Emily Hockaday’s Naming the Ghost is a book of impossibilities—the impossible early days of parenthood, the impossible grief of losing a parent, the impossibility of a ghost living in your house, the impossibility of making it whole through all this. Hockaday’s poems, at once speculative and forthright, are written lucidly, with an eye toward cohesion. They set themselves against a singular objective: discovering the identity of the eponymous ghost, and they do it in measured, careful strides.
These poems start and finish on single pages. They are not formal in the sense of a received form, as even the fourteen-line poems evade the sonnet. Rather, each new attempt at naming the ghost in this collection is an enactment of those early parental days: repetition and routine, the same obsessive thoughts cycling through an exhausted mind. Each poem is enacting the wish of all new parents: let me do a thing, completely, without interruption. It is by such paces that the speaker fixates on a single thing, tracing it and retracing it, looking for an unseen exit—haunted by her own desperation: “Did I ever dream / of going to Mars? Everything is different / when you’re dead. Suddenly Mars / might not be Mars at all.”
If there is a ghost, and we are told clearly that there is, and if it needs a name—it does—we should start by examining its behavior: the ghost sees, sulks, breathes. It orders supplies from Amazon, reads to the baby, and causes small amounts of chaos throughout the house. It recognizes pain, enters dreams, and “lurks outside the window / tonight, a haze around the full glow of the moon.” The ghost becomes a presence between mother and daughter. It is an ever-present companion who knows the secret of death and stitches itself to a body with a needle. The speaker’s need to name the ghost becomes contagious, and we, too, become anthropologists of the paranormal, examining the question: What does this ghost’s nature tell us about its identity?
Hockaday’s ghost is a fully developed character, a flawed caregiver to the speaker’s newborn baby—perhaps even a family member. So of course we ask, like the speaker’s therapist, “Is it [your] father? Is it / the pain that wakes [you]”? In fact this is the dilemma set up in the book: we must decide if this is the spirit of a person, now gone, or if it is a haunting by something more intangible. Despite the anachronism of his death—the fact that the speaker’s father died after her child was born, after she felt the first press of the ghost—it is easiest, perhaps, to imagine that yes, the ghost is the spirit of her father, or at least, the manifestation of her grief at losing him, a “whole-body keening filling / [her] rib cage . . . / . . . [a] chain reaction / [her] father’s death [had] set off.” Even as she tells us conclusively that, no, her father is not this ghost, her grief over his absence, at the few short months of his grandparenthood, is palpable through the collection. The speaker wants so badly for her father to be there in her own transition to parenthood, and were he the ghost, she could rest herself in this fantasy. By separating the two, she instead keeps herself, and us, off-balance and searching.
When the ghost does take bodily form, it is of the speaker’s mother, in a dream—a character who, in comparison to the other family members, is nearly absent from the collection. We might have expected that the speaker would find some solace, or some wisdom in conversation with her mother, but that is not what happens. The ghost tells her, from her mother’s body, “This isn’t your fault,” but her mother only says, “The metaphor is obvious,” and leaves the speaker confused and struggling in her new motherhood. The reader, in turn, shares this confusion.
Perhaps, then, this ghost is more a specter of an idea than a person: Is it the rupture between partners as they navigate the early stages of this particular type of parenthood, when one person has given birth and the other has not? There is an aspect of birthing that brings the birthing parent to the liminal table: everything effervescent, tremulous—words that can easily describe Hockaday’s ghost. Certainly the early days of returning home are a precarious time: a rending of what was, and an awakening. In “Rain on the Window,” the speaker calls silence “the enemy” and recognizes that she is fixated on her mother, her daughter, her daughterhood, and motherhood. This new thing of motherhood in every room is a separation, a strange stillness that separates mother and child from the rest of the world. Is, then, our ghost the extended umbilicus between the newborn and her mother?
If we are entangled here with the ghost of early motherhood, that might account for the book’s structure, how the word “ghost” fades toward the end of the collection. Only about a quarter of the poems in Naming omit the word “ghost” from the title, and only six exclude the word entirely, with the ghost fading as the book progresses. This sequencing begs the question: When the ghost is absent, or at least in recess, what remains? In “Firm Pressure,” the speaker says she sees “death on every / platform . . . / . . . a heavy / blanket over [her].” In “Trying to Talk,” she declares that she has “had enough of symbolism” only to land the symbol in the final poem without the ghost: as the speaker “Become[s] Visible Again,” she contrasts her experience with her husband’s, confessing that he “has never / reckoned with his mortality.” And now the metaphor opens: the ghost is that utterly debilitating realization that in this time of complete exhaustion, on the edge of her own grief, where she has lost herself to nearly nothingness, there will come a day that her child will lose her too.
I am only a few years out from my own postpartum overwhelm: the lack of sleep, the slipping of identity, the reformation of my marriage into a unit of three. And like the speaker of these poems, I carried my own grief into the new life of my child: grief at the limits of my own mother’s love and at the death of a surrogate parent, who had loved me well. Birth compounded with recent orphanhood is a powerful thing. It’s as though we can’t stop asking: What am I to this child, what can I be, if I, too, am fleeting? Hockaday’s ghost is not the ghost of her speaker’s father, or her grief, or the ghost of new motherhood, or the separation from a partner—it is the whole of that combined. It is in giving voice to the catastrophe of mortality, at the edge of new motherhood, that we find Hockaday’s genius. I wish I had had these poems in my first year postpartum. Maybe then, I could have named more compassionately the ache that I was—and am—stumbling through.