Poetry Review: Wren Hanks’s Ghost Skin

Illo for Tammy Bendetti's review of Wren Hanks's 'Ghost Skin'.
Wren Hanks, Ghost Skin
Porkbelly Press, 2016

Wren Hanks has either had a series of visions, or strung together a sequence of prose poems. Hallucinatory rooms in one of those dreams with the doors; you know the kind I mean. Hanks omits titles, forbidding the reader to keep her distance through summary or paraphrase. You must crawl right into the middle of the words to understand. You have to breathe the same air.

Waking into Ghost Skin’s dreamspace, the first impression is of overwhelming tenderness. The speaker suffers something unnamed, and the ghosts are omnipresent, ministering. This is a sickroom, feverish and close, each poem spoken from some contained space: bed, loft, henhouse, mirror. The speaker protests, “the one who is hurting worse. Go find her,” and the ghosts refuse. They allow their patient room to behave in any necessary way, to scream and sulk, to queer gender till it feels like home. Everywhere these ghosts are demanding, are kind, are persistent.

In the heat and pressure of the center page, the verse condenses into something like sound poetry. Hanks catalogs the inscrutable desires of ghosts. “My ghost wants black eye. My ghost wants pink salt. My ghost wants plate tectonics.” Their wants are presented without comment. To exist is to need, the list insists. Can you claim otherwise? How dare you, if even phantoms desire?

The speaker wants something, too: another ghost, one less forthcoming. Ouija planchette in hand, they seek their dead grandmother. She does not want to be found, but they dress her in hen feathers; they watch cartoons with her bloated corpse. Something is wrong. Grandmother has “become something that doesn’t care.” She turns malevolent, she sews nets, she catches. All the small spaces are imploding. Something must be done, and that something is truth-telling. Here is the closest the chapbook comes to plain daylight. Ghost Skin will whisper to you, but it will keep half the secrets to itself.

The chapbook closes with a sacramental feast. Freed from anguish, the speaker calls up monsters, and they break bread together. The grandmother is one of the monsters, and maybe the speaker, too, the ghost-keeper. This is the final act of a radical compassion that makes room for unpretty emotions, like rage and self-pity. And everywhere are the ghosts, our stubborn insistence on living, and healing, on our own terms.
Tammy Bendetti lives in Colorado with her husband and two daughters. You can find her recent work in Bitopia and riverSedge, and forthcoming from Alyss. When not writing, she’s usually painting or having dance parties with her kids. She’s obsessed with secret passageways and dreams, but is still afraid of the dark.

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