Reviewed by Kirsten Kaschock
In Ghost Girl, Amy Gerstler’s eighth book of poetry, the parade of voices from the margins begins with “Touring the Doll Hospital.” The initial question of that poem, an over-arching question of this book--“Why so many senseless injuries?”--is half-answered half-way through the poem: “Hurt me, big botched being, they whine in a dialect / only puritans and the frequently punished can hear. / It’s what I was born for .... Gerstler’s poems, mask after mask, are bent on an obsessive concern with the meting out of pain, and whether or not that pain is deserved. The figures she chooses to relay her unrelenting queries range from dolls, fetuses, and widows to an adolescent reincarnation of the Oracle at Delphi and a new dog. The characters question both general and personal suffering, and they tend to ask if some fault--some reason for their current discomfort--lies within themselves. “The Fetus’ Curious Monologue” ends with such a move:
I’m a festival of cells. My blood’s rich as Christmas
punch. Was I a horse thief in another life?
A blasphemous priest? What were my crimes?
What have I done to be bottled up thus?
Despite the aptness of the first metaphor, it is the pleading tone and dramatic pacing of lines like these that move a reader through Gerstler’s work. Sometimes too quickly. Each scenario, each inner monologue, is presented cinematically--the montage creating, in effect, a poetic mid-way. Although ghostly half-personae are central to this book, few of them are given enough room to haunt; they are contained too effectively in their individual tents. The frequent quotations and italicized passages engender an excerpted quality so that the poet does not seem so much a medium--channeling these voices--as a documentary film-maker, choosing just the perfect 30 seconds of dialogue and image to make the audience comprehend the phantom-life as symbol.
In “Listen, Listen, Listen,” Gerstler employs a different tactic; here disembodied voices congregate around the idea of voice itself. It is in this poem that Gerstler seems closest to successfully performing the seance the rest of the book prepares the reader for. The long prose-like sections of this poem do not rely on line-breaks for their impact and the result is more melodic, less staged:
Carefully pronounce the words soft cloth. Each vowel has its own savor and tang. Say Icy diamonds suffice. At least we can still warm and anoint each other with words when so much else has fallen away. Say What glorious pork! Say hideous police machine. Say dubious human future. Say Prove he is in the tomb.
This subject matter--words, their sound and their performance--allows Gerstler to meditate on the tools she uses to interrogate suffering. The voices that ask her questions throughout much of this book are themselves objects of constraint. Her voices are contained, altered, influenced by their training. And if the voices are unreliable, too damaged to ask why pain? and receive an adequate answer, what remains?
For Gerstler, the body--specifically the body’s pleasure--answers the question of pain not with a rationale but with countering demands. In “Buddha Sonnet 3” the poet writes, “... If the Buddha keeps / his back to you, seduce him. Kiss his rough / stone face, worn lips, calm nose ...” The mostly female personae in Ghost Girl do not accept the hurt that seems their fate, and they do not accept that such pain is randomly allotted. They attempt to own their pain--first by self-blame, as in “A Domestic”: “Did I sin in this?,” and then by creating past lives where transgressions might demystify the current chaos, as in the prose poem “A Blessing and a Curse,” “So far in this life, you’ve done me no harm. But in past incarnations your crimes against me were numerous and abominable.”
Amy Gerstler sets the horror of incomprehensible suffering among familiar figures of twentieth and twenty-first century female alienation. But the circus freaks, the broken dolls, and levitating girls should not disguise the honest terror and sweaty work of the ventriloquist. The poet behind all the puppets is compulsively attempting to physically work through answers. In the last poem, “In the Aspirin Orchard,” the speaker suggests possible relief--not logic, but sensuality. The pure sonic play of this poem is elsewhere in the book treated as an indulgence--used sparingly in the service of dramatic action. Here, the tercets, the sibilance, and the repeated vowel sounds model the lilting comfort offered to the body. The poem soothes; it lullabies:
crown of flowers, sex re-enters
the room, uninvited, shy--
disguised as religion, robed in blessed
caresses that address every last malady.
Reckoned rightly, all suffices.
In the notes at the end of Ghost Girl, the reader learns that the italicized line is an inversion of one of Christina Rosetti’s. Amy Gerstler has corrected the emphasis. Once fully questioned, the world may begin to be accepted--grievances noted. But not before.