Spine by Carolyn Guinzio

The Ghosts We Trail Behind Us

reviewed by Elizabeth Forsythe

Carolyn Guinzio’s Spine (Parlor Press, 2016) is a book primarily haunted, both in content and form, overlapping both text and content to extract multi-layered meaning out of the places where the organic and inorganic, the existential and the digital, and the present and the absent, touch. This haunting is present throughout the manuscript, in small moments which creep and crawl around the reader’s mind. For example, in “Blu-ray, May-fly,” Guinzio writes, “There are shades/only the short-/lived can discern;” later, in “Undo:” “The window/was closed: in came a ghost/of a draft.” Equally as haunting, Guinzio illustrates this in her formal craft by way of visual shadows: two poems woven together in a spectral dance—the “primary” poem in full ink and the “phantom” poem in grey text next to, between, or within the “primary” poem.

This layering is especially dominant in “The Pines,” perhaps the book’s most outstanding poem. The title is doubled, once in full ink as the “primary” poem and once in grey as the “phantom” poem. It begins by offering itself as something binary, doubled, mirrored: “One two.” The “primary” text of “The Pines” is arranged in small prose blocks, interrupted by the “phantom” poem and blended in such a way that meaning is made both from the interruptions as well as from reading the ‘poems’ separately. For example:

A device.
We were both there when it happened. Or, I was there when you told me about it.

or you were listening to me tell you about it, and once one of us said it out loud to the other, it

became an idea. The soon-to-be beings that we called into being
had to happen
sat up from where there were resting on the backs of the ghosts standing on one leg in the marshes.

In those days, we went to the marshes to see beautiful things
to move us away
we had never seen before…

In this poem, the reader sees both the single line, “First, something had to happen to move us away [from ourselves]” as well as the surrounding text, which adds and complicates context and meaning. In particular, the interwoven moment “The soon-to-be-beings that we called into being/had to happen” lends an immediacy and an urgency to the phantoms of the book, which alternate between the organic and the inorganic, the growing and glowing digital space we operate in and the “natural” space we occupy. Even looking at the titles of Guinzio’s poems offers an indication of these contrasting forces. Poems such as “White Noise// Options for Rural Wifi,” “Process”, “Spiders//The Plsr of the Txt”, “A Problem of Philosopy”, and “System Preferences//Sleep Corners” all examine the comingling of our digital existence with our existences cocooned in a nature we habitually avoid until we find it horrifying, or beautiful, or both. Guinzio further braids these thematic strings of digital versus organic in her poem “Live Stream // Sent from an iPhone,” where she juxtaposes the narrative of a flood, a flipped over vehicle, a thundering mayor, and the text of an email sent via iPhone. The result is such that the reader sees two different disasters, one organic, massive-scale, and one digital, seemingly unimportant until juxtaposed against force of nature and our ignorance of this force. Guinzio ends the poem with:

We need a chance

to catch up. Between

earth and sky, for a time,

a buffer, a buffer…

Ultimately, Guinzio’s layering of these varying and diametrically opposed concepts also points to their paradoxical and inextricable connectedness. In a day and age where technology is king and we forget the power of the organic, Spine points out, in beautifully chilling ways, the ghosts we trail behind us, the ghosts we cannot, or refuse, to notice, ghosts both digital and organic. “In came a ghost,” she writes.

In came a ghost.