Reviewed by Michael Imossan
The collection Naming the Ghost is a poetic reportage of the intermundane; where life and death interface—like a confluence of rivers—apart yet touching. Here, the word “Ghost” is not just a representation of the dead but a symbol of pain, grief, loss and fear. This ghost, this fear as depicted by the poet is seen to be ever present; constantly walking through the poet’s bones, becoming alive again in every breath and in every “gust” as the poet affirms “we know the ghost is here”. This is to say that Emily Hockaday is not alone in the acknowledgement of the heft of loss living with and within them.
“The ghost” as depicted by the poet in this collection exhibits traits of a poltergeist as its presence is noticed “when we see the pool of water/seeping from under the counter and the baby’s monitor turns on/ through the night, static… ”. A reiteration of the subject of grief is seen where there is a collective admittance of the presence of “the mourning dove at our window by midnight”. One must admire the narrative technique employed by the writer to be able to capture the essence of this intermundane reportage; the simplicity of language and the subtle musicality intricately woven into each line of the poems in this collection.
The poet confesses “when the ghost speaks/it is the sound of music heard/ from under water/and the words are a forgotten symphony we composed as children”. These quoted lines therefore capture the role of memory in grieving. As humans, we are bound to remember the moments shared with our loved ones when they eventually die and here, the poet describes this memory as “the sound of music heard from under water”. She goes further to mention that her “daughter is writing her own /ghost music on her plastic, five-note piano”. This is seen in the poem When the ghost speaks
Though a certain kind of elegiac tone runs through the entire collection like water, what interests me most is how Emily Hockaday finds a sense of communalism and, even with the pain and fear and grief she is feeling, finds a way to be succor and solace for her husband and children. This is reflected in her confessional narration “I didn’t know we’d be living with this, / he confesses to me, at night. No one did,/ I say. What he means is that he wouldn’t have chosen it. I make my hands a soft web and press them against / his face. He is tired. We are all tired” The admittance of emotional, psychological and physical fatigue by the poet only goes to show how much the body and mind can bear in the eventuality of losing a loved one. However, even with this tiredness, the poet, being a wife and a mother, manages to make her hands “a soft web and press them against/ his face” , hence a sharp portrayal of the feminine strength in weathering such storms.
The constant repetition of the phrase “the ghost” by the poet is a deliberate attempt to call our attention to the ever looming presence of a noticed absence (the ghost). In an introspective voice which is linearly projected in the poem, the poet continues to signal the crater upon which the loss has created in her life and that of her family as well as how it affects their daily activities, including the most trivial things in their lives like a “mismatched” baby socks. In the poetic persona’s voice “Now that we know about the ghost, I apologize / to my husband; it is no longer his fault that all of the baby socks mismatched”
Emily Hockaday’s profoundness and prolificity lies in how much she evokes emotions and imagery by weaving together a thematic preoccupation of loss, love, family, empathy and a certain kind of horror—with a poetic persona at the center of this narrative watching as all these themes unravel, with the embodiment of a hovering absence literally and figuratively floating through the spaces, the rift in which its death has created. In the poem, it is as though one is in a mourning house and the ghost of the deceased is floating around, moving objects with one particular character pointing others to its presence .
Even when Emily Hockaday herself, through the poetic persona is mourning, she does not fail to empathize with others who also share in this loss, like her mother. “It is almost Valentine’s Day /and I send a care package to my mother, recently widowed. / I agonize over the contents, not wanting to unearth her grief” Hockaday says. With this, we are made to see the humane struggle of the poetic persona who tries to grapple with the heft of loss and empathy for those who have also lost. In this we see a kind of epiphany in which one who has lost knows about loss enough to empathize with others.
In the poem The Ghost Welcomes Us, Emily Hockaday intensifies her voice. Here she becomes more vulnerable and introspective. She becomes clearer in her grieving. One can notice that in this second half of the collection, Emily Hockaday has passed the first stage of grieving which is denial and has accepted her loss—and thus, surrenders herself to “the ghost” who in her words “teaches me about my brain”. Through the clarity exuded by Emily Hockaday in the second half of the collection, we can now see how “the ghost”, “grief” and “pain” are all one and the same—shapeless, like the spooky apparitions that they are. This is buttressed in the poem The Ghost’s Demands:
The ghost comes to me with a list of demands;
my body makes demands on me, too.
And the baby in the other room, her eyelashes
golden stitches, her hungry mouth full of need.
I have nowhere to go, but the ghost asks me
to leave. This is its first demand. I rise
from my bed, despite the leaden pain, and disappear
into the night.
It is here that the stark reality of loss and the vacuum that remains after happens in the poetic persona.
However, towards the end, the poet acknowledges the trueness of healing and the need to let go, thus the poetic persona in the poem “The Ghost’s departure” admits “we all know it is time for the ghost leave” which is symbolic to healing and the need to let go of the pain and fear running through the “atoms” of her “body”. Therefore Emily Hockaday’s Naming the Ghost is an invitation into grief, death and the haunting effect that loss has on a person—moving through a person’s bones, their houses, lifting objects and even poisoning the air. But most of all, Emily Hockaday invites us into healing and hope amidst all these happenings.