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This issue is haunted by ghosts and spirits, a surprising number of which appear in these pages, and by the past too, by ancestors and by the trauma of history, which is never quite settled. There are different kinds of hauntings at work here, perhaps most powerfully in the end when the words—the physical conveyances of the images and stories told—have passed out of view but their effects linger on. Haunting.
The ghosts themselves don’t show up until page 30, when May-lee Chai’s grandmother comes back from the dead to visit the author’s grandfather and uncle, offering some dubious advice. They appear again in torrin a. greathouse’s poem and also, briefly, in Mark Wunderlich’s “Sky Burial”—two very different but powerful confrontations with parentage, among many other things. In Scholastique Mukasonga’s fiction, a mother tells her daughter, quite matter-of- factly, a cautionary tale about a tree that holds the spirit of a former king and retains his power, even after it’s cut into small pieces. This story is the armor she sends her daughter into the world with, along with a shard from the tree as an amulet. And there is much consideration of the spirit, angels, and the afterlife by Rimbaud (by way of John Kinsella) and by Elisa Gabbert. “Before we are born, we exist even less than after we die,” Gabbert writes. What is left after death? her poem asks: “Desires with no one to want them.” Sounds like a ghost to me.
Dreams and memories also haunt these pages. Persistent and invisible, they come bearing messages that are oblique, if they are messages at all. Karla Marrufo’s narrator is so awash in dreams and voices from the past that her grip on the present seems to give way. Alyssa Pelish’s adolescence comes back to her through memories of the horror movies she watched over and over, trying to make sense of herself, and Jeneva Stone pieces together a past trauma and organizes it through the alphabet and images from literature, where life is but a dream. Memory pulls that which can no longer be seen or proven into the now and insists on its presence, like a ghost. Like bird bones, a mother’s bedjacket, a grandmother’s longhand, or the art objects left by the dead.
Ghosts appear, literally and centrally, twice more in this issue. In Ji Yun’s “Windows That Were Not Windows,” a Qing dynasty Investigator of the Strange encounters the “substitute-seeking ghost,” which is just one of many categorizable types. And in Kirk Wilson’s rich and complicated short story, the phantom wears a Marine uniform and calmly helps to interpret the characters’ haunted history. The dead seem to be everywhere, whether in memory, in dreams, or, not infrequently, as ghosts.
Ghosts are often mentioned in the same breath as belief. Do you believe in them, or not? In the end, a belief in ghosts—in spirits, the soul, the supernatural—may simply be a refusal to draw a sharp distinction between the empirical world and everything else. Some cultures, and some individuals—poets and writers prevalent among them—simply observe looser boundaries between the living and the dead, the seen and unseen.
No wonder so much of literature is full of phantoms—from Homer and Hamlet through Beloved and beyond. And no wonder this issue is haunted. Or it could be that I’m just seeing it that way, being so acutely aware in recent days of the ways in which every pretty landscape, every institution and town origin story, has behind it a story of slaughter, slavery, unreconciled violence, and unrepented sin. It’s a wonder that our atmosphere is not just a chaos of unresting spirits.
At the same time as this issue is haunted, it vibrates with presentness. It is replete with beauty, energy, and life. While reconciling with the past, the selections assembled here also convey pleasure and investment in the here and now, and in the power of language itself. Words are, in a way, just repositories of the past that we use to describe the present. They have their own ghost stories, layer upon layer of them, and when brought together in image and narrative as they are here, they offer richness and possibilities beyond measure.