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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Review of In the Ghost House Acquainted (a book of poetry)

In the Ghost-House Acquainted, by Kevin Goodan, Alice James Books, Farmington, Maine, 2004, 56 pages

If the poems of In the Ghost-House Acquainted were not composed in the moment after—after love’s loss, after revelation, after moonset, after lamb-pulling—then surely they were meant, at least, to be read in that moment. They are messages from a man acquainted with work and rest, grief and joy, death and life. It is not essential to have experienced all that Goodan writes of in order to appreciate his work; and if we are novices in the occupation of grownup life, the poet will instruct us in our necessary preparations for that life.

Informed by an acquaintance with the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), Goodan has written verse that beckons us to consider the lilies of the field—and the dead lambs in the diesel-fueled bonfire—and how our own place in the cosmos may resemble those members of our shared creation. Along with Psalmic structure and diction, many of the poems in this book contain phrases that seem taken directly from familiar Bible verses, yet upon inspection reveal subtle word shifts that point to a particular speaker: farmer as co-creator with God. For example, in “In the Ghost-House Acquainted,” Goodan writes: “I close the simple flowers//and bid the moon now rise//for Death is not my harbor.//And I walk among derelict combines//that they might know//and come unafraid.”

The poet’s speaker sings with humility, with quiet anger, and with pain masquerading as bravado, too. In his “Canticle for the Day-Labor,” the speaker is both taskmaster and servant, waiting on the good graces of his lord, aware that grace is given in many guises:

temper me make me plow blade
an implement for the deep earth
a pleasure in the sowing
and if I bleed make it plentiful
make it sweet like honey
like a train spike through the skull
and I will push the land
and dispatch winter
for the veins of my lord
are always open

Goodan’s poems are redolent of country life—not the pretty, polite kind pictured in glossy magazines for weekend gentlefolk, but the kind of living that coats one’s hands with amniotic fluids from pulling a stuck foal and rips one’s heart out from watching the mare clean the already-cooling body of her stillborn. He tutors his readers in the large and small benedictions of farm life, never letting us forget in any single poem that those blessings can be recalled in a moment. And we, Goodan reminds us, hold the power to bestow or revoke benedictions as well—not because we can or want to, but because we must. Consider his “Barn-Cleaning”:

A pigeon topples down,
cocks a dazed head.
I catch it, try snapping its neck
like a wet towel in air.
Stupid bird! [. . . ]
An alien eye.
I set the bird’s head
against a flat rock.
Wings beat my ankle
but I do not rise.
Four and twenty birds
twitch in a barrel.

A word that peppers some of the poems in this collection, scree, is indicative of the precarious nature of life on a farm (or anywhere else). This material life, which feels solid and sure because it is the only existence we know at present, is so much loose rock beneath our feet, Goodan tells us. A gust of wind, a torrent of rain, or the imperceptible shuffle of emotions across our days can dislodge the precarious debris beneath our feet that we call daily life and throw us off of our mountain into an unfamiliar valley: “I’m in the pasture calming down the mares,//calculating what might be taken//by the hurricane as sacrifice.//Anything not rooted might be taken” (from “If I’m Not a Garden”).

Goodan speaks of human loss with such palpable authority that it is tempting to search for a biography of the poet in order to confirm his right to do so. How could he write of these moments unless he has experienced them? we want to know. What happened to these people? we wonder, for he has created individuals whose fate resonates in our imaginations. A lover, a father, even a horse caught in barbed-wire fencing, are not mere fodder for his poetry: They inhabit his poems and our minds long after we have put down this volume. Consider “His Voice Had Grown Softer Each Day”—a goodbye as eloquent as any elegy read aloud at a memorial service:

I need you to get me a ticket, he said.
For what, I asked, waking at the foot of his bed.
For the train, he said. They say I need a ticket.
Except for the small lamp the room was dark.
The air was cool and clear. The first night of September.
Do you know who they are, I asked
and he said, oh yes. They are smiling and waving—
I haven’t seen them for so long.
They want me to climb on board. . . . I need my ticket.
I want to give you a ticket, I said.

Haboo, the speaker says into the ear of a mare straining in birth—“what the Skagit children said//when the storyteller stopped://keep the story going.” In this collection of poems, Goodan keeps the story going—a story that has been unfolding from the beginning of Earth’s time: life, death, sowing, harvest, burial, blood, ice-laced trees in winter, fragrant loam, rain on scree, keening wind, and the stillness that signals we are “Near the Heart of Happening.”

© Erica Jeffrey

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