Learning to Be Haunted: Dennis James Sweeney’s Ghost/Home

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An essayist may be said to be haunted by a question, to pursue it from the room of one paragraph to the other, until the question itself is haunted by the writer. In the chapbook Ghost/Home: A Beginner’s Guide to Being Haunted, Dennis James Sweeney uses “ghost” as a compellingly mutable term for things one may be haunted by: an invisible chronic illness, repressed emotions, unspoken statements in a relationship. Texts and subject position “I” can be ghosts. Sweeney resists easy closure as he pursues his central question through both traditional essay form and hybrid elements: how does one live haunted?

In Ghost/Home, Sweeney is haunted by Crohn’s disease, the ghost of a Confederate soldier that may have lived inside his sister, and the way “we can be ghosts to ourselves” (emphasis original) when we resist acknowledging our own anger or sadness. He suggests that we “stop trying to chase away our ghosts and [start] trying to feel,” by listening to what haunts us instead of running away, to come to a tender, ambiguous relationship with the literal and figurative ghosts that live inside us. We make a home, in other words, by letting in our ghosts. And, in the process of essaying, Sweeney creates a haunting home for the reader. The result is a chapbook with an ethos of “never [settling]” in form or pat conclusions about chronic illness or relationships, housed in the accessible form of a how-to guide.

One of the most moving qualities of Ghost/Home is how Sweeney occupies a kind of Keatsian negative capability as he allows multiple ideas to be held within mind, body, house. His essay manages to be both a deeply intimate look at relationships, inheritance, and Crohn’s disease and a resistance to the easy or saccharine narratives that can surround these topics. About chronic illness, for instance, Sweeney reflects in the first section “Getting to Know Your Ghost”:

I promise: Living in my body feels like living in a ghost, or a ghost living in me, and every meal I eat is nothing but ghostly because I don’t know how much of it I’ll absorb and how much of it will pass invisibly through me. My hunger disappears when I eat and reappears as soon as I’ve stopped eating in the form of fright. I am full but not full with what my body wants… The ghost keeps me strong enough to live in, but not strong enough to cast it out of myself.

Rather than drawing easy “lessons” from illness or falling into conventional illness narratives of learning-from-suffering, Sweeney instead uses the metaphor of ghost with productive ambiguity. Sweeney carries this slippage and ambiguity down to the level of the word and the sound in Ghost/Home, too. In the first section, Sweeney observes that “Ghost and home share the same central vowel. An empty stomach, an empty dwelling, shaped like a pill”—even language itself is bodily and haunted.

By allowing Ghost/Home to occupy multiple realities, Sweeney both resists easy comfort and offers a kind of tenderness. At the end of the second section, “Between Ghost and Home,” his initial fear at peripherally seeing a shower curtain flare “as if there is an unknown force on the other side” transforms when he realizes “it is the water, and it is me, that makes the curtain flare as if it has a life in it.” Simultaneously beside it, another section of text offset as a column on the page—its own mini-essay—states, “You are never alone.” The idea of ghost carries with it the promise of continued life as much as the specter of death. Ghosts resist closure; they fray the borders between beginnings and endings, by continuing past the end of the body. To have a ghost is then both frightening and comforting: one is never alone when haunted. There’s something beautiful about a ghost being both a reminder of and bastion against the existential terror of dying.

In a formally exciting enactment of this idea, the second section of the essay is haunted by another mini-essay. Two essays occupy part of each page throughout the second section of the chapbook. One narrates Sweeney’s personal experience of moving into the new home with his partner, Thirii, and the other meditates on Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier, when Lispector’s protagonist, Virginia, returns to her former home and is ultimately haunted by herself. In the former essay, Sweeney ponders what does not exist in his house, of feeling like a ghost in the places he visits and inhabits. In the latter essay, which runs almost in the margins of the page, he asks, “But what if we do not have to give our ghosts up? What if getting old means living with the feeling? What if, the more I am haunted, the better I understand that I must live alongside what I cannot contain of myself? …Maybe making a home means inviting the ghosts in.” Sweeney’s return to his apartment in Denver in the first essay mirrors Lispector’s protagonist’s return to her home in the second essay, and the interplay between these two essays on the page opens up space to dwell within them. Further, it asks the reader to leap the gap between them, to see the connection between Sweeney’s return and Lispector’s character’s return to places that haunt them. Rather than braiding the two strands together, Sweeney lets the strands inhabit the same space but not touch, like a ghost and the person it haunts. Or a room and the person that haunts it. We must let ourselves be haunted as readers, then, to understand how we must make a home by inviting our ghosts in. We must make a home with ghosts.

