Read a selection of poems from Ghost Gear
Drunk, we wound our way up the wind-bent
stilts that rose from the old Marathon Building,
abandoned in the days long after our father’s
fathers milled cotton and women bobbed
their hair— each step skyward reporting
in the hollow iron we ascended. From there
the world swayed with the wind and our tinny echo,
our legs hung out over the lip of the city, scissor-
kicking at the night. From there we could cradle
that city in our hands. Big rigs and V-6s swung by
on the s-curves of I-40. A pair of spotlights
probed figure-eights in the clouds over downtown
and the projects played their somber tunes
of rebuilt Chevy Novas and catcalls and bass.
When I return home, I pass that water tower.
During the day, it stands. Yielding. Nothing.
At night though, I’ve seen kids climb
that long cold corridor to the celestial, the red
glow of cherries passed back and forth
like a pair of taillights winding their way west
down a late mountain road— pulsing, breaking,
another sharp turn on that half-moon landing—
those above having risen with such ease
over the rooftops and steeples, the switchbacks
of the Cumberland no longer obscured
by hackberries and fog, the dim illuminations
of billboards no longer hovering overhead
like messages from the future. More than once
I’ve thought of returning to that high vantage
point, stood at its base and planned my climb,
daylight not yet flickered out like a bulb, the stars
waiting to tend their signal fires. But I always
turn away and return the way I’ve come.
I already know how darkness folds over us,
the fear that comes with hard wind unbroken
by rain. I already know that city, pressed
like an ember in the amber of its own light
and so certain of its being.
Here, the earth with its own compositions:
the wheep-wheep-wheeps of the American avocet;
mirror-waters flushed by red-eared turtles;
wind humming the black willow woodwinds;
trumpet creepers’ sirensong.
Here in the realm of the swamp where light
is anything but still and my father’s mother warned him
never enter, each whisper of his machete
promises the city of conquistadors
paved with gold cobblestones, rivers of liquid ivory,
Ponce de Leon and his crew aged not a day.
Here, Shreveport, Louisiana, 1958, where instead of glory
he finds the cottonmouth hung like tinsel
with the violet blooms of sharp-winged monkey flower,
warming its blood by those few rays of sun
that finger through the willows, my father approaching
with grand sweeps of his blade.
Imagine that moment for the serpent,
its sudden wakened eye black as a poppy seed,
then that banded machinery of scales,
the clap of its jaw unhinged to action.
Gravity holds little dominion over the dedicated body
and it’s almost comical the way my father mimes
how it struck, reaching slow-motion with his left arm,
two fingers transformed into fangs, his eyes
and mouth growing into large Os
as he twists away from the strike, right arm swinging down
just in time through the air
that here, in our living room—
another Christmas Eve, another birthday—
is nothing more than air
but in that swamp became a flickering:
the reels of his future spinning before him
like wartime clips of men dropped toward France,
their parachutes iridescent jellyfish in the night.
There, in the swamp, he saw Vietnam bird’s-eye-view
from the pages of an Atlas:
serpentine coastline of the South China Sea;
a row of bodies lined up along a dirt road;
draft card a declaration of flame in his grasp.
There, between my father and the snake:
a dreamy image of the day my sister would bolt
out the back door and he’d search the neighborhood
for hours, fearful he’s lost her;
two years later to the AM of my birth, body blue
and red with meconium and blood, the screams of this child
for once welcome, skull warped with labor, gauzy
as a milkweed’s seed pod.
The swamp will show you things.
Then the machete and cottonmouth met,
and the snake split in half, the blood of it splayed
in meticulous streams of black, the flat medallion of the wound
like a plastic model of the cell: a nucleus of bone
surrounded by tissue, nerves, and chaos.
Here he stands. Still. Shocked he cannot reverse
what he’s done. Stop! his mind had ordered. But here
the mind holds little over fate.
Here, had he stepped miles back with his left foot
rather than his right
as he entered the sway of black willows,
he’d be the one clutching at his struck face, virus
tunneling the chambers of his mind,
swamp waters rising,
and it would be the cottonmouth seeking another tree trunk
settled in the waters, certain in the ever-chambers
of its mind of what it’s done, certain
as the gold domed cells of black willows,
as the kuk-kuk-kuks of herring gulls—
my father thinking of his mother
who’d only taught him the little she knew
as he turns to hack that snake into its smallest parts,
the ink of it spreading across the water’s surface.
Retreating, he matches each footstep that brought him here
and when he emerges from that waving,
unbalanced world, the hard-packed earth of the non-swamp
holds everything higher so that when he looks skyward
the barn swallows dip lower, wings fluttering,
catching some air, then resting again.
