Red Hen Press / 2023 / 120 pp / $17.95
Reviewed by Melanie Weldon-Soiset / August 2023
Ghost Apples, the ninth collection of poems by University of Utah distinguished professor Katharine Coles, offers not only nature-based poems that stir and satiate hunger, but also serrated verse that slices through the agency of its readers. Divided into three sections ("Animal," "If the Older I Get the Less I Know," "Won't Wait"), Ghost Apples crescendos cosmologically as it progresses. Along with the particular fruit in the book's title, as well as ethical considerations of behavior, the reader may catch palimpsestic glimpses of John Milton's Paradise Lost.
The collection certainly offers Edenic, tantalizing imagery. “Magnolia” extols “The beetles’ small green shine / Reflecting a garden where / Everything is green.” “The Mind Manages Itself” declares “Clam and carrot // Become me. And those / Trees, still a-racketing, also // Burst into leaf.”
Yet even in language that sounds sacramental in its naming of hunger, sex, and the shapeshifting of identities, Ghost Apples signals caution. There is inherently loss in the eating, a loss that piques consequences. The poem “When” warns, “do you see / Smile or snarl, invitation, / A paw beginning its swipe?” The eponymous poem “Ghost Apples” concludes with this admonishment: “Once I bit / An apple. It bit me back.”
Such loss has also contributed to our current climate crisis. "You Won't Find Consolation" invites readers to "Consider // The glacier, blue at heart deep- / Frozen for millennia, blue // Its core and vanishing / In your lifetime." Likewise, "The News from Here" names "the filth // Our fires leave when only / Ashes remain."
The book’s first poem opens with a rousing quote from William Carlos Williams: “Beauty is / a defiance of authority.” Such defiance proves to be a key theme throughout Ghost Apples. Defying authority requires clarifying who currently holds power, as well as who is challenging that status. Variables of the question “who” rumble throughout these pages. The speaker in “Elegy” not only inquires “Who understood / Beauty’s force as she did,” but also “Who saw / Words make their meanings // At a distance, in sighs and ripples.” “Dark Sky” notices that “The owlets have fledged, . . . / who-who-ing out the deeper / Shade of oaks.” And the poem “Fly Me” demands to know, “who’s driving / this spaceship, tell me who’s reading the maps?”
Ghost Apples likewise defies the authority of poetic tradition, especially that of the vaunted sonnet. Though more than a third of the book’s poems are built on fourteen lines, none of these verses perfectly obey the prosody demands of sonnets Petrarchan, Shakespearean, or Spenserian. One of these fourteen-lined poems, “Seven at Table,” begins with the declaration, “Four drinking red, four / White will never / Add up.” Who can determine the logic of death is the topic explored in several poems before “Seven at Table.” Who can judge whether or not the book’s fourteen-lined poems are sonnets?
Intriguingly, the only time the word “sonnet” actually appears in the collection is in the opening phrase of the nine-lined poem “Small Word,” which calls itself “a sonnet in prose.” What seemingly makes this poem a sonnet is its centering of an argument, which the epigraph of “Small Word” introduces with the following two quotes: “’That’s a small step for man.’ Neil Armstrong, according to history. / ‘That’s a small step for a man.’ Neil Armstrong, according to Neil Armstrong." Which sentence did Neil Armstrong actually say when he alighted onto the moon? “Small Word” considers the arguments for each option. “Dark Sky,” a loosely based corona built on seven fourteen-lined poems, immediately follows the “sonnet in prose,” “Small Word;” such sequencing escalates the argument of what makes a sonnet. Just when the reader becomes confident that at least these poems demonstrate sonnet DNA via their volta or argument, the next poem, “Space,” demurs: “I don’t mean // To quarrel.”
Yet arguments surface in Ghost Apples beyond any sonnet-like singing. Enjambment saturates the poems in this collection, which raises the question of what constitutes a unit of thought: the sentence, the line, or something else? For example, “Long View” declares “This // I knew of beauty: its hunger, / Its delicate provocations.” And “Cricket” observes “Whatever // We may call it, this is / Not singing.” Or as one poem concludes in its run-on title and opening lines: “If The Mind Fears Freedom // Give it a box.” Indeed, titles often serve as the first lines of the poems, which heightens arguments regarding the lengths and structures of the verses.