That beautiful notion bears out, too, in how Sweeney resists easy closure. After all, aren’t we haunted by what we cannot find a conclusion to? With “certainty’s endless flight,” Sweeney doubles back, opens space for, illustrates the ways that an essay’s thinking-through can never truly be complete. He does not tie the chapbook up in a way that neatly makes sense of everything. Rather, Sweeney dwells in possibility: that maybe home is made of ghosts. That perhaps healing becomes possible when we let ourselves feel. We never finish learning to be haunted, whether by an essay or one of our ghosts.

This essayistic thinking bears out in the conversation Sweeney and Thirii have about emotions late in the chapbook. Thirii, reflecting on the way that unfelt emotions can create spaces for other emotions, says, “Say I feel sad. If I don’t allow myself to feel sad, there’s an emptiness where the sadness could have been. So the anger rushes in to fill it” (emphasis original). The work of Sweeney’s essaying in Ghost/Home navigates the crisis of both allowing one’s self, as a writer, to feel and to make spaces: for a reader, for alternative possibilities and reflections, for complications of thought that allow for tenderness without settling on neat resolution. To live is to never fully have resolution.

In the process of wondering whether “there’s a way to not let those ghosts get ahold of us,” Sweeney leaves us as readers grappling with the same question. Yet in some critical way, to grapple with any text—chapbook, body, house—is to be held by a ghost, or to make space for the ghost that a text makes, and thus this chapbook so beautifully invites us as readers to face the crisis of being inhabited by its ghost and our own. All of us have ghosts we have ignored or not allowed ourselves to see. Ghost/Home gives us a way to see them, which is both frightening and healing.

In the closing passage of the book, Sweeney reflects, “The only thing we could do was stop trying to chase away our ghosts and started [sic] trying to feel. Funny—I wrote heal the first time I tried to type that last word. It sounded the same, like part of me was coming to life.” With this slippage, Sweeney beautifully allows us to see the crisis of the book: that it is necessary to make room for one’s ghosts, to feel one’s fears and unspoken emotions, in order to allow one’s self to heal. One must live with the hurt, the anger, the sadness, in order to not be consumed by them. Sweeney thus also allows us as readers to dwell in multiple possibilities—that a chronic illness, for example, cannot permit healing and yet in some way must be marked by the hope of healing. The process of allowing one’s self to be haunted in this way resists closure but permits change, the antithesis of never-changing ghosts. With that single slip of word, heal and feel, Sweeney beautifully gathers the many threads of the chapbook, like bringing all the ghosts into one room.

Sweeney’s Ghost/Home is a compelling essay-hybrid house for the reader, like a ghost, to haunt for a while. To enter it is to see ourselves. To leave it is to somehow continue occupying its space. And we leave it reminded that perhaps what makes a home is inviting our ghosts in, whether we bring our own ghosts to the home of a book or to the homes we make for ourselves beyond the page. Ghost/Home offers us a necessarily incomplete instruction manual for doing precisely that. This is the kind of the work an essay can do, and it’s an exciting ethos of Sweeney’s writing. Read it and make space for the way “fright rearranges itself,” for the way our understanding continues to undo itself.

Kelly Weber is the author of the forthcoming chapbook The Dodo Heart Museum: A Fabulist Curiosity Cabinet (Dancing Girl Press, 2020), and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tupelo Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Cream City Review, Permafrost, Ruminate, Tinderbox, and elsewhere. She has been a finalist for the Frontier Chapbook Prize and Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize and has been longlisted for the [PANK] Book Contest, and her work has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize. She has served as an editorial assistant for Colorado Review. She holds an MFA from Colorado State University. More of her work can be found at kellymweber.com. More from this author →