REVIEW: Ghost Box by Emerson Whitney

Ghost_Box_grande

(This is part of a series of reviews focused on titles released by the Oakland-based small press/poetry cult Timeless, Infinite Light.)

by Adriana Widdoes

The Old Zoo in Griffith Park, its emptied, creaking cages embracing anonymous passersby in need of temporary shelter; a foreclosed home with boarded up windows on Avenue 56; the polluted, concrete banks of the L.A. River, tagged by teens at twilight, where a weathered man fishes for his dinner, among the inky sand and reeds.

All of this is the vacant “green/brown” space of Los Angeles, the “shards of glass, car engines, truck engines, shit, chewed popsicle sticks, a screw, feathers, fronds, used condoms, hand prints, tongue prints, and feet” and contemporary sites of capitalist breakdown that poet Emerson Whitney lovingly investigates in his remarkable first book, Ghost Box.

Published by Oakland-based small press Timeless, Infinite Light as the third installment in their Tract series, Ghost Box is at its core the story of a haunting. Whitney is the poet-detective tasked with tracking down Emily, our ghostly, unseen criminal who may or may not be to blame for the impromptu bird sanctuary that has appeared in an abandoned Home Depot lot near downtown L.A., and who may or may not be dying and turning into a bird herself. Readers never observe Emily except through the multi-colored bowls of cat food and water-filled paint trays that she leaves behind for her beloved birds. The complete explanation behind who Emily is, and exactly which universe she inhabits (ours or some place wilder), evades us, just as she evades our intrepid narrator Whitney, who tries for months—notepad in hand—to catch a glimpse of the phantom Emily, to write her onto his pages.

A braided documentary and hybrid text, Ghost Box juxtaposes Whitney’s unearthly poems with his lucid prose, slowly revealing the bird-feeding criminal Emily bit by confounding bit. But while the prose pieces detail the narrator’s observations of the scene at the abandoned lot, the poems are written from the perspective of Emily herself—Emily, who waits always on the periphery, out of reach. What Whitney carries through all of this is his arresting ability to conjure beauty out of ugliness. For example, about halfway into the book he describes spending the night in his car:

It’s 1:30am. I watch the action over my dashboard like horizon. The bird population is thrashing, the most wild I’ve seen. The lot is an aviary. It’s hard and hot. Feathers float in the air. Dirt crusted birds skip between shards of glass, lipping discarded McDonald’s wrappers. Chirps and coos are constant. The scene is somehow soft, like sleep.

And despite an undeniably feral quality, even Emily appears bewitching:

In evasion
I’ve taken to hiding under cars
and snaking between piss-shrubs
I sleep nowhere—
my eyes are glowing, atrophied
but I am stronger still
swollen regardless,
huge even.

Whitney writes plenty of sly humor into Ghost Box, too. There’s mention of a seagull attack involving “a McNugget, a child.” There’s “a herd of Jehovah’s Witnesses” that descend onto the narrator during his stakeout, leaving him feeling even more unnerved than the aggressive birds flying overhead (readers should feel relieved to know that he successfully keeps the Jehovah’s Witnesses at bay by announcing he’s on his way to buy a sex toy.) In fact, one of my favorite scenes occurs when “the person with the rake” (Home Depot’s appointed pest control person, and Whitney’s default stakeout companion) explains his understanding of “wildlife.” Whitney writes:

That afternoon, I joke about the term ‘wildlife’ on the no-trespassing sign with the person with the rake. He does not think it is funny. He believes that besides the birds, the ‘wildlife’ of the lot includes people like ‘that guy in the van,’ he points to a faux-wood-grain VW mini-van that is permanently parked on the periphery.   ‘And all the other homeless people,’ he gestures in a circle around the site, ‘also cats, bees, skunks, and one possum.’

In our age of increasing capitalist destruction of the natural world, what is wildness? Wilderness? Who or what inhabits it, and how? These are questions that Whitney playfully fingers, pokes and prods throughout his text. Always, there is the obvious answer (cats, bees, skunks, Emily’s birds). But in Ghost Box we witness yet another still, something hushed that whispers: wild are the lone ones seeking beauty amidst overwhelming grayness, who—like Emily and Whitney himself—meander toward the edges and let the dirt-filled cracks swallow them whole.

Or as Whitney puts it, “what looks like almost nothing.”

Ghost Box is available from Timeless, Infinite Light

Adriana Widdoes is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She is co-founder of Which Witch Books and she hosts literary events at Book Soup on the Sunset Strip. Her writing has previously appeared on Freerange Nonfiction, Trop, and the Black Clock blog.

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