Editors Ruminate: On Haunting

Editors Ruminate: On Haunting

July 10, 2018 2 Comments

As I sit down to write this reflection, I feel an overwhelming sense of dread. Not for the task at hand, but for the future. Is this what haunting is? I’ve never been one to believe in ghosts, at least not how they tend to be portrayed in movies and books. Specters don’t confine themselves to our simple dichotomies of absence and presence, life and death. They are both and they are between. Haunting is an atmosphere produced by these intra-worldly beings: specters of past lives, of present violence, of the seemingly unalterable conditions of what world will be. The four long poems in this issue will haunt you. You will see in them the faces of children who have been relegated to sacrifice zones; how the smallest measure of matter becomes the destroyer of worlds; how a home buckles under the weight of its history.

Ambalila Hemsell’s “Passport” has haunted me since I first read it nearly a year ago. The poem is addressed to a child who is differentiated from countless other children by the “little blue book in [his] mouth.” The child, at first, is sick: “hunger is haunting your room, wraith-like, and holding you.” But when he recovers, he has the milk and bread he needs. His condition is juxtaposed with a child who is both excruciatingly far and near: “the Syrian boy / I saw in the video.” This boy is beyond mending. The image of his father and mother holding his body, his “tender skeleton,” haunts the speaker:

his mother,
a tiger in a small cage,
throws herself again
and again against the wall
of no bread.

Why does one child starve while another thrives? This is the unanswerable question that haunts without ceasing. The passport, here, becomes the mediator of life and death, of passage from one world to the next. The speaker remembers seeing her own child’s tender skeleton for the first time, unable to reconcile these two realities:

some bones are 
revealed by ultrasound
others by sonic 
boom    some
boys watch helicopters 
fly low
dropping anything.

It is the pervasiveness of this violence, the illogic of it, that makes it impossible to pin down. Hunger and war cannot be defeated. Like ghosts they are everywhere and nowhere, with no single cause to point to and no single enemy to defeat. This dispersion of violence counters the consolidation of power in the passport— the “little blue book / like a hook / in your mouth.” For this child, American citizenship may mean bread when he needs it, but what will happen when “the corned / and calloused hands / of America / steady on the reel” tug on the line?

Shann Ray’s poem “Sundown,” from a longer series called “Atomic Theory: poems to my wife and God,” faces the final page of artist Trinh Mai’s series “A Time to Heal.” The piece, pictured here, is a detail of the “war wound” that was constructed from Eucalyptus leaves, gouache, holy water, bark, and other materials by the artist and an Armed Forces veteran named Christopher Weathers.

TRINH MAI. Cry. Touch. See. Life. (detail). Eucalyptus leaves, gouache, holy water, Pacific Ocean water, paper, pressed summer lilac, textile, thread, tree bark, and wool on digital image printed on Arches watercolor paper. 44 x 30.5 inches. Detail from “war wound” crafted by Christopher Weather 

This collaborative collage, an open wound stitched and anointed, feels like the perfect visual representation of Ray’s “Sundown,” a series poem in ten parts that dedicates itself to artists, thinkers, and writers past and present. Section by section, these relations are conjured to hold together a desolate world—the un-mended opening that haunts every address.


“Sundown” opens with a modern creation story:

against indifference and greed
to reach love whole skeins of quantum scientists
convert from cold dark to spectral light
after witnessing death by the maximum security school to prison pipeline

History, it seems, can be read as a series of separations of light and dark
. The intention behind that separation is sometimes holy, but often violent. Material conditions are radically altered, and the new power unleashed is at the whim of whoever has the power to control it.

The poem oscillates between the intimacy of atoms—that minuscule measurement of what makes world—and the destruction that occurs when they are split. Can such energy be the same energy that generates love, that forms a poem? What can possibly reconcile these scales, and where do we draw the line between what we care for and what is outside our reach? Here, the sun’s energy, which makes life possible, is juxtaposed with its own processes of nuclear fusion that destroys life on earth. However, which lives get to count as meaningful is unclear:

finding hydrogen the most abundant element
on earth the sun’s light makes hydrogen bombs
mobilizing outward force by nuclear fusion with
whole families laid waste through much higher yield
and crucially less fallout but from far distances scalp contusions
are still detected by mirror through incisions from the aponeurotic surface
likewise my father picked fattened ticks from our old bird dog
and dropped them in a bucket of gasoline

Haunted by the space between these seemingly incompatible encounters, this poem conjures again and again the light that has the power to both destroy and redeem, revealing the darkness contained within any act of creation, even this poem, a wound stitched open:

o cut us from the cloth sew into us a little death
each death a part of the whole
darkness o never abandon us again

Angie Macri’s crown of sonnets, “Opus Interrasile,” is haunted by its own form. Lines recur and revise themselves, floating from one sonnet to the next in this series that explores the relationship between art, history, and war. Running through these themes is a critique of the history of representation itself: women as symbols of and within art, the inspiration for it, but rarely the makers. Patriarchy seems to be enshrined in marble itself: the subjugation of women one of art’s most enduring subjects.

