May 15 2023
Poetry review – WHITE GHOSTS: Emma Lee reviews a collection by Katie Hale that involves both personal and universal themes
White Ghosts traces Katie Hale’s maternal ancestry, journeying to America’s legacy of slavery, whiteness and exploring how stories are told through official channels of museums, civic statues and what gets passed down from one generation to the next within families. It doesn’t take these stories at face value, but probes the omissions, asking what’s not said. In ‘Portrait of My Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Grandmother as Emily Shelby in Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, a post-partum mother is already passing on
the blood-lie: there is nothing to be done. through her blue silk breast, through the milk of a wet-nurse (her own child gone), through umbilical blood: this is how the pearl will learn to witness, learn the nothing-to-be-done. and so the white woman teaches the house girl her letters. each word is a gift, she says – a ribbon glossy with its own white creed – a knotted blood-cord at the base of both their tongues
Four further sections are erasure poems based on the first part. The lack of capitals after full-stops adds to the sense of both women lacking capital and lacking agency in their own lives. The white woman is more comfortable, but is her husband’s property. She is teaching the house servant to read, regarding her actions as a gift, although it’s not clear how the house servant can use reading to her advantage. This is not spelt out and Hale is careful to label the woman of the house white while not underlining the servant’s racial origins, but racism is not ignored, ‘The Gallery of America’ has the narrator observing,
Later, I was reading Rankine in the gallery café where all the servers were black and the white punters pretended not to notice, where none of us paid our tabs, or offered to take our receipts, where our mounting waste subsumed the bussing station. This may have been part of the exhibition.
It’s obvious the white customers are being served by black staff. The racism here doesn’t have the excuse of ignorance. Here though, the white customers are not attempting to help their servants, leaving their mess to be cleared up. The reference to not paying tabs or taking receipts could be to do with the lack of acknowledgement of past injustice and failure to pay reparations. This failure is picked up again in ‘Statues (Virginia)’
ii. Our toppled ghosts we keep in warehouses on the outskirts of town, some packed face-down, others marble-eyeing the ceiling: stone and metal, a concentrated weight, a hidden confederacy of guilt. iii We cannot navigate by ghosts, though we are still, so many of us, trying.
The statues may have been removed from public display, but they lurk on in ancestral memories and the ongoing injustices and racism. A later poem, ‘An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object’, explains how Hale ended up in the UK, away from her American roots.
Pacific with her quarrel of fire Atlantic, wrecker of ships. And this is how a body can be pulled in two directions: my mother, newborn and uprooted to a hospital crib, parents' marriage gone to tectonic drift and both her grandmothers warm colliding fronts from either side.
A broken home split a family, cutting off a branch from its roots, leaving the narrator wishing,
to be landscape in a foreign age, to be cradled by wrangling oceans, let trees take root in my bones, to let them drink from deep on either side – let new leaves whisper this is not enough – unrest give voice to the wind -
The poem finishes with a dash, indicating unfinished business. It also leaves an unsettled feeling of being in limbo between two countries and not really feeling that roots have been established in either.
White Ghosts is a search for roots through family history; but it also encompasses wider issues of racism intersecting with sexism and opportunities denied due to either or both. Pulling in the legacies of slavery pushes the collection from the personal sphere to a wider, universal interest. Through the poems, Hale probes the received history to uncover the truth and what lies behind the silences and what stories might have been told by those whose truths have been washed from sight, like stains scrubbed from laundry. Hale’s mirror doesn’t reflect in a soft focus.