Cutting Eyes from Ghosts
by Ariana D. Den Bleyker
Blood Pudding Press, 2017
In her recently released chapbook, Cutting Eyes from Ghosts
(Blood Pudding Press, 2017), Ariana Den Bleyker narratively portrays the world from the vantage point of the newly-minted ghost. One reading of the chapbook's title is that it refers to the eye slats in the winding cloth used to wrap corpses upon burial. This historical fact has a present-day legacy, i.e., the familiar representation of ghosts as beings in sheets, diaphanous, transparent, and floating in air (devoid of material body and personality).
Den Bleyker's ghosts, in this collection of poetry, are beings that cease to exist as individuals in the human sense of the term, but are still in process of transitioning to the realm of the immaterial. And that transition is rocky: ghosts have a tendency to revisit places in the world they once knew. In Den Bleyker's view, the most intimate place a ghost knew before it crossed over was the body it once inhabited. That body, like any human body, is subject to decay, distintegration, and destruction. In "To Live in the Body like a Room', the speaker relates:
If we're quiet & listen, we can hear the dead
who've died hungry breathe.
Their bodies grow deep …
hands speaking, bones breaking, grips slackening.
The silence, a home; body, a room …
Den Bleyker uses visceral language and artfully employs the second person voice (you) to amplify the macabre imagery in her poems. The use of "I" in these poems simply won't do: the distance engendered by separating the speaker and reader would lessen the experience and impact of these poems. Bodily disintegration, decay, brokenness, and darkness are predominant images in this "new" world the ghosts find themselves in — although one may argue that this world has been (and is) here all along, that there is nothing new about it at all.
Interestingly, the ghosts in these poems share some anxieties in common with living human beings: desire, hunger, pain, cessation of breathing, and the brokenness that is reflected in broken, decomposing bodies (the disappearing home). Hunger and desire — two forms of pain — appear in several of the poems. In "We Come Back Brighter and Louder", the speaker tells:
We curl wind in our hands,
gathering ourselves, plough deep,
rock beneath our ribs, uncovering ghosts,
bones bleached & hungry
for something new; …
Another reading would conclude that the poems are not about ghosts — or at least, not about that particular point on the (linear) human timeline. Instead, Den Bleyker's poems are about the fears of the extant living: decay, dismemberment, death, pain, desire, hunger, and any insatiable longing that cannot be neatly resolved, put away, or otherwise managed. As stated simply in "Echoes Telling Truths We Take for Sadness", "There are graves in each of us. Go ask the dead."
While other poets have portrayed decomposition and loss by projecting imagery on to a larger landscape (e.g. Slowly, Slowly, Horses by Julianne Buchsbaum
comes to mind), the strength and power of Den Bleyker's poems stem from shifting the locus from external to internal: the landscape of the individual human body and all a person experiences within that body. Although there are some places in the collection where more concise word choice could have been used for greater effect, overall Den Bleyker is successful in creating a dystopian world which resonates strongly with the reader.
But even though dark, there are glints of beauty accompanying pain. (And isn't seeking out beauty a penultimate human trait?) In "Weaving Silk and Skin, We Sing of Our Thirst", the speaker concludes:
Outside: a rainbow against the darkest sky
Color living beyond each severed end.
In her stark lyricism, Den Bleyker's inversion of familiar images to unveil darker truths about beauty and existence makes Cutting Eyes from Ghosts
an interesting (if not always an easy) read.
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