2021.
Ginger Ko is an Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing. She is the author of Motherlover (Bloof Books) and Inherit (Sidebrow), as well as several chapbooks.
Covenant Between the Pieces
How Many More
Though there is nothing explicit written of them in the Torah, Midrash intimates that along with each of Jacob’s sons—the twelve men who went on to lead the Twelve Tribes of Israel—a twin sister was born.
When Jacob’s sons returned from Egypt, they asked Serah, daughter of Asher, known for her wisdom and skill with a harp, to gently relay the news to their father that his son Joseph was not dead. Upon hearing it, Jacob blessed her, saying, “The mouth that told me Joseph is alive will never taste death.”
—Sefer HaYashar, The Book of the Righteous
Jessica Jacobs is the author of Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going (Four Way Books), winner of the Devil’s Kitchen and Goldie Awards, and Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press), a biography-in-poems of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Sumita Chakraborty is a poet, essayist, and scholar. Her debut poetry collection, Arrow, was released in September 2020 from Alice James Books in the U.S. and Carcanet Press in the U.K.