Review: ‘I Ask My Sister’s Ghost’ by Benjamin Gucciardi

I Ask My Sister’s Ghost, by Benjamin Gucciardi. Tucson: New Michigan Press, 2020. Print. US$9.  46 Pages. ISBN 978-1-934832-73-8

I had posted handwritten notes about this collection, which I like a good deal, on Twitter.  What follows is pretty much a straight transcription of those notes:

This collection begins with pall bearers being instructed to take their job seriously, to train for it:

See how close you can get

before the bird startles

There are also comforting allusions to ritual of a formal religious observance. The Magnificat! A prayer uttered, originally, during a visit. So there are allusions to the architecture of Christian worship, the affect of great moments of prayer. Gucciardi also introduces the secular doubter, the natural Californian concerns of Robinson Jeffers, like a reverie among memories. In “The Instant City,” he broadens the lens of faith.

The Arabic script tilts, each hymn

a calligraphy of ships

the imam steers,

his voice like water

slapping the hull, a call

plaited voices answer–

by You we enter the evening,

by You we enter the morning.

The ship’s wake widens

into silence.

The accretion of images and details through the collection is lovely. It reminds me of war documentary film maker Tim Hetherington’s (RIP) Diary,  or Malick’s Tree of Life a stream of imagery and expression that amounts to meaning. How can you prevent life from flashing by? You need to love your time here.  It’s a tone, a consistency to the voice that I felt the spell broken only once, with the final “Chosen Landscape,” whose couplets read leaden to me, as the “gray water” that ends them. However, that’s form following function to perfection so, not gonna lie, I’m impressed.

My favorite poem in the collection is “Negative Space IX,” with its grieving father’s small gesture of grace at the body. Then grief described as dispassionate, “Time’s white sail luffing against turquoise water.”

I also loved that, when the speaker asks his sister’s ghost how dying is, she answers.

She looks over both shoulders,

leans in–it’s like gathering dolls from the debris

of the great Pacific plastic patch,

filling your dinghy with their pale figures,

lying down among them the way we hid

in tupelo.

The poem, “I Ask My Sister’s Ghost to Take Me With Her,” is also outstanding.

The big questions this collection seems to address are: What’s temporary, and are the dead always with us? Whose language names an event, subject or speaker? Is it better to grieve one time, powerfully and publicly, or to grieve often, quietly and privately?

My favorite moment, as a reader, came in “Looking for Chanterelles in the Oakland Hills,” when I realized the speaker encountered his dead sister in the physical world: “I splinter when my fingers slip/the stem from loam.” I love when time and place slipstream.

In sum: A pretty book of heavy poems, written with tenderness and great skill.

★★★★★ = Fully recommend that others buy it and read it. Can be purchased directly from the publisher


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