Dexter L. Booth’s Scratching the Ghost—out in 2013 from Graywolf Press and winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize—provides us with a terrifying, pleasurable debut from a promising young writer. Reading each poem is, in a sense, like revisiting the diary in our sock drawer where our younger selves are hidden away, but the memories—however happy or embarrassing or painful—return to hang in the air for a moment, and dazzle brilliantly.
That said, memory provides the driving force behind Scratching the Ghost, where the speaker of each poem takes us down the intimate back alleys of his life to places we may or may not prefer to go. Sometimes we find tender encounters between two friends fondly sharing a cigarette, yet other times we might find a fugitive caught in a trash compacter screaming for help. Sometimes the poems are bright and optimistic, sometimes morose, sometimes apologetic, sometimes hallucinating, sometimes hilarious—“Sometimes it’s a Bugs Bunny candle; gloves clutching dynamite like a sword” (37).
Regardless, Booth’s ability to play with our emotions by juxtaposing a childlike innocence and intimacy with the unflinching brutality of a too-real, adult world makes for an incredible thrill-ride of raw impact; in the poem “Mala #1” for example, memory is clear of itself in that the speaker fondly remembers a classmate, Maria:
I liked Maria
because of how she put things together—
a dress over backwards jean, birthday cards
made of bottle caps and tape, candle wax,
and hand drawn pictures of emus. (65)
however, the speaker reels back in an unsettling turn of memory upon learning of Auschwitz in his youth:
I read later that for months the arms and legs
that could not be reached hung in the trees,
and it is terrible, but even now I imagine Maria
threading a needle—tendon and bark— (65)
This back and forth sway of emotion keep us hooked to Booth’s poems as we’re lead from high to low and low to high on a regular, startling basis as the book progresses (and upon second, third, forth reads, and on—).
In the prose poem “Fire,” this technique again is used brilliantly. The poem toys with our own emotional expectations as we’re guided through memory with a child’s eye for detail:
When my grandmother died my sister’s father wore a purple suit
to the funeral. He rode on a red Harley at the head of the proces-
sion, like a single berry floating on the shoulders of a dark stream.
My mother cried for many reasons that morning. (33)
Later in the poem, the camera of thought retreats further into the speaker’s head as he symbolically observes his sister’s father in the sunlight with continued complexity and maturity:
…and when the light shone just right through the stained glass
windows, I thought I saw his jacket smoking, thought I saw a bead
of sweat, like an inchworm, making for the leaf of his collar. (33)
Whether the tone is dark (it often is) or not-so, family, friendship, and adolescence provide as thematic elements for most of this book. In doing so, one imagines it would be extremely easy for this young poet to slip off his balance beam onto the soft floor of over-sentimentality, yet Booth avoids this with his refreshing, no-bullshit brand of voice and careful restraint of language, even while characterizing a younger speaker.
This isn’t to say that each poem is about childhood or memory or family, though. Scratching the Ghost strikes a balance between the poet’s relationship between past and present, and between messages to the self and messages to the world. Perhaps one of my favorite passages of the book comes from the poem “Ars Poetica with Silence and Movement” where Booth embodies an unmistakable Whitmanesque voice:
Note to lovers and friends who have spurned and betrayed:
the language we used to share is so peculiar
now. I suture the divide, move on to survey
the grounds for intruders—I swear tomorrow will be smoother.
There will be nothing to write about that day. (60)
Whether or not you can comfortably live inside a Booth poem is up to you. However, when he writes, “My heart is swollen as a calf / bitten by a spider, the body / dragging itself in delirium, going everywhere / but home” (22), we’re given the kind of poem and kind of poet we carry with us and continue to learn from, no matter the place or shadowy thing we may find there.
Scratching the Ghost is available from Graywolf Press
Brian Bender is a young poet and writer in Tempe, AZ.