The question of who was speaking was difficult

On Ghosts

by Elizabeth Robinson (Solid Objects, 2013)

A reflection by Casey McAlduff

While reading Elizabeth Robinson’s new work of poetry/essay, On Ghosts, I couldn’t help but think about Emily Dickinson’s em dashes. Like Dickinson, Elizabeth Robinson is interested in held space, or what Robinson might call ‘hesitations’.  It is through these held spaces that presence takes its awakening breath into the structure; the “hesitation,” or the “pore”—it has many names in the book—is thus an entry point through which the condition of hauntedness may position itself and take hold.

In On Ghosts, Robinson experiments with these portals and tests presence by invoking various literary structures in order to induce embodiment. The material of On Ghosts is the immaterial; the immaterial is thus made manifest by the ready repository of the book. In this way, the book becomes “it’s own haunted site,” as Beth Towle of Acutary Lit writes. In her “explanatory note” at the beginning of the work, Robinson tells us that she believes the phenomenon of ghosts and haunting to be “only neutral,” and that, as she understands it, the phenomenon of haunting “reveals little about phantoms and visitations and is more disclosive of conditions that locate themselves in specific sites or persons” (3). In effect, Robinson utilizes her poetry/essay as a means to explore the relationship between literary device and presence; she’s literally working through an experiment to see how different doorways into text can make a site “vulnerable to the heightened perception, which is hauntedness” (3).

The key word here is “vulnerable.” As Robinson reminds us in the piece following the explanatory note, which begins with the address “To commence:” in order to attain the heightened perception that is necessary to become aware of presence, a person or a site must also be in a state “of eroded defenses, of vulnerability” (4). In my opinion, this vulnerable quality is also a hallmark of Emily Dickinson’s work. Dickinson’s em dashes are moments of exposure just as much as they are moments of music. Many times, they read as an instance of the poet pausing; they also create a physical manifestation of doubt on the page and give the reader an opportunity to insert herself into the break. The poet and the poem are thus opened up to external forces, their defenses are down and their gates are open. As stated previously, Robinson is similarly experimenting with doorways or, more specifically, with “ways”: “what is so evidently not there is just as evidently having its way,” she writes, referring to the space which is opened up when the self retreats. The poet concludes, “Presence then, is a way” (5).

On Ghosts is hence a multi-wayed work that intends to examine the phenomenon of presence by creating eroded sites of text through which both writer and reader become confronted with their own ghosts and/or ways of interpreting them. “These are ghosts not words,” speaks one voice of “Drifting Interlude” (43). The poet does not exclusively choose the words; rather, the words are themselves inhabitations, they are presences, they are ways through which a reader can enter the text. The game here is to make rooms for these visiting voices to populate; in this way, the poet and the book remain open to any guest that the structure may attract and thus the structure becomes inhabitable, an essential feature of any text that desires to engage a reader.

What I think is particularly successful about this project is that it is both experimental and experiential in spirit. The book both makes and questions itself simultaneously. “In the ghost, we are forced to play even if play is not the mode we want to adopt,” states the speaker in “Nursery Rhyme,” (37) reminding us that in writing and attempting to communicate across “the barriers that prevent access to other’s minds”[1], such as death, we are engaging in an ancient game that requires both destruction and formation.

On Ghosts is composed through the artifice of various structures. There are six pieces entitled “Incident”, eight that are titled as “Photographs,” and various other ‘ways’ of entering an experience, such as “Skepticism,” “Formulae,” “Translation,” “Nursery Rhyme,” and “Story,” to name a few. Within the pieces, certain conclusions are drawn but they are never closed: “another child speculates that it “is in the nature of the ghost to be broken,” (16), “all ghosts are broken,” (18),  “a ghost is by definition broken,” (37).  This circular, disclosive quality of On Ghosts enacts how voices are able to find their way into a work and manifest differently depending upon the conditions that the work sets.

Robinson tells us in the book’s second sentence the inspiration of the work: “it arises in relation to the possibility that a self or a site might be haunted.” But On Ghosts’ thesis—the belief that the presence of ghosts tells more about the structure than it does of the phantom—reaches beyond its muse. It’s no surprise (although it’s still a delight) that the books’ commanding speaker’s favorite story is about how a man and an object managed to connect:

“One day at home, the man realizes that the tap in the sink is drip-

ping. He hears the same song he has been incessantly humming.

“The story never makes a point that the man drank what issued

from this tap.

“We are left to speculate how the tune transported itself from an

inactive faucet to the throat of a man.”


I am the ghost of answering questions. Beware me. Keep me at a distance as I keep you at a distance,” writes Spicer in Robinson’s epigraph. Through language, ghosts are speaking. It’s hard to know which–“the question of who was speaking was difficult”– but Robinson at least embeds us in the question.


[1] From Allen Grossman’s “Poetry: A Basic Course.” Tape 1A, “London Bridge is Falling Down.” The Teaching Company: Arlington, VA. 1994.