I regret that Joshua Young is a poet who has only come to my attention recently. The discovery of his work has been a catalyzing force for my writing and teaching, and I have a hunch I am only beginning to discover the effects his unique approach to poeming will have on my literary life long-term. After reading The Holy Ghost People, Young’s most recent play in verse, I could only sketch inside the back cover book flap, “Where has this poet been all my writing life?”
The answer, as it turns out, is not very far away at all. We both grew up in the Pacific Northwest in neighboring communities. We are part of the same generational and regional cohort. And, perhaps most exciting of all, we are invested in many of the same themes—among them, religious dogma and identity formation. Not surprisingly then, our first meeting in May 2014 was an auspicious one. Both alums of Western Washington University, Young and I, along with fellow poet-alum Joshua Marie Wilkinson, were invited back to Bellingham to give a joint reading and to participate in a writing-and-publishing panel.
One highlight of this trip was hearing my new acquaintance, approximately ten minutes after we had been introduced, commence a reading (more aptly described as a “channeling” or “poetic inhabitation”) from The Holy Ghost People. I know I am not alone when I describe the collective experience as spellbinding. On what could have been a sleepy Friday afternoon in the sun-drenched classroom, more than fifty people looked on—eager, rapt—as Young transported us into “a small city neighborhood of brick & small lawns. There is an empty highway, an abandoned car. There is an empty beach. There is an empty playground. There is a nearly deserted mall parking lot. There is a small brick church with a garden surrounding it. There is a farmers’ market. There is an apartment building. There is an empty bar.” This could have been Bellingham following a zombie apocalypse.
Who are these “Holy Ghost People”? I suspect you’ll want to know. They are described this way in the dramatis personae: “a group of men & women who claim to have traveled through space & time to share the true word of god with the people of earth. they walk around in white flowing cloth. the holy ghost people distrust what the people of earth claim to be god & they mistrust what the people of earth claim to be science. they claim to know, & to have been sent by, the real god.”
Now I don’t know for sure what you’re thinking, but when I started to read, I thought, “Oh, an allegory about contemporary religious fundamentalism.” I would be interested in such a project, no doubt, but Young’s “Holy Ghost People” are much more mysterious and compelling than a thinly disguised, time-traveling version of the Religious Right. They don’t trust what the “people of earth claim to be science” (shades of the creation v. evolution argument, and more recently, controversies surrounding climate change), but—notably—they don’t trust what the “people of earth claim to be god” either.
So the Holy Ghost People aren’t mere caricatures of a particular social group or movement, despite certain resemblances. They are challengers to two different kinds of received truth: religion and science. False prophets though they may be—though they almost certainly are—they provoke our curiosity and set us on edge from the first page of this enigmatic poem-play to the last.
The superlative moment of Young’s performance that afternoon in May was his recitation of a litany of earthly things the Holy Ghost People find profane. I was so caught up in the incantatory effects of his voice and the steady rocking that accompanied his words that I misremembered the context of this passage. I remembered the Holy Ghost People listing a series of offensive earthly things, but in fact, it was the Speakers, the earth-dwellers the Holy Ghost People have come to enlighten, who were discussing the peculiar aversions of their challengers: “the holy ghost people find the strangest of things blasphemous: bibles, crucifixions, dalmations, great danes, orange cats, nikes, paleontologists, hair braids, cocaine, mirrors, horses, snakes, egg shakers, egg beaters, diet soda (except pepsi), pickup trucks, red pens, paper cuts, dogs smaller than 10 lbs, people who don’t believe in time travel, gold, silver, red light bulbs, energy saving light bulbs, hybrid suvs, parkas, flip phones, thongs (both kinds), smoked salmon, alloy bats, the sci-fi channel, alt-country, nu-metal, bark in playgrounds, dead pigs…” The list is a funny kind of profound, full of unexpected juxtapositions, and the audience roared when Young hit the parenthetical aside “(both kinds)” after a perfectly timed pause.
I like that the incredulous Speakers are mulling aloud, trying to understand the baffling ideology of their rivals. I like that I entered this book assuming I would identify with the Speakers easily and whole-heartedly, yet here I am feeling for the Holy Ghost People, too: “the claustrophobia of time travel. it takes something out of you & puts god in there, but we are strong. we love to feel pieces of him kicking at our rib cage. we have a mission. [they pause, look around, like they’re waiting for something].” I admire their passion and their vulnerability and the way Young has made the language sing in new ways to render them convincing, if also unbelievable: “buckshot nebula. there are 47 planets orbiting a superstar & they pass within 3000 miles of each other & it’s hell to get through it—planetary orbit-shake & the way a planet unhinges flight plans—but getting around it would take years. see, it was a test from god. he wanted to see if we could make it through it—no it is not like the disciples & jesus. this had nothing to do with the bible or sons or doves—this is about god testing us.”
And then there’s the mystery of Sylvia. Is she an analogue for the Virgin Mary? Is she some version of a sci-fi Mother Ship? The Speakers, in their hunger to know, grow adamant: “who is sylvia? you people keep talking about sylvia & she is not here. can you conjure her again? show us! bring her back!” I like how the Hoy Ghost People respond when pressed. It is the most eloquent articulation they can muster, and yet, as with all forays into Cosmic Questions, the answer remains opaque, shrouded in the what-cannot-be-named: “we will not conjure sylvia. we cannot. you have made it un-so. sylvia is not a person, not a being, but an idea. sylvia is the doubt we have. sylvia allows our faith to multiply, build in us. sylvia is that sliver of thought questioning the holy ghost people, sylvia is the thing that turns us back to the real god. not your god or any god you worship.”
Not since I read the title poem of Sharon Olds’ electric first collection, Satan Says, have I been so mesmerized by the power of a poet to inhabit and alter religious imagery to explore essential human truths—among them, the yearning for knowledge, the persistence of uncertainty, the limitations of language. If the artist is not a mere transcriber of life’s experiences, but one who translates experience into another form, a creation we would call art, then Young is an exemplary artist indeed. He has rendered the WHAT IS of our times—perhaps a WHAT IS of all times—through the WHAT IF of this rich, mythical world. We recognize settings, characters, even products (Nike and Pepsi among them), and yet our familiar world has been made new, a funhouse reflection of itself, the deep strange of a dreamscape.
Recently, one of my intro students asked, with no sign of tongue in cheek, “Why are poems so often weird?” I like this question because it is hard to answer and because it points to something true about poems that more experienced students may think but never say. Poems are weird—the best ones anyway, the most memorable and provocative ones. You won’t find many collections weirder than Joshua Young’s The Holy Ghost People, but I consider this the highest form of praise. “Weird,” to me, means we haven’t seen it all before, not this way, and yet there are traces of something we know by heart, something perhaps we’ve even wished we knew how to say.
At the heart of life and literature is always quest, a hot pursuit, a journey both literal and more than literal. I have never heard it more weirdly or meaningfully described than here by the Holy Ghost People: “everything billows. we moved through star clusters for you. the breadcrumbs of photographs of stars—we will find our way back, but there will be nothing left, till something new forms between the dark matter.” This book is one such something new.