My father not yet my father. The earth’s slow turning.
Low tide, my father highsteps the trammel net, stoops
half-submerged in Tanaga Bay and begins the work
of disentangling another sockeye from the interlaced snares.
He stands before me now, the same foot shorter
he’s been the last ten years, my sister and I
nothing back then but a notion
when my father could hold his breath
well over a minute,
how or why I’ve learned not to ask, the familiar arc of his story
cast out like he, the newest member of the crew,
flung to the farthest edge of the intertidal.
I could hear better then, he adds.
Good thing. Otherwise,
he’d not have heard that thin cry of alarum from the beach. Otherwise,
he’d not have looked up from his work
to see the bellowing cord of the continental shelf
rise to obscure summer’s first dusk as if Britomartis herself,
goddess of fishermen, has half-risen from the sea
to encompass that final island of the Aleutians.
Dumbstruck, my father watches the wave suck in the tide
like a maw: his legs, Wranglers rolled to the knee,
for the first time exposed, the net an organism in and of itself,
a bare root system, salmon left clapping wet sand
as far as the eye could see—
a wave the width of his vision charging the land.
My father claims that in such moments,
the body lightens.
My father claims that there, he saw himself
bird’s-eye-view, that he watched himself look up at the sky
and the sky had become a mirror.
And he sees his body ascend the cumulus
as if pulled by threads of light, each thrust of the sky’s wide wings
lifting him ever closer to a rift in the clouds.
But my father does not kneel genuflect to the gods,
he does not consider his sins or ask for forgiveness. Rather,
he gives his marrow to those ropes;
he weaves himself into those moorings.
And the last thing he sees is the wave.
And the last thing he hears is something like the clap of a thousand hands.
And the sea took him.
Language fails my father here, so he resorts to sound:
slamming one open palm into the other as if to quash
something living, his posture surging in our living room—
the tumblings of his cliffhanger—
body whipped by the imagined sea.
How do I describe what seemed like hours beneath the waves?
I am a poet retelling a telling.
The sea did not care about my father,
the wave came and went and my father
held his ground, the backdraft strong in the wave’s wake—
Britomartis’ final tug for his spirit.
And he lashed the flesh of his life from that ocean.
And the water receded.
Now, my father lights up when he tells how he returned to the beach
as slowly as possible
and how, when the men saw him emerge from the sea,
they cheered his name, my father returned
from what they believed to be the dead:
Ghost gear, they call it:
nets and riggings lost at sea to fish for no man.
Blindly trolling seines illuminating the deep
with their bioluminescent catch.
Ruptured buoys and trammels coasting past coral reefs
until they drift down,
down into the dark.
Only once have I asked my father
why he chose out there to live. And only once
has he told me that as the wave approached,
he heard a voice.
And that voice asked him,
Are you a father?
And my father replied,
What They’re Saying about Ghost Gear…
“Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum is not a poet of small ambition. He reaches after big subjects in the high style, and –mirabile dictu– he brings it off. There is something of Walt Whitman in McFadyen-Ketchum. He is a rhapsodist spinning words into a musical web. Line by line the poems pulse with verbal energy. His language is all meat and muscle. And yet, at the heart of the poems, one finds not simply a literary performance but a tender alertness to the world. ”
Dana Gioia, author of Can Poetry Matter
“In the tradition, narratives march and lyrics fly. Ghost Gear is a book rich with narrative, but its primary impulse is always toward flight, and so McFadyen-Ketchum joins the ranks of practitioners of the vertical narrative: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Penn Warren, and Rodney Jones to name a few. “I am a poet retelling a telling,” he writes, and the point of retelling is always to up the ante, to make the story more potent, more rewarding, and more dangerous. “It is as if we are subjects in a grand / experiment,” one of his poems declares, and the poet’s alembic refines its world down to basic substances, essences, and ash.”
T.R. Hummer, author of Ephemeron
“In Ghost Gear, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum has written an affecting, and affective, book-length examination of a child’s coming of age into a world in which childhood is not innocent, and beauty is never entirely free of violence. In these lush, maximalist poems, McFadyen-Ketchum strips away the sentimental haze of childhood nostalgia to reveal a world in which shockingly common acts of violence pierce our understanding of how America treats and nurtures its young. Like certain of Whitman’s poems, Ghost Gear moves from the self-perceptions of the individual to the larger world that immerses it, between moments of high lyricism and simple, concrete references to pop culture, revealing how a strange intimacy might occur between groups of people and things that are “not supposed” to connect but in these poems, surprisingly, do.”
Paisley Rekdal, author of Animal Eye