When I was growing up, my mom sensed a dark presence in our basement, which was a cold, bare cement laundry room for the duplex we rented. At night, it would appear in her bedroom and suffocate her as she dreamed. When she told me about the apparition, I felt a strange sympathy with the spirit’s assertion of worldly malevolence. If I learned anything from my mother, it was from observing how cruelty is often manufactured out of desires unacknowledged, effaced, disqualified, given not even the basic dignity of being laid to rest.
Ghosts are active participants in our lifeworlds, for desire is a fundamental basis for interfacing with the ongoing mediation of life. Far from sterile echoes of a past trauma, I like to believe in the ghosts shrouded in cotton sheets, in the material of our everyday. For example, the vengeful ghosts—often women and/or people of color—who exact violence onto the present because of a buried wrongdoing. The ghostly can serve as a register for the elided injustices perpetrated against the vulnerable who have no recourse in legible historical or memorial record. I also think about the Korean ghosts in Joseph Han’s novel Nuclear Family, who attempt to rally and organize in order to cross the DMZ in a humorous yet poignant representation of ghosts situated within an enduring geopolitical context.
Ghosts are a register for the active articulation of desire, emerging from the ethereal and disjointed yet grasping at flesh. When my mother told me about the presence that haunted her in the night, I compulsively squawked out boring ontological questions: in what way was the ghost actually real? In hindsight, after watching so many things fall apart (including my relationship with my mother), I can recognize such questions as evasion. Now, I am much more curious about the question of desire. What did that ghost want—from my mom, our family, the world that consigned it to spectating mold-crept concrete?
Amy Jannotti’s debut poetry chapbook, An Angel is a Kind of Ghost (2022), has hovered in my mind since it released last October, serving as a kind of rallying point for all kinds of spirits. On a technical level, this collection is easy to praise: Jannotti is a poet keenly attuned to how a poem is a process of emergence. In “That Ghost is Just a Kid in a Sheet,” rivulets of white space cut through words bending in surprising directions, isolate fragments of image and sensation that dilate into frankensteined significations: “who’s foolhardy to listen – / who won’t scatter like fright ended children even after my angel / ic be not afraid –". Enjambments, whether expressed through line breaks or forward slashes, effect the chimeric logic of these poems, traversing divisions and prompting readers to recognize what emerges within the lines as they are read and their significations when they are at rest.
But what I find so compelling about Jannotti’s work is not solely mechanical execution; rather, I am moved by the way her writing speaks to the force of desire, as recognition and effacement, profane divinity, the sensual movement animating aching bodies and intimate publics. In this chapbook, the ghostly is a register of body, rather than a one-act psychological play where some repressed secret surfaces to be absolved. Operating outside the puppeteering of ghostly beings for some didactic moralism or starched-collar analogy, these poems take up the languid repose of ghostly being, what it means to exist in troubled yet intoxicating relation to the things we survive (and do not), that which keeps us still yearning within a world that makes ghosts of us.
I love this collection’s demanding ghosts and profane angels and saying “i love you to the gore of it.” Speakers are perpetually caught within a call for recognition, “to haunt your labyrinth ear. To scream back.” The posthumously celebrated photographer Francesca Woodman appears and reappears as a sympathetic ghost “starved for a want / that wants me back: an eyelash: to dandelion & seed;”. In “Lust Drags You to Hell,” bodily pleasure indexes one’s own existence as a “hollow & tender cavity”: “we’ve all touched ourselves / on the earlobe just to gauge the / softness of unweathered flesh.” And tinging the gothic-ethereal is an almost crass humor (“i give no Head but Stone”) that returns me to my body with laughter. So, too, is pop culture and the contemporary a vital touchstone through which Jannotti’s poems cohere their power—I will forever admire the confidence and ambition of “Distressed (with Gold Lustre),” which takes up fashion blogging to articulate a powerfully-located yearning so precisely: “let me transcend toward a quiet place where i can simply express / my fragile, infinite hyper-ephemerality. i long for that space / in the loading: between one picture & the next.”
As with all second-hand accounts of ghostly encounters, this review cannot help but diminish the collection’s hauntings into the laboring of inert facts. Reading this chapbook feels like walking through a rotting yet sweetly perfumed house of distorting halls and carnal chambers until you find yourself a ghost, visiting your headstone already worn smooth by your own touch. But there is a kind of hope there, too, enunciated as an insistence that something still remains. If nothing else, ghosts can attest to continuance. While I haven’t spoken to my mother in years, the ghost that haunted her feels like our last remaining link that cannot be shaken off by mortal hands. I have cherished An Angel is a Kind of Ghost as an otherworldly call to remain alive to the world, to the preciousness of what remains: “but then / there’s morning the next day, & I live to see it, & it’s good.”