In addition to dividing lines and titles, Ghost Apples also divides words. What, then, is a word? The poem “Tilt” notes “how what it takes to settle // Takes time to un-/ Settle,” and “Bodies at 60” sings, “Oh, wild / Hair, warp and wrinkle, down / -ward drift.” The poem “-Philia” seemingly revels in the tension of declassifying morpheme, syllable, and term when it declares:
Biblio-, nebulo-, bee
Afficionado, I go for dairy
And really good sneakers
Lifting me in style. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . I am no
Techno-, but a chainsaw
Chewing things over
Enjambment in Ghost Apples not only raises ontological arguments, but also questions the agency of its readers. These poems probe: how will the reader respond to the quick cascading of verse down the page? The appropriately-named “Down” laments “All those things I do nothing // About. The way an empire falls.” Likewise, the speaker in “Ghost Apples” rues “The ones we left // Too long on the bough until / The rain froze around them // And they slipped out / The bottom, leaving behind // Perfect crystal shapes.”
Yet the questioning of agency also happens beyond enjambed verses. The prose poem form of “His New Dream” actually slows the pace as it describes a car that “was driving straight up a cliff, nosing the air. The engine strained and the car bucked, threatening to tumble headlights-over-trunk down the mountain.” The poem ends with this chilling dialogue:
As an afterthought, I ask, Who was driving?
You were, he says. It was your car.
Who are the “he,” “I,” and “you” in this poem, or for that matter, in any of the poems in Ghost Apples? More unanswered “who” questions. This reader finds herself biting back a bit at the lack of sufficient narrative grounding, which contributes to an inordinate sense of the freefall mentioned above. In their terseness of one or two words like “Worry,” “Time Flaws,” or “Won’t Wait,” the poem titles in Ghost Apples rarely provide any desired contextual clues. Another tersely-titled poem, “Passeth,” opens by declaring, “The apple doesn’t come from nowhere, / Or for that matter anywhere.”
Notably, the poem “Tilt” has an epigraph clarifying that it takes place in “Canberra, September.” The reader may wonder, however, why this phrase was included within the poem itself, yet a similar phrase of contextual clarification for the poem “Seven (or so) Poses” only appears in the “Notes” in the back of the book.
As mentioned above, John Milton's Paradise Lost may also serve as a contextual partner in Ghost Apples. Paradise Lost popularized the idea of an apple specifically (and not generic "fruit," which is the Hebrew word used in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve) serving as a symbol of desire, grasp, and regret. Apples act similarly in Ghost Apples: the poem "Marriage" declares, "A magnet. No, a leash. No, // It bites its own apple / Then spits." The poem "Amaze" alludes to a telescope as it laments, "what the instrument sees / Arrives at my eyes too late, / Alight and adrift, to guide me" even as Milton includes Galileo's telescope in Paradise Lost as a symbol of seeking truth.
Yet comparisons between the two texts have their limitations. Ghost Apples lacks the blank verse of Paradise Lost. And in "Noisy Birds," Ghost Apples itself seems to caution against any comparison to allegories like Milton's epic poem: "Some / Other woman might be tempted // To make sense, to formulate / A fable, or, worse, an allegory—."
Aging, and the passage of time, do thankfully serve as a type of narrative thread throughout the collection. With the aforementioned book sections “Animal,” “If the Older I Get The Less I Know,” and “Won’t Wait,” as well as a progression of poem titles including “Pet Names,” “Leaving Middle Age,” “Bodies At 60,” and “Nico, four months,” the reader intuits some sense of the cycle of life (even while wondering, at the risk of another “who” question, “Who is Nico?”). The final poem in Ghost Apples, “Won’t Wait,” concludes with an inviting invocation: “Thank you, time, how / You keep and carry us away.”
Perhaps, however, these poems actually do respond to the accrual of increasingly loud questions in the reader’s mind. At the end of the day, when time completes its carrying, perhaps what matters is the quality of the flume. In the gorgeous diction of “Wake,” which notes not only "The feeders I bring in at dusk,” but also the hunger and “impatiences of birds / A-twitch, finches and their singing // Kind, sparrows et al.,” the poem’s speaker concludes with the following:
. . . What pace do
I get up to, I ask myself, pulling
Robe close, and for whom? No
Point wondering, I know, except
Wondering gives my mind
One more thing to charm it.
Melanie Weldon-Soiset is a highly sensitive person (HSP) who faces insomnia, dreamed insights, and bird song before dawn. Her poetry lives in Clerestory, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. She is a #ChurchToo survivor, MFA student in poetry in the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing, and poetry editor at Geez Magazine. Find her in real life biking on DC greenways. Find her online at melanieweldonsoiset.com (IG: @MelanieWelSoi).