you fell in love with Charon, coming out of the dark
with his half-light smile, taking tickets for the river's underground
from "Prologue: Kalligeneia 2012"
Sonya Taaffe's Ghost Signs is a revelation and a cold fist on your spine, all at once.
I should admit, I'm not much of a poetry critic. I read it, sometimes. I write it, more rarely. I know what I like. And I'd put Ghost Signs up there with the very best of what I like.
It is a short volume, one of Aqueduct Press's "Conversation Pieces." It divides itself into two sections of poetry, one—poetic—short story, a prologue-poem, and an epilogue-poem. The poetry here has the brilliance of a knife's edge, sharp and cuttingly clean, saturated with meaning and freighted with significance. And fittingly, given the title, every poem is a ghost. Every poem a katabatic descent to the underworld, a shade glimpsed at the corner of the eye, the whisper of something lost as it teases the edge of memory. If there is one word to describe this collection, it is elegiac.
The poems are dense with allusion. Many of them are dense with classical allusion, a set of allusions I can often follow to the hints of their significance, the play of their symbolic associations, their resonance—some of these poems might work a little less well for a reader who doesn't grin at the prologue-poem's reference to the Thesmophoria, doesn't think of Dido with Qart-hadaşt, or chuckle in amused recognition of who speaks in "Ψάπφοι Σελάννα":
Sappho with violets in your smile,
why lie awake counting the Pleiades?
Why pace the grey shore
with the sea hissing of lost lovers
when my arms are warmer than the white of waves,
the sweet and sharp of your skin like Pramnian wine?
Come to me here and I will leave my husband dreaming,
the stars to circle in the wandering sky.
Σελάννα, in the Aeolic dialect of ancient Greek in which Sappho composed her lyric poetry, translates as Selene, the moon goddess. Ψάπφοι is Sappho in the dative form, so the title works out at "Selene to Sappho." The rhythm of the poem is halfway between invocation and seduction, and holds an echo of ancient lyric verse in the pattern of its vowels. And underneath, that deft sibilance evokes the sound of the sea. It has an understated sensuality about it—a sensuality that's as characteristic of these poems as the lingering sense of loss, from the "I turn away, covering my face / with your shoulder warm as twilight in Sulmo / your hair silvering as the southern stars at dawn" of "Ovid's Two Nightmares" to the mesmerising rhythm of "Lyric Fragment":
Under the olives, I unbraid your hair
dark as violets in the sea-shifting light,
[ . . . ]
Scene-stealing Anakreon leans over the page,
his sunflower head reflecting, reminding me
of Eros who rattles our hearts with riot and ecstasy,
wins the throw against us every time.
and on into cold—yet still oddly sensual—litanies of "Red Is For Soldiers"
. . . pressing cold faces
against the soot-stained vanes of stations
where the ghosts of sweethearts see off the soldiering dead
their greatcoats already mud-thickened, turf sticking under their nails
as their lovers pluck poppies from long-open mouths
and tuck them behind the ashes of ears, keeping safe.
Look: it is tempting to carry on quoting the most excellent bits of several excellent poems. Even those whose references are less instantly familiar, that speak of sextons and Drosselmeyer, Plymouth Sound and domovoi, cut like a knife. World War I meets the cryptographers of World War II: in "Ceremony of Innocence," Kipling and Britten
share a desk in my dreams,
turning empire into art song,
the soldier's demobbed miles
into the wry white voice of the Pleiades,
while in "The Clock House" the poet invites a Christopher (who may be Christopher Morcom, Alan Turing's boyhood friend and first love) to "Come ghost out of the machine":
Here is Prospero of the decision problem
who drowned his books in cyanide
and his wanly smiling Ariel,
long freed from the equivocations of the flesh,
the absent-minded atheist and his good angel . . .
The sheer precision and emotive effectiveness of the poetry is a thing of wonder. I'm particularly fond, if one may use the word fond when speaking of a poem that caught the breath in my throat, of "Censorship," a short poem—as so many poems here are short—that tangles Cato the Elder and Carthage, war and history and memory:
Your voice repeating itself across a sea that was never ours
the one word I cannot rub away
as easily as a city's dust between my palms,
my mouth sea-breeze bitter with knowing
none of the names of children we have burned.
By any standards, this is an incredibly successful poetry collection. It made me feel things. All the things. It made me sit gape-mouthed and half-drunk on language (there may have also been alcohol involved—I'm writing this during the season of midwinter revels, after all—but mostly language) and rhythm.
The short story that rounds out the volume, titled "The Boatman's Cure," is perhaps the collection's weakest element. This is not because it's a bad short story, by any means: but it's a story that's better read in the light of a long prose-poem. Its narrative is less easily followed than its imagery—which is vivid—and its turns of phrase, which are striking. But I'm still not entirely sure what it was about: I feel as though I missed a cue or three, somewhere in the middle, that would have helped me make more perfect sense of the end.
In sum, however, this is a very strong collection from a very talented poet. Worth reading. And rereading. And making your friends sit and listen while you quote especially telling lines . . .
. . . I have some very tolerant friends. But the point is, Ghost Signs is really good.
Liz Bourke recently completed a doctoral dissertation in Classics at Trinity College Dublin. She writes regularly for Tor.com. Her reviews have also appeared in Locus, Vector, and The Cascadia Subduction Zone.