In recent posts I have been revisiting poems from the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Eye to the Telescope #22, “The Ghosts Issue“, which I guest edited. The issue went live October 15th.
Today we continue the series with four ghost poems that subvert expectations, from humanity’s place in the universe and Nature, to the nature of grief.
Three Worlds by Wendy Rathbone
a world of red sky
and lightning and jagged doorways
became a mirror in which
Any meaningful contemplation of ghosts must lead us eventually to life’s fundamental questions: not just “where do we go when we die” but “where do we come from”, “what are we made of”, and “why are we here?”
Some of my favorite poems among those submitted to the “Ghosts” issue are those that embrace these essential mysteries. Wendy Rathbone’s “Three Worlds” is one fantastic example. Appearing at the cusp of our extraterrestrial ghost poems, “Three Worlds” takes us not just to new star systems but other planes of existence entirely; realms of the spirit, or soul. Three, to be exact– each uniquely horrible and wonderful.
Though they read like pure imagination, we know these three worlds are somehow threaded to the life and death questions because of the poem’s first line (“Once when I did not exist/three worlds called to me”) and the closing (“I had to… give up the years/and make my eyes husks/and dangle my skeleton like a bell over the adrift dimensions/to meet my ghost”.
The lines imply a sacrifice, but they also suggest that the nature of our existence is a choice. It’s empowering, and it begs the question–if we could be anywhere, why are we here, in this plane where we are nursed on “leaves and stars”?
I love the possibilities engendered by this poem: it reminds me of that meme buzzing around the internet: you are a ghost driving a meat-coated skeleton made from stardust — what are you afraid of?
Wendy Rathbone has had over 500 poems published in places like Asimov’s, Apex, Pedestal, Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Dreams and Nightmares, HWA Showcase and more. Her most recent collection, Turn Left at November, is nominated for an Elgin. She also writes and publishes novels and short stories. You can find her on Facebook, Amazon, Pinterest, Tumblr, and her blog: wendyrathbone.blogspot.com/
Bright Matter by John W. Sexton
They so desperately wanted to die.
In the morning dull smears dotted the pane.
But the ghost moths covered her: a robe of light.
More alive dead than when they were alive.
Rathbone’s “Three Worlds” and John W. Sexton’s “Bright Matter” are both delightfully surreal. They also share an interest in the ghostly symbolism of moths–strange little beings that flutter, spectral and soft, in the dark. I could not resist positioning them back to back.
Yet where Rathbone’s moths are poetic and passing, “Bright Matter” is devoted to the creatures–a wholly unexpected and fascinating choice in which the human of the narrative (poor Sally) is really just an afterthought, a sad little phenom who for some reason can sense the presence of moth souls: thousands and thousands of them, all around.
Even more wonderfully bizarre is the poem’s revelation that moths are suicidal for a reason — “Destined to burn they are born already burned,” yearning for the greatest porch light of all. Sally cannot understand it, but the poet lets us in on the secret: their transitory existence contributes bit by infinitesimal silvery bit to a mysterious cosmic metabolic process, like an hourglass counting off centuries, or the galaxy slowly shifting its weight. When the sun finally reaches critical moth mass, what then?
John W. Sexton lives in the Republic of Ireland and is a Muse pagan. His fifth poetry collection, The Offspring of the Moon, has just been published by Salmon Poetry. His sixth collection, Futures Pass, is also forthcoming in 2017 from the same publisher. In 2007 he was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry. His speculative poems are widely published and some have appeared in Apex, The Edinburgh Review, The Irish Times, Liminality, Mithila Review, Mirror Dance, The Pedestal Magazine, Silver Blade and Strange Horizons.
a stranger in the cemetery whispered to me by Rebecca Buchanan
it is said by those
who claim to know the
truth of such things that
While Sexton’s insect specters were an unprecedented choice, animal ghosts were surprisingly popular among the poems submitted to this issue of Eye to the Telescope. That is to say, pet ghosts were popular–many spirit cats padded their way across my laptop, along with a few faithful dead dogs (which begs the question – is it easier to imagine cat ghosts? or are speculative poets more likely to be cat people? hmm.)
Rebecca Buchanan’s “a stranger in the cemetery whispered to me” stood out for its focus on wild animals — denizens of nature haunting the woods and “edges of ev’ry/road”, echoing the cycle of seasons, of life, even in spirit form. More than this, though, Buchanan’s poem completely subverts our arrogant human assumption that we’re the only species that has ghosts; indeed, it dares to suggest that we’re the only species that doesn’t.
I like the mystery and subtle mockery of this poem–while the animal spirits are “bright-eyed” and animate, the eponymous “stranger” and “me” are both nondescript, abstracts that don’t even warrant capital letters. The “cemetery”, too, is a mere sketch of a setting –just a yard of stones, perhaps, demarking nothing of importance.
Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. She has been previously published, or has work forthcoming, in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Faerie Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Nebula Rift, New Realm, and other venues.
Embracing the Bear by Jane Yolen
When he stands on his hind legs,
knee-deep in bracken, to embrace me,
he is so like a man, he breaks the spell.
(“Embracing the Bear.” Copyright © 2016 by Jane Yolen.)
Buchanan’s nod to Nature (and humanity’s less-than-consequential place in it) sequed nicely with another poem that juxtaposes death, wilderness, and human impulse.
By far the most common ghost poems I received were “lost love” poems–pets, parents, and children, to be sure, but something about romantic love seems to wed particularly well with the notion of ghostly return.
Because my goal with this issue was to seek out the unusual, I was drawn to Jane Yolen’s “Embracing the Bear”, in which loss is not romanticized– just the opposite. The poem evokes an almost aversive response to the bear that the narrator imagines, for a moment, is a returned husband. The creature reeks of piss and sweat, semen… decay–yet it is this miasma that speaks to the narrator’s grief– a reaction akin to a widow smelling old, unwashed shirts, perhaps, but far more visceral and complicated.
What I found particularly interesting is that the poem can be read a number of ways: is the husband truly dead, or might he just as well be? Does the narrator “choose the bear” out of disappointment that the “ghosting” was just illusion –is the pain of eight years’ separation, brought so unexpectedly to the surface by this surprise encounter, just too much bear? Or is death in the animal’s embrace preferable to even one more day with a husband who is sickly, depressed, “married to death” or otherwise alive but no longer the man he used to be?
Jane Yolen, often called “The Hans Christian Andersen of America” is a much-published poet whose poems appear regularly in magazines, journals, anthologies, and in her own collections of poems, both for adults and children. She is a Grand Master of SFPA (Science Fiction/Fantasy Poetry Association.) She writes a poem a day that goes out to almost 750 readers. To subscribe: eepurl.com/bs28ab