November 04, 2010

The Adventures of Ghost Paula

The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say. 
Anaïs Nin

Ghost Fargo by Paula Cisewski, $14.95, Nightboat Books

 Paula Cisewski’ s second collection, Ghost Fargo, was selected by Franz Wright for the Nightboat Poetry Prize and published in 2010. She is also the author of Upon Arrival (Black Ocean, 2006) and of three chapbooks: How Birds Work (Fuori Editions, 2002), Or Else What Asked the Flame (w/Mathias Svalina, Scantily Clad e-chap, 2008), and Two Museums (MaCaHu Press 2009). She lives in Minneapolis
            Perhaps this book appeals to me because of its story. Ghost Fargo has movement. It begins with the principal characters, a lost brother and ‘Ghost Paula’ the shadowy sister left behind.  She is the voice of the poem, ‘This very world, in which my brother holds up//a cardboard sign at the freeway exit ramp and I,/ distracted, drive right past’ (4).          
            Ghost Fargo is a travelogue. The reader shares trekker ‘Ghost Paula’s’ view of a cross country journey from “Cape Disappointment, WA;”
                                                This shore shall be named
                                                after my disappointment so that

                                                my disappointment can jut out
                                                into the vast ocean.
to “Hell, MI,”
                                                That the ocean is endless, yet I will
                                                still be thirsty when I’m dead,
                                                buzzed on the miniscule reflections of stars,
                                                and the moon—that shovel with a face.     
            Ghost Fargo challenges the reader to note the appearance of ghosts and other visages. Throughout we follow ghost Paula on her journey from crisis and grief, ‘For nobody’s gestures need be inelegant,/resembling a landscape overcome//then abandoned by sea. (17),’ to a kind of redemption (but not really) as the closing poem, “A Wide Open Field” tells:

                                                It’s no use: Ghost Fargo
                                                follows me around.

                                                to a new city, to
                                                an old country:

                                                it lives on scraps
                                                and cast-offs…

            Redemption comes later in the poem in the form of acceptance, ‘I permit Ghost Fargo/to follow me around…’  Exacting the human process of grief, Cisewski illustrates that there isn't recovery, only the tacit acceptance of a perpetual haunting.
Themes converge in the layers of Ghost Fargo (winner of Nightboat’s Poetry Prize for 2008) loss, ghosts, death, remembrance; family, psyche, travel and absence are among them. The way these poems tell and interweave and how they bounce and echo from the singular voice of Cisewski’s ghost Paula is likely what appealed to contest judge Franz Wright, Paula Cisewski speaks…with great poignancy and ravishing technical skill.
            Cisewski uses device; repetition ‘…I like patterns and/and repetition and winning and punishment…/’ (49) lines and/or words repeat (sparingly) within a single poem, ‘hello? hello?’(10.) Used throughout the text are; Ghost Fargo, no one, memory, death, light, burial and others. Cisewski’s gives voice to a chorus with her odes; this lends itself to the ghostly voice(s) heard in Ghost Fargo. Patterned images and inverted negatives convey the absence and permanence of loss ‘…My Fargo/ won’t admit it’s dead’ (19) ‘In the darkening I lie beside my love./ Steeped in separate pasts,//…’(13) ‘and what if your absence remains/the most interesting thing about me?’(16)/
There’s  more to note. I'll add that I followed ‘memory’ in the book; how the dead are embellished, what we forget or cannot forget. Speaking to loss, and in the beginning of Ghost Fargo, Cisewski  illustrates something of electro-shock's affect upon memory. It is both a curse and a blessing, ‘A needle/embroidering/the various/extinctions…’ (24.) One only knows what's been erased through things exterior.                                                                                                                                                                               
I hear folks actually
made stuff up.
Anything meant
anything. Even
all the clocks were
once imaginary clocks.

from “Ode to my Weltschmerz”

            In case you read this ghostly story, and you will. I’ve made a list of some things you might want to pack for the journey (below). Also, I had the opportunity to ask Paula Cisewski a few questions about the journey that Ghost Fargo is:

BluemoonNortheast:  What is a “Ghost Fargo?”

