In Melissa Ginsburg’s first full volume of poetry, Dear Weather Ghost, both the alien and the familiar coexist. The cover image, a cat in a bronzed birdcage with a peahen looking on, gives us a clue to the aural dislocations that lay inside. These are beautiful poems because they disorient us. Ginsburg’s compact poems dwell, as Heidegger would say, in their rural landscapes, mysterious, but so embodied they cast long shadows. The poems accrue in language and feeling— each the kind of metaphorical “event” poet Mary Ruefle urges: they awaken the reader to what the world already knows.
Our initial portal is “Drift,” the first poem in the book:
The birds between poles make a thicker
cable. Their falls dark paper to the broken
soil, blows to cut corn and dirt cuts
a sky. A sky is full of stew, a mottle and a glaze.
A road drifts all over our country.
Like syntactical pinwheels, Ginsburg’s word choice disorients then reorients the reader in a new, slightly off-kilter universe. Like a perennial Alice through the looking glass, for the speaker, seeing the world, let alone being in the world is not a habit. The speaker sees the world in its particularity: birds animate cables; light, dust and shadow are caught in the dearth of a moment. Ginsburg’s vision—embracing everything and refusing nothing—gives the collection its spine.
Often, the attitude is wonder:
By the phlox and lilac weather
was not. The sky was white. Sun went
in the street. Wind waved
pelts to petals. Moved bits
of garden around. (from “April”)
Her style to explore a magical universe just beneath the surface of our mundane existence can be read as childlike. Her subjects are often fantastical. In “Mermaid” “we difficult our dinners”…”lure a gull and water lock it,/ meet a boy and get feet.” In “Pink Book,” “The future/ rolls out of a machine.”
But, unlike a few of the poets who have blurbed the book, I find the attitude is also visionary. Potent and saturated as the work of Emily Dickinson or Inger Christensen, Ginsburg’s poems also hold secrets. The poem “Night Shift” brims with images of occlusion: “A carpet dustglow, clouded hallway,” funnels to the haunting line: “Night holds hours to the ground/ and tucks its trees beneath it.” A tired father, arriving home, “performs a bad operation,/ in car, flooded street, wrecked garden.” The speaker, resigned to the “sick father” uses the factory’s night shift as “a kind of shelter.” The poem concludes with the poignancy that aging can be a refuge as well: “I’m getting older like I always wanted.”
The poems burrow into a rural scenery redolent with insects, small animals, and birds, frequently surprising and often terrifying. I am reminded of familiars, or animal spirits that become totemic. The imagery of rabbits initiates the book: “A hole in the blades which he ate./ A mouth of animals pink in the light” and is reprised, violently, near the end:
In the solace of my dog’s mouth
I left a screaming rabbit.
Her mouth shines black as the sea. (“The Sea”)
These familiars cannot protect the speakers of the poems, whose journeys are often from innocence into the experience of a cruel world. In “The Rabbit,” it is the rabbit who masters “the milliner’s apprentice.” Even childhood games: playing “hospital,” “shooting each other/ in the slow gray afternoon yard,” are tinged with the wisdom and violence of adulthood. “The Game” concludes:
In your hand the harvest:
your chest, my gun.
I was going to tell you.
Tissues knitted in the cold.
The center of the book, like the eye of the storm, is comprised of the epistolary poems addressed to the weather ghost. These enchant and make strange the speaker’s relation to the universe. What would we say to the elements, both transitory and finally? Like a tempestuous relationship with a lover, the letters chart devotion, difficulty and loss:
Dear Weather Ghost,
When I held dead July in my arms
you would not even let me do that.
Ultimately, Dear Weather Ghost creates a lived feeling—a magically tinged internal landscape where each poem roots and multiplies in our consciousness. What they often do best is animate our memory. “The Maple Tree” begins: “The stupid wind a memory/ of the long and delicate animal I once cared for”. Heidegger writes that “Language beckons us, at first and then again at the end, toward a thing’s nature.” Much can be gleaned from a Ginsburg poem where language is the ground of being, hunkering close to the smaller voices, presciently warning us that the “machine” can only be our disquieting future.