The poem opens with two sculptures of women, one named “painting” and the other “sculpture,” both framing the entrance of an art museum: “such large sisters / as if two lions, recumbent there.” Next, we encounter a goddess split in two: “half her gone / (all that’s left is her waist down), said / to have been found in Spain.” Juxtaposed with this image is a man who becomes a god by killing “his wife and children / and then killed some monsters afterwards / to atone.” Next is a depiction of a child who will also grow up to kill his wife and children, who will also be named a hero. What do we do with this history of violence against women that we call beauty?

Just as lines resurface throughout the series, creating new relations while bringing with them the conditions of the past, the women-as-statues-as-art appear again toward the end of the poem, revealing the truth the lurks beneath:

Pretty one,
said the woman in her rage, let me tell you
what you really are, not painting or sculpture,
but plaster to be broken after the Fair is done.

The figures that haunt this poem conjure the complicated history of art—who is represented, who is representing, and what exactly is the relationship between art and reality, the violence required to hew stone into statue.

The fourth and final poem in this haunting issue is “Kontakion for Florida” by Kate Gaskin. Like Macri’s crown of sonnets, this poem repeats and revises itself. Rather than recycling lines, however, this poem circulates and disarticulates one word: P-E-N-S-A-C-O-L-A. The letters begin each line to acrostically spell out the word over and over again, with intermediary tercets repeating this chant throughout the poem. In this hymn for Florida, “Pensacola” becomes the word and the place that is both repressed and obsessed over. It haunts every line, every stanza, but is only articulated in pieces throughout the poem. This form resonates with the speaker’s own uncertain feelings toward this place, which is both the land of “steam and violence, the fresh / embalmment of possums in the road” and “the oranges and beautyberry, the soft /endless perfume of sweet olive.”

Like Hemsell and Ray’s poems, the question of complictness also keeps resurfacing. This poem is deeply American, by which I mean it is at war with itself—guilt a ghost that cannot rest. The speaker, whose husband and grandfather are in the military, asks herself, letter by letter, how networks of violence unfurl and who is to blame. She does not excuse herself either:

Possibly my grandfather is a hero. Possibly he is not. Which-
ever side appeals to you—take your pick. Do we tremble
next to veterans? Do we thank them for our freedom? Do we
spit into their faces? Do we ask what
allows them to press a button in Las Vegas—or to send a
convoy without sufficient armor into a white erasure
of breath? The crane thanks you for your service. The
lagoon thanks you for your service. The sawgrass
also thanks you for your service. They appreciate freedom too.
Of course my hands are dirty. I use the roads, I pump gas, I
offer myself to you. I
open. I ask to be saved even when I know I can’t be.

Just as this poem explores the beautiful and unseemly elements of Florida’s ecology, the speaker questions where, exactly, she is positioned amidst these networks, unable to shake the feeling that “we seem to be haunted by something / nascent.” Just as Pensacola keeps returning throughout the poem, yet is never directly addressed, the speaker circles around and around her responsibility as an American, as a Floridian, as someone who both participates in and resists what these labels have come to represent and inflict. The poem does not resolve these tensions, but ends by taking refuge in the poem’s own formal constraints as it repeats and completes the conjuring of Pensacola:

as it is in Heaven. On Earth
as it is in Heaven. On Earth
as it is in Heaven. On Earth.

Be sure to pick up a copy of Issue 47 to read these haunting poems for yourself and tell us what other connections you see between the poetry, prose, art, and readers’ notes. We love learning from you and with you.



Photo by Himanshu Singh Gurjar on Unsplash

2 Responses

B. Jones
B. Jones

December 02, 2018

Thank you for sharing this. I loved the poetry in this issue.


July 10, 2018

When I first read Ambalila Hemsell’s “Passport” back in a May posting here on the blog, I was speechless and felt, as the kids say, all the feels. I kept thinking about it for maybe a week or so after, you know, until I was distracted again with life nonsense and/or other horrors. Then it came back to me when I caught the headline of the children being separated from their parents at the border. That image of the mother, “a tiger in a small cage, / throws herself again / and again against the wall / of no bread” played in my head. As an immigrant myself, brought here when I was a child, I know first hand how difficult and frightening leaving one’s home is, and all for an opportunity of a better life. But I came here with the “little blue book.” And it is incredible to me the kind of pain these families were put through and will be haunted by—because this experience has no doubt branded their psyches—all for lacking said little blue book. Well, okay, not just because of that, but it might have made a difference if they had it. I know it did for us when we came here. And now I’m haunted by the question you brought up, " but what will happen when “the corned / and calloused hands / of America / steady on the reel” tug on the line?" because it really does feel like “when” and not “if,” especially now. I mean, for a few years there it felt like, okay, maybe things are gonna be okay, then in Nov. 2016 it was like ‘Oh, No! No! What is happening?! Ah!"
But seriously, I know what you mean about the dread. I am not a mother, but an aunt (a super cool aunt if you ask any of my nephews and nieces who range from 2 – 11 years-old). I often worry so much, and I’m not exaggerating when I say to the point of delayed sleep, about the state of the world and what challenges they will have to face and are facing now. That is, if there is even a world left when it’s their turn to run it.
Why can’t we as a species be better and do better for our children? Other animals have it down. We’re also the ones messing things up for their children! Ah!
I better go read something lighter now…

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