PC: It is the best re-creation I could manage of a personal landscape for those places to which a person impossibly wants to return: a childhood home or a lost relationship or a former version of one’s self. Maybe the speaker wants to return out of a sense of love, maybe out of a need for closure, but either way there is no return. Also, it’s just a curiously satisfying word pairing in my mind.

BluemoonNortheast:  How long was this book in the making?

PC: About four years between its first seed and its final printing. I was in a silence after my first book, Upon Arrival, came out in 2006; it seemed, as it frequently does, that I needed to relearn how to write… again. There were a set of topics that I didn’t necessarily want to write about around loss, and those things were standing like a blockade to any new possible relationship with poetry.  So I wrote them. I feel glad I did. 

BluemoonNortheast: Your book’s title comes from the poem, “Ghost Fargo” in these lines foretell the reader’s impending journey, ‘I have driven across the beautiful,/uncomfortable country many times//and have not seen him everywhere/” (3) What was your process and/or object in the way you compiled this collection? (which, by the way, works very well)

PC: Oh, thank you. I’m glad. The title poem was originally much nearer the end and was the last poem to find its place in the book. The choice to move it forward was, as you guessed, to ground a reader in a more solid voice before beginning the first section, “The Poor Choruses,” which uses the most fragmented language in the collection.

My first organizational idea for the book was to base it on Dante’s Purgatorio. Almost none of that first plan remains; however, the collection does represent a speaker in a purgatory-ish state; she needs to let go, to exit. I hope it feels like she accomplishes that to other readers besides me.

BluemoonNortheast: In your notes you reference your two recycled poems, one from Wallace Stevens the other Robert Creeley. Can you say a bit about the ‘conversations’ you have in your work with other poets? Who are your poetic heroes?

PC: I am such a fan; it’s difficult for me to pare down a list. It would be thirty people off the top of my head and then I’d lose sleep lamenting favorites I failed to name. 

BluemoonNortheast: What style or house of poetry is the most fitting for your work in Ghost Fargo?

PC: Maybe a Winnebago?

BluemoonNortheast: Am I wrong-headed in thinking this book is reminiscent of the confessional poets?

You are not wrong-headed. I love Berryman (Being from Minneapolis, I often cross the bridge where JB sadly ended his life) and then Sexton, and then to a lesser degree Plath and Lowell. I don’t consider myself a confessional poet. There are most definitely biographical elements in this book, and there is an “I,” though I hope that GF speaker is slightly more of a mythic character than the “I” who is writing this response. She’s definitely fictional at times, at least her travels and some of her bravado are.

BluemoonNortheast: Eleni Sikelianos said that, “these poems beautifully clarify that the past has no family, just a self standing on the horizon, surveying the territories.”  If poems ‘do’ things, what do you hope these poems will do?

PC: I told a poet friend who read an earlier draft that this book was a bit of an exorcism for me. He scoffed and asked, “How can it be an exorcism? It’s full of ghosts!” That’s true. Therefore, I hope Ghost Fargo is more like a peace offering… like putting an extra dinner plate out for the dead on Dia de las Muertos.

What to pack for your trip to Ghost Fargo:

laugh box
dead folk
clown face
hospital johnnies
broken heart
(the forgotten)
blood orange
comfy walking shoes
your shadow
a looking glass

From Ghost Fargo:


You think everyone knows
all about a thing so you don't

write it down, don't say.
Everybody does know

about it. It is difficult.
In the backs of our minds,

while several seperate
groups of humans try

to entertain one another,
to be novel or bright,

a similar thought spider crouches.
Consider: the artist who was famously ironic

about being ironic. By each show's end,
the whole audience felt stupid. We loved it!

But some of the crowd  was only pretending,
you find out much later. It's no wonder,

when even the family cat's on
Prozac, we're tired of emotion in art.

That antique sadness in the new
inside joke. It's irrevocable, like when driving home

one night, the stranger who pulls up to the red light
next to you is weeping, both your windows

rolled up. You just begin to have a human reaction,
and then the light's green.


After an artifact of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum Before we left Oswiecim, went to work elsewhere for the devil, and we left you to ...