Review | If You Have Ghosts, by John Pursley III
Zone 3 Press, 2010
Predawn in an old house. No sun, no light except, perhaps, the indifferent blue haze of the computer monitor. Nothing distracts from those subconscious thoughts that glide through the mind: photographs of unknown relatives, family fishing trips, and strings of paper dolls—the apparitions that flit in and out of focus throughout the day and lay a subtle guiding hand on you. Suddenly, you bolt upright at “a window, opening / Or suddenly snapped shut . . . the quiet / Murmur of earth, lights that never go out.” John Pursley III asks the reader to confront this world in the title poem of his debut collection, If You Have Ghosts. It provides the collection’s impetus and promise. Pursley offers the reader an instruction manual in verse; if you have ghosts, the title posits, then read on.
Pursley opens with an epigraph from Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things that begins, “He’d empty what was full before / And fill up what had been an emptiness.” Here you have the first step in coping with one’s ghosts: drain them of meaning and refill with a new significance. The poem “Misappropriation” embraces this philosophy by reinventing the wood thrush: “She’ll win, given persistence & the long curve of her beak—which cuts / Through all the bureaucratic bullshit of being a bird, the half-forgotten / Myths of punctuality & stasis, the sky-charts . . .” Forget everything you know about birds, Pursley demands, exploding the idea of the thrush. This is what a bird is now. The speaker even redefines himself in “Hammerhead on the Atlantic,” denouncing a family history that no longer suits him in a new environment:
All a 13-year-old’s eyes can eat—& for nothing
More than the abashment of parents, & sisters,
Asking too many questions—offering position,
Rank & stature to our tourist-ness—I feel stupid
And contagious. Might as well hold up our signs,
Might as well enunciate mid-west-ern, then turn
And spit into the ocean. But in the high courts
Of fishermen, of fisheries, & the great Atlantic,
Our case is not so simple
The speaker takes on a godlike role, constructing new people and new animals—a new world—throughout much of the collection, as in “Figure for the Lessons of Water”:
I was young taught the children how to swim their mothers
Came I made them air to breathe to see the children made
Pursley’s use of caesura and line-break manifests complex layers of meaning. At once, the reader witnesses the speaker teaching and creating the children, the mothers, and the air itself. This deity needs practice, to be sure, but he has power.
If You Have Ghosts displays the work of an ambitious young god. The second section of Pursley’s collection features a number of poems that distort and invert time. “He Sang Sometimes & Seemed to Appeal to Female Audiences” eulogizes Chet Baker, but, by the poem’s end, shifts focus from his songs to a young girl “Who hears them now, who hears them now for a first time.” Not the first time, which would center this moment in the girl’s experience, but a first time, implying that the songs continually renew themselves. Similarly, “Evening Having Come Upended—” relates a fishing trip played backward, like a film being rewound. Starlings deposit leftover bait on the ground, and the father reassembles live fish from butchered parts:
Merely to be returned until all the fish are gone, the worms
Collected & fed to the vend-a-bait machine—& only then,
Rolling the change between our hands, will it occur to us
How independent we’ll become, how good the emptiness feels.
The ending rejects charity, rejects reliance upon anything that the speaker cannot provide for himself.
We can most easily conceptualize space-time in the physical world as a Euclidean plane—a sheet of graph paper where the reader plots out the events of his or her life while time careens by in another dimension. Pursley, however, manipulates, pinches, and crumples his plane. Over the course of “Supposing, for Instance, Here in the Space-Time Continuum,” his graph paper turns into an origami crane which neatly folds the span of an old man’s life into a single moment, “Where we all might live in a world of simple pleasure / Or, eventually, supersede time—&, almost be happy.” “My Funny Valentine,” returns to Chet Baker in a matrix of short stanzas that physically resembles the Euclidean plane, revealing the concept’s tenuous nature by encouraging multiple readings in various directions:
here, where like azure—water
breathing—throaty, or not,
rough, not like water
suspends —enough to
the palates—cannot know, we are
find time, I awake—
The reader can navigate the stanzas horizontally and vertically or read each line straight across the page. Throughout If You Have Ghosts, place and time become whatever Pursley and his audience determine.
Ultimately, though, wielding such power is exhausting, and the speaker appears to relinquish it in the collection’s final section. The focus shifts, and in each poem an “other” commandeers the reader’s attention. “Wet Plate” commemorates the Civil War dead while the speaker keeps pace as well as he can within the limits of language: “Sprawled, maybe dead / Limbs of trees, limbs of dead, branch out.” In “Study for an American West,” attention shifts drastically from the artist and the armadillo he is painting:
Somewhere in the foreground, a mother & child had pulled
To the roadside to look at a map; & for the first time, taken by
The sheer vastness of the desert, recognize the commonality
That must subsist in all things; the road goes on forever . . .
After this revelatory detour, we attempt a return to the wildlife and the camel-hair brush, but these two travelers weigh heavily on the reader’s mind, a persistent concern as night falls and a coyote howls. The speaker cannot help but look backward, alighting on these figures and a host of others, as in “Kansas City International”—a security guard and his wife, a janitor, a taxi driver—while “. . . the door to your exit, Terminal B, rotates shut.”
In “Capturing a Plum Blossom,” the speaker returns to his initial ploy of emptying and assigning meaning, applying it to another painting. He invokes Lewis Carroll and Picasso in the process, but finds himself refuted:
And [the painter] shrugs, says, “it doesn’t
. . .
“I’m looking only to exhibit
Their truest forms.”
. . .
Like a vase, a deck of cards,
And an old rubber fire engine.
What happened to the confidence, the godlike authority that warped the basic elements of existence? How will the speaker cope with his ghosts if his oldest trick no longer works? “Periodicity & Inevitable Failure” offers one last, perhaps desperate, strategy:
And there is nothing we can do. Because sometimes there is solace
In finality, or in the plurality of a given subject—the way, even now,
I’ve been discussing an event as if it hasn’t even happened, won’t
Happen again—& there, I’ve gone & called it an event, & so it is
I suppose, but it doesn’t seem fair to call it that. Because sometimes
The dog doesn’t die, takes a few steps, then falls, a few steps & falls
You should not be ashamed to stumble, the poet tells his reader, when experience overwhelms you. As the title implies, you must sometimes stumble. If You Have Ghosts, though, provides a guide for getting back up and taking another few steps, a remarkable poetic endeavor.
John Pursley III is the author of one collection of poetry, If You Have Ghosts (Zone 3 Press, 2010). He is also the author of three chapbooks: Supposing, For Instance Here in the Space-Time Continuum (Apprentice House, 2009); A Conventional Weather (New Michigan Press, 2007); and When, by the Titanic (Portlandia Press, 2006). He is a lecturer in the English Department at Clemson University.