Emily Hockaday’s “Naming the Ghost” is narrated by a new mother who has also lost her father and become haunted by a ghost. Her husband can’t see the ghost but her baby appears to be aware of it or perhaps aware of her mother’s reactions to it although the baby is unable to articulate so there’s an ambiguous strand as to whether the ghost is an external manifestation of a father not yet ready to pass on or if a manifestation of the narrator’s grief aiding the grieving process. The ghost is not hostile, in “The Ghost Has Started Reading,” it leaves behind books “I can never get through: icicles from childhood”,
“I look in my daughter’s eyes for signs
of frozen shards. When she laughs, is it quieter?
She squirms from my scrutiny with narrow eyes.
Don’t you have the story wrong? I ask.
I write a response in the bathroom mirror:
It isn’t always about you.“
Parenthood brings hopes that your child will share what you enjoyed and perhaps share the same dislikes. The narrator’s daughter’s ability to enjoy stories the narrator didn’t is a disturbance. Is the message in the bathroom mirror a note from the narrator to herself, a reminder her child is an independent being, or a note to the ghost, a warning at undermining the narrator’s parenting. The ghost though seems a sunny thing, in “The Ghost Casts a Spell” it “casts a spell over the window so it always appears sunny” but the narrator writes letters about the bodily changes that come with motherhood, leaves the letter overnight and discovers in the morning,
“the handwritten page is unmoved. While the others sleep,
I burn it, mix the ashes with potting soil,
and add it to the pots along the window.”
The narrator’s complaints are shared with a blank page and erased so the family don’t discover them. It feels as if the narrator is casting spells, not the ghost, who seems to want to help. The narrator’s father suffered a long illness leading up to his death, in “The Ghost Wakes Me from a Nightmare”, he stumbles,
“from room to room with a walker getting smaller
and smaller until he disappeared. It is dark,
and my daughter’s breathing is so loud
the baby monitor picks it up. Grief has found somewhere
to take root. I go to the window. The world outside
is lit glass. I let my skin become glass, too. I am
a ringing vessel.”
The baby’s breathing is not that loud, it’s just that everything else is so quiet, a whisper would feel like a shout. Grief has distanced the narrator from herself, she empties her thoughts to allow others to speak through her. Effectively she becomes ghost-like, but not in control of her ghostly body. In “Thank the Ghost” the narrator admits her daughter keeps her from drifting away. However, the daughter will not remember her grandfather. The narrator feels, in “Always Looking Somewhere”,
“The things that are important to me
and have shaped me and made me who I am
will be different for her. Sometimes at night,
I gaze at the baby monitor and feel the ghost
gazing back at me. We are always looking elsewhere:
into the past or the future. I want so desperately
to see the future that my daughter will imagine
for herself, and I want to know:
you will be there; you will survive.”
While she grieves her father, she wants the reassurance her daughter will know her mother and will not lose her parent. It’s a fear that keeps the narrator from seeing the present – she is always looking into the past at her relationship to her father and her own childhood for clues to manage her daughter’s childhood, or into the future, trying to imagine what her daughter needs and will be. Neither can give her the comfort she seeks. She acknowledges the ghost is temporary and faces, “The Ghost’s Departure,” where the narrator confesses (“her” is her daughter),
“I don’t want her to remember me
this way. Neither do I want to be erased.
I must stop conflating the ghost with my father.
Wishing my daughter to hold memories of him
will not make it so. We ride the carousel together.
She sits with her father on the bench, and I choose a horse
that moves up and down. She looks on with delight.”
The narrator is now seeing that the ghost has taught her to let go of the past and that letting go does not mean forgetting. It does mean accepting that her daughter will not remember her grandfather, but that is not a reason for the narrator to lose her memories or suppress her grief. It’s time to focus on the living and the present as it is, not as the narrator wishes it to be.
“Naming the Ghost” is a gentle, sensitive journey through bereavement and acceptance. It is not just the loss of the narrator’s father, but also that the newborn daughter will never know her grandfather, which exacerbates the sense of loss. However, the narrator acknowledges that she cannot let her daughter’s sole experience be a grief for someone she did not know. On her journey, she learns to adjust to looking to the future, informed by the past. These are poems that linger and haunt rather than grab the reader.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.
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