On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson

Reviewed By

What does being a religious poet mean? Because from what I know, I’m supposed to read Elizabeth Robinson through religion, or addressing religion. I understand calling her a religious poet doesn’t mean she has to directly address God as the seat of all paradox (a la Mark Jarman’s Epistles). I’m not sure anyone should read an Elizabeth Robinson book if they are needing religion in that “spiritual need” kind of way. She isn’t the confessional, maybe-you-can-empathize-with-my-spiritual-dilemma religious poet. At the base of any Elizabeth Robinson book is the problematic. And while religion must be problematic, as any spiritually competent person would recognize, the problematic, for Robinson, is more a position worthy of investigation. Let spirituality be a paradox representing both a presence (an undeniable presence, as the religious would say) and an absence (a profound absence), and then take the rational investigation of these two opposites to its paradoxical conclusion. How does Robinson’s book On Ghosts fit into that? It is literally about ghosts. “This is an essay on the phenomenon of ghosts and haunting.” Robinson declares at the beginning of the book.

Which is as much to say that On Ghosts is about presence and absence. And while this could be considered from a religious perspective (after all, how do the faithful experience God), the book appears to be more invested in the concept of ghost as analogy for the practice of language. In the poem/essay section, “Getaway,” Robinson makes this analogy explicit:

You can arrange the page and enumerate all the propositions you like, but this is a page, and words may irritate its surface, dog-ear and crease it, but they will never truly impact the surface, and they will never escape their page.

This kind of direct statement, however, is maybe a little uncharacteristic. Its actual practice of comparing ghost to language is much more varied and subtle and expressive and affecting. Consider the anecdote Robinson tells about sending a letter to her grandmother who, as the letter was being sent through the mail, died. If Robinson’s aunt then has a conversation with her about the contents of the letter that had been addressed to the grandmother, is this an instance of her grandmother’s ghost? How much can language that was intended for one person actually summon that person’s presence? And what if this type of “appearance” is exactly in line with the grandmother’s personality? Say, for instance, she was always “tentative” and “extremely shy.”

In Lyn Hejinian’s essay “Strangeness,” she considers how humans experience transition, trivial transition. How our daily lives are populated with any number of sensations and stimuli, and part of our conscious experience is to overlay all that we see, hear, feel or think with some structural causality. Our consciousness helps us make sense of our lives. Though the sense or logic we might infer from this so-called “causality” may not be all that sensible, we are at least accustomed to this logic. In fact, we have labeled this logic our “stream of consciousness.” But what happens when we don’t just accept the logic of that stream of consciousness. Instead we consider the stream of consciousness just one of many different logical explanations about experience.

In other words, our skeptical response to ghosts partly comes from just wanting to live in a sensible world. A doorknob doesn’t turn unless something physically turns it (from “Incidents Five and Six”). Two gray doves appear in the morning, because gray doves are native to this locale (from “Dear Ones”). And yet, this sensible world is consistently intruded on by some presence we can’t explain. In “The Nature of Association” Robinson describes how simple sensations like the smell of Pear Soap or the feel of rough paper can call a certain person to mind. No one would say this was the person’s ghost visiting her. And yet, what is the difference between this mingling of presence with memory and the ghost of a stalker that she describes in “Incident Three”? On one level, this is how Robinson’s On Ghosts operates. Using a lyric logic to juxtapose many different scenarios involving presence and absence, and how we judge either, and through implication, to reflect on what in language is present and what absent.

But perhaps the most affecting gesture illustrating the role of presence and absence comes in the various “PHOTOGRAPHS” that appear in the book. Each “PHOTOGRAPH” follows immediately on one of the anecdotes or incidents. Its position in the book, and the style of captioning makes it feel as though it is some sort of evidence for the story that was just previous to it. In fact, Robinson’s gesture toward some photograph will make you think there is supposed to be a photograph there. It’s just missing. Here is “PHOTOGRAPH #6”:

This is an otherwise unremarkable photograph of a woman’s bare upper arm. Notice the perfectly circular pore about 4 inches from where the arm curves upward to the shoulder.

elizabeth_robinsonRobinson’s language assumes you are seeing the photograph of this arm. In fact, the woman being photographed is supposed to be Robinson herself, as the previous poem explains what squeezing pus out of the pore on her arm (the “circular pore” describe above) reminds her of. And so ghost language layers on appearance of ghost speaker, which layers on ghost gesture toward a photograph that is actually missing.

On Ghosts is like an introspective prism where all the colors are continually intersecting. As mentioned earlier, it proposes itself as an essay. It reads like a series of anecdotes interspersed with lyric evocations. It appears to have a progressive logic, even if that logic is consistently pushing the reader to the illogical conclusion that ghosts must exist even though ghosts can’t really exist. A statement that could be applied to language as well. And a statement that seems natural to the personal essay form, where Robinson uses the form formally pushing at both idea and form from the inside. As opposed to her treatment of the novel form in her previous book Three Novels, which felt a little too ironically positioned against or despite the novel. Here, On Ghosts‘ lyric essay complements that mysterious presence a ghost might have. It touches on the evocative nature of narrative, and pulls at what we perceive to be those concrete impressions narrative leaves inside us. For me, Robinson’s method in this essay points out precisely why we as readers need to question the presence we feel in language versus the physical evidence that it doesn’t exist. And so, if I were starting this review about how Robinson might be considered a religious poet, I have found here the rationale.


Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →