In this mise en abyme of abandoned places, times, and people, readers first enter Americana via “The Bell System,” a poem that opens with calls to “Mary, Jane, and Pat,” simple names that recall a simpler time. The names invoked in this first poem, nonetheless, hold deeper allusions: “Mary” implies something wholesome and might refer to the Virgin Mary, while Jane means “God is Gracious”; when not separated by a comma, “Mary Jane” can refer to either the succulent peanut butter- and molasses-flavored taffy candy, or it can refer to the American slang term for marijuana. Similarly, “Pat” implies ambiguity, since the name “Pat” can serve as a diminutive of “Patricia” or “Patrick.” The poem then descends into disconnectedness, and the repetition of “When” in questions like “When will the stars rain down / like cheap plaster?” and “When will language / be little more than a dandruff shaken / from our heads?” creates a cyclical force, swirling readers into the miasma that literal disconnectedness perpetuates. The cyclical force eases, however, by the poem’s end, when “When,” like a hurricane’s eyewall, becomes replaced with “Who:” “Who is there? Who goes?” With these questions, the poem’s narrator sends the reader forth, into the paranormal, the suburban, the abandoned.
But Index of Haunted Houses is not only an exploration of the abandonment and disconnectedness of place. More than anything, it is an exploration of the abandonment, disconnectedness, and personal context of history in order to distinguish between what is real and what is not. No poem emphasizes this more than “Meteorology Index.” By opening with the dependent clause “Between absinthe and Corinthians,” the author establishes the questionable, which becomes reiterated by the repetition of the word “ghosts” throughout the poem. This invocation of the questionable combines with repetition to form a perpetual sense of haunting. The poem cycles again to the historic, this time with a reference to the Lamanites, an ancient people described in The Book of Mormon: “between linoleum / / and Lamanites.” The Lamanites’ existence is questionable, though typically scholars associate the Lamanites with present-day Native Americans. The linoleum acts as the reality, but even it is formed from human-made synthetics despite its tangibility and realness. Thus, the poem becomes a continual battle of what is real and what is not, and this continual battle culminates in the realization of humanity’s emptiness and hopelessness as “ghosts who speak of skulls / in careful English” and “Ghosts who write love letters / to ghosts, who linger light.”
And while the collection waxes paranormal with its frequent summoning of ghosts, it also grows transcendentalist in its conjuring of natural forces in poems like “Ghost of Macondo.” The poem focuses on the sea, and readers will immediately notice the vastness created by the large spacings of lines and deep indentations balanced by the shortness of the poem’s lines, mimicking quickly lapping waves amid the sea’s openness. The places in the poem where lines are quadruple-spaced create whitecaps that “crash” into subsequent shorter lines, which become the poem’s shorelines. The poem’s openness accentuates the collection’s sense of disconnectedness and hopelessness as it declares “There is no Gulf / / of Mexico, just / thousands / of thirsty fish, / / flapping in the sun.”
This disconnectedness and hopelessness enlarge into a denial perfectly captured in the poem “Ghost Story, 1971.” This three-line, six-sentence prose poem unfurls with an immediate denial of access: “No water. No wind.” Readers immediately encounter barrenness, a dystopian scene in which “The windmills list black against a meteor- / red sky” and “the sun kills 60,000 a year.” The second line also bears “no” as its final word, the final no, the uncertainty that disconnects the reader from the portrayed landscape and establishes them in vague circumstances maintained by “a certain part of time,” a phrase and ending to leave readers disconcerted, wanting to move forward into safer territory.
Nonetheless, the ghosts residing in Indexes of Haunted Houses are not entirely misanthropic. The final house readers visit, titled “Ghost Story, 2020,” bears witness to Earth’s undeniable individuality, its fortitude in the midst of the apocalyptic chaos humans impose upon it. The Earth’s identity, established as “a blue penny in a black pool,” is astute and brings balance to the universe, with its “blue” balancing the universe’s “black.” In this imagery, while some might see a formed bruise representing the balance between injury and the process of healing, others might see brightness and color emerging from the formidable blackness—a brightness that promises hope and rebirth. The poet’s use of three minute phrases to form a single period-punctuated line declares Earth’s independence.
Davis’s Index of Haunted Houses is not for the faint, nor is it for those who lack curiosity about history, nature, and ultimately, themselves, within the larger context of humanity and history. The collection is part exploration, part exhumation, part exorcism, part easement. Each poem takes on different tones and personalities, revealing new layers with each reading. The book is a ghost readers will carry with them for days, and possibly years, after their first encounter.
Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist who teaches at Bridgewater College and serves as co-director for the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, is the recipient of a July 2020 Writing Residency at Gullkistan, Creative Center for the Arts in Iceland, and is a Tupelo Press June 2020 30 for 30 featured poet. Her poetry collection Triskaidekaphobia is forthcoming from the UK press Black Spring Eye Group in 2022.