G.C. Waldrep and John Gallagher’s collaboration, YOUR FATHER ON THE TRAIN OF GHOSTS reads how an air vacuum surrounding one passing vehicle feels: the poetry can suspend time, steal breath from your lungs. Whether or not this effect is sustained across the collection’s 221-paged sprawl is debatable and depends entirely on the reader’s willingness, their ability to be surprised afresh with each variation of certain stock devices that appear throughout.
Bridges, trains, windows and flames are some of the many, often revisited tropes that bind the collection together. These images serve as metaphors for many different things in turn: Bridges symbolize people; trains are relationships, weather, music. Windows are a very complex structural element that we’d prefer not to go into for brevity’s sake, and flames are what happens when you’re not paying attention. Bridges, trains, windows, flames; such reiteration establishes a rhythm like wheels on a track, signals an essential unchangingness even as the composition moves forward through varied landscapes.
And to where, toward what end, are Waldrep and Gallagher driving? Nowhere, really. They’re less interested in a destination for YOUR FATHER ON THE TRAIN OF GHOSTS than in developing a concept: there’s art in “confusion / of desire and location, trust / and vector.” It’s a prettily wrought, if purportedly aimless trip that the poets invite us on. I’ll Decorate My House With You encapsulates this in its last couplet, the penultimate followed by an extended final line, “And then we invent something / for the dashboard that replicates the horizon, and we go for a drive.”
On the way to our version of the horizon, there are definitely things to marvel at. Especially in GHOSTS’ first third, where the collection’s central ideas are expressed with its most phenomenal lyricism. Poems here create and hold us flush against the skin of a weird, totally new atmosphere, inside of which the commonplace become unmoored, morph and blend together.
Then, in the middle and beyond, every varied thing blends together almost too well. We’re no longer on the verge of any realization. Even awesome specificities, never before mentioned occurrences, have apparently happened before – “in Los Angeles / another designer wallpaper artist / dedicates her blog to / Krishna” ; “the hearses are circling the playgrounds again.”
Another and again. These qualifiers occur until it becomes easy for a reader’s eyes to glaze over. Everything seems plain immutable, interchangeable; by page 87, one of GHOSTS’ narrators too falls sadly, dangerously deadened to what’s occurring as he perseveres with the collection’s theme. He sets the scene for On the Performativity of Grief As Ecstatic Culture, saying, “The curtains in the clown house were on fire again,” and doesn’t recognize the implications of that statement until “…the sirens approached. / Are they in there, / I remember you kept asking. Are they still inside?”
It’s inconclusive whether any clowns died in the incident. The toll’s not important, anyway. The real potential tragedy is that maybe you couldn’t appreciate this startling and good poem because you were lulled into complacency after the last fire, pages back in the collection’s girth.