Naming the Ghost. Emily Hockaday, (Cornerstone Press, 2022) 60 pp. softcover $18.99. Preorder with a 20% discount at email@example.com
Review by Sandra J. Lindow
Emily Hockaday’s latest poetry collection, Naming the Ghost, consists of fifty-seven short speculative poems. Written in present tense, Naming explores a young woman’s ghostly estrangement, a divided reality experienced after the birth of her first child. The collection is dedicated to Hockaday’s father, Bruce Hockaday, who died four months after her daughter Avery was born, but the ghost in these poems does not represent the persona’s father. Rather, the ghost may represent the grieving process. Early poems gender the ghost female, an invisible entity that exists in shared awareness between mother and infant. This disembodied part of the self is always watching from a few steps away. “It arrived and kept on arriving,” taking “whatever shape it needs to take.” Each poem is an attempt to define and name this separate awareness although ultimately the ghost is found to be impossible to name. As a whole the collection can be read as psychological horror and an exploration of the uncanny.
The first poem, “The Ghost is Here” introduces two nearly over-whelmed young parents mourning a loss of freedom caused by the necessity of caring for a helpless infant 24/7. It begins:
We know the ghost is here
when we see the pool of water
seeping from under the counter
and the baby’s monitor turns on
through the night, static,
and we hear the mourning dove
at our window at midnight
The single mourning dove suggests a separate loneliness, despite the parents’ commitment to caring for their child together. Although, the seeping water of this poem suggests miasmic haunting, the baby is wanted, precious, and loved. The poems that follow reveal the ghost to be benign rather than intrinsically threatening, “warm” rather than cold. It speaks with “the sound of music heard from under water”. It is present in the exhaustion both parents feel: “He is tired. We are all tired.”
The psychological necessities of caring for a newborn infant must always be front and center in a mother’s mind. It can manifest as an obsession to assure the child’s safety at all times: “the baby in the other room, her eyelashes golden stitches, her hungry mouth full of need.” According to recent studies, postpartum depression is common in young mothers with statistical incidence as high as 30% in the year after giving birth, but the persona also struggles with physical pain. The ghost sees and understands this pain:
Unlike my husband,
the ghost can see pain. My nerves glow red
like irons in a fire
Eventually this pain is diagnosed as fibromyalgia. Although pain makes the persona “very heavy” and then so light she could “drift off the planet” becoming ghostlike herself, “Something” holds her where she belongs.
Correspondingly, a paradigm shift occurs when the world is suddenly seen through parental eyes. The ghost rises out of the death of innocence and into a new awareness of mortality. The young mother becomes acutely aware of life and death images in nature and in the news. “Lying in Bed” muses:
Today the Mars rover Opportunity
was declared dead. This lonely robot
succumbed to one final sandstorm
after years of defiance. Did I ever dream
of going to Mars? Everything is different
when you’re dead. Suddenly Mars
might not be Mars at all.
When she returns to work, she sees “death on every platform” of the commuter train.
In “The Ghost Flies Low,” the persona fears for her family’s safety and concludes, “It is painful to be unable to protect everyone / all the time.”
As her insight into the ghost’s identity increases, the persona desires to reintegrate it:
I Held the Ghost
Nursing my daughter, I didn’t know it,
but the ghost was already with me.
The water I drank wasn’t water but the ghost.
The more I drank the thirstier I became.
And the look on the baby’s face—
the more I loved the less love I needed.
I was turning into love; I held the baby
and my doubt; I gave them sustenance.
The ghost was trying to teach me about need.
About the right and wrong way to love.
Eventually the ghost is reframed as a “haunting from the future,” It is a “Collector/ of things beautiful and broken” like “mother of pearl buttons, / hairpins, a lost charm, polished rocks or marbles,” “baubles” that are internalized with the “weight” of a “kidney,” “liver,” or “toe.” The phrase “mother of pearl” is particularly evocative. As the baby gets older and more mobile, the ghost continues as “the bridge” between mother and child. Set in spring two years later, final poems herald the ghost’s departure, becoming “a traveler passing through.”
Anyone who has struggled with physical and emotional changes accompanying childbirth will find meaning in these poems. Although each forms an individual step in an apparently successful therapeutic healing process, the possibility of horror exists behind them like a ghostly shroud. Postpartum depression is a serious problem that can be dangerous to both mother and baby. Here, tragedy has been averted through self-awareness and a wealth of human connection; but as I write this sentence, ABC News just reported the arrest of a young mother for the drowning of her three children. Apparently, this young mother suffers from postpartum psychosis. She lives on Coney Island, not that far from the author’s home in Queens. Is there something in the air?
This collection is recommended for its thematic unity, spareness of image, and its sensitive awareness of the human condition. More about the author can be found on her website: http://www.emilyhockaday.com
Sandra Lindow has served as Vice President and Acting President of SFPA. Her poetry has been seen in various markets including Asimov’s, Star*Line, Dreams and Nightmares, Dwarf Stars, and the Rhysling Anthologies. Her spec related editing includes Dwarf Stars, Eye to the Telescope, and most recently the Rhysling winners anthology, Alchemy of Stars II. She lives on a hilltop in Menomonie, Wisconsin where she waits out the pandemic and attempts various strategies to keep varmints from eating her vegetables and perennials.
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