On Ghost/Home and Haunting—Dennis James Sweeney

Jeff Alessandrelli
June 30, 2020

With the Covid-19 pandemic, there have obviously been dozens and dozens (and dozens) of books that haven’t received the shine they might have under normal circumstances. One in particular that I’ve enjoyed is Dennis James Sweeney’s chapbook Ghost/Home: A Beginner’s Guide to Being Haunted, which introduces the reader to a variety of ghosteries, mental to spatial. Clarice Lispector plays a central role, as do diagrams entitled “d. Or when two are very near—the ghost lives in the closeness.” Below Sweeney expounds on the writing of Ghost/Home and why Pete Rose’s articulation as a human is both too much and not enough.

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Numbers Don’t Tell Full Story: On Ghost/Home and Haunting

On the wall of my bedroom growing up, there was a framed front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer with the headline, “Numbers Don’t Tell Full Story.” The headline accompanied the story of Pete Rose’s 4,192nd hit for the Cincinnati Reds, a single that broke Ty Cobb’s hit record and still stands today. The front page recounted how, when Pete Rose hit the ball to left-center field and strode easily to first base, the 47,237 fans in the audience broke into wave after wave of cheers; Pete’s son ran out of the dugout to give him a hug at first base; Pete sobbed while fireworks went off over the stadium. In “Numbers Don’t Tell Full Story,” sports columnist Tim Sullivan wrote, “Now that Pete Rose has the record we have anticipated so long, it should be remembered that he never needed it. It is the milestone of his baseball career, not the measure. It is his landmark, not his legacy.” His 4,192 hits stood for all his hustle, determination, and devotion, but they were manifestly not those things.

As another article on the front page states, “Pete Rose tried, but could never quite capture the words. He could never describe what it meant to him to pass Ty Cobb.”

Like Pete himself, the front page kept trying and trying to capture the moment—to give a name, number, or image to what had passed. It never could. The moment kept expanding, and no article or headline could hold it.

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When I began to write Ghost/Home: A Beginners Guide to Being Haunted, I was in the middle of writing a longer book about the same subject, Crohn’s, which I was diagnosed with when I was seventeen years old. My goal was to contain in words an experience that had always exceeded me and seemed as if it always would. I was, and still am, obsessed with the thought that it is impossible to accurately render experience, especially the experience of illness, which is so effectively diminished by the vocabulary and practices of medicine. Illness writing has been reckoning with this problem at least since Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill,” in which she describes the difficulty of writing about illness in a literary language that is not made for it. More recently, Anne Boyer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Undying revolves around the many narratives of breast cancer that seek to circumscribe Boyer’s experience with the disease. Beyond the vocabulary of medicine, fundraising, and inspirational stories, Boyer writes, “is this body (my body) that has no feel for uncertainty, a life that breaks open under the alien terminology of oncology, then into the rift of that language, falls.” The goal of the longer book I was writing was to explore and describe this rift, even if I knew my attempt would necessarily result in failure.

My obsession with the limits of classification, categorization, and, finally, language, wore me out. I bounced back and forth repeatedly between, on one hand, the foolhardiness of my attempt to capture my experience and, on the other, the impossibility of not continuing now that I had begun. I needed a way out of this binary. For me, the way out was ghosts.

Taking a break from the longer book I was writing, I began to explore an inkling that had lived in me for years. That inkling, as Ghost/Home describes, began with my sister’s being told that she was inhabited by the ghost of a Confederate soldier with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Starting there, I recalled our experiences, when young, of a house whose spirit always seemed to exceed the materials it was made of. I then considered the months just before I began writing, when my wife and I began to track the ghosts that seemed to live near, between, and maybe even in us. My ghost was particularly bad during the spring when I wrote Ghost/Home. I was shitting blood, and I was full to the brim with something even more unsettling.

Ghosts, I