Ghosting for Beginners is the fifth collection by Anna Saunders. It is a compelling work, comprised of poems of good length which compliment and contradict each other as any well curated collection should. Saunders writes in a curious, occasionally enchanting, neo-Gothic style. Although influenced by Victorian fairytales and ghost stories, it is a concoction she has cooked up on her own, with no obvious contemporary reference points beyond, at a push, John Burnside and David Harsent. The poems feel strange and otherworldly but are nevertheless accessible and easy to read.
The colours Saunders dips her poems into are typically dark, almost Fauvist in the way they seek contrast, ‘A Murmuration is Seen Above the City’ is particularly visually appealing:
a black scarf painted in pointillist style
a pixelated kaleidoscope
a waves made of dust motes, arching.
The monochrome black scarf clashes with the, presumably, colourful kaleidoscope. It is a beautifully intricate image, featuring three kinds of dot: pointillist points, pixels and dust motes. Saunders composes the page with a painterly touch. I’m not surprised when ‘Beyond the Sea’, a title taken from the literal meaning of ultramarine, references Poussin and Kandinsky, two painters whose work is as varied and vibrant as Saunders’ poetry, though thematically very different.
Saunders’ poetry is sonically sophisticated, she has a firm hand on assonance and certain sounds seem to revel in their own ugliness. ‘Cimmerian creature, Stygian stray’, from ‘Happy Hour with Heartache’ hisses off the tongue like a Slytherin wizard spitting Parseltongue (the language of serpents – muggles). The sound clash shows Saunders’ pleasing disregard for convention, as if she is saying she can do assonance, but she will do it her way, or the highway.
Some of the best features of Saunders’ poetry collide in the excellently titled ‘The Prophet is Mistaken for a Fare-dodging Hipster on the London Overground’:
As they reach the city he leans forward
and in an accent she doesn’t know
he tells her he has dreamt about
glassy tongues licking houses into blue, children’s mouths
gaping like guppies
cracks running through red soil, oceans shrivelled up, babies,
and fish, twitching on arid land.
Three features stand out: Firstly, the sense of foreboding which looms over the top three lines, aided by the tight, clipped rhythm of her monosyllables ‘he tells her he has a dream’. Secondly, the richly evocative imagery: glassy tongues, cracks in red soil, oceans shrivelling up and twitching fish. Finally there is the astute, assured assonance of ‘gaping like guppies’. The poem is enigmatic but the subject matter is relatable, we’ve all either been or seen the same fare-dodging hipster ourselves. ‘The Prophet…’ is a sublime narrative poem – for me, the highlight of the collection.
A similar melange of the mysterious and the modern occurs in the title poem, in which ‘ghosting’ (a term contemporaneously employed to denote ignoring someone on social media) is cleverly contrasted with the activities of a traditional ghost. The poem speaks of old ghosts out-ghosted by new ghosts, and is wry and thought-provoking. However, the melodramatic tone of the ending undercuts a lot of the good work above it:
Oh gauzy digits
hovering over the keys,
unable to make an impression.
Oh ethereal fingers
unable to click in ‘un-friend’.
The poem would be considerably improved without these five lines, especially as the two lines directly above: ‘You can imagine why they are irked/absence is their Calling Card’ strike a clearer, more resonant end note. Furthermore, as it stands, the final line seems to be haunted by the ghost of a typo, as surely it should be ‘click on un-friend’, not ‘click in ‘un-friend’’.
One thing I don’t always appreciate in Saunders’ poetry is her deployment of archaic vocabulary. The collection is strung with words that feel strange to my ears and stranger still to contemporary poems. The opener ‘Orpheus Ruins the Party’ contains damsels, a dirge, a lyre, bonhomie and other antiquated artefacts. Saunders’ old fashioned idiom frequently hinders my enjoyment of her poems. On the other hand the words are likely to be a rhetorical choice, a perfect fit for her aforementioned neo-Gothic style. Nevertheless I still feel Saunders should use more modern words, the romantic poets have been haunting us for long enough and the English language has moved on.
A pertinent question to ask with regard to Ghosting for Beginners would be ‘who are the ghosts?’ The identity of the main ghost is obvious: he is Saunders’ father. ‘The Ventriloquist Dolls of the Dead’ contains the big reveal:
The gestures are identical
and he’s moving as if
he were a dummy
brought out of the box long enough
for your dead dad
to show that even though you can’t see his lips move,
he still fancies a chat.
Later poems, in particular ‘The Song’, confirm the ghost’s identity. ‘The Song’ contains one of the only living images of her father, Saunders’ mother wrapping ‘his emerald scarf around his mouth/to stop the cold reaching his heart’. Moments like this are moving, it is clear Saunders had, or still has, a close relationship with her old man. Grief, and its poetic residue, form the spine of the collection. The ghosts, in plural as there are more than one, are kindly spirits whom Saunders misses deeply, neither malevolent nor wicked, moreover products of a vivid imagination, as Octavio Paz put it ‘the silence of memory…is the great producer of ghosts’. The identity of the other secondary ghost is much harder to discern. My best guess is he was a man romantically involved with Saunders. ‘On How Ghosts Take the Moral High Ground’ opens with: ‘A week after hanging himself he’s back/returned to the house of his fickle lover’. Throughout the collection there are hints at his identity but I can’t be sure if he is a figure cut from Saunders’ life, or a character in a story she is spinning. The ghost theme unifies the collection and, as someone with an avid interest in the occult, I found it particularly alluring.
Ghosting for Beginners is a beguiling read, crafted with care and considerable originality. Saunders is a poet whose body resides in the real world but whose mind moves in the spirit world. I enjoyed Ghosting for Beginners and would recommend buying a copy. What are you waiting for — you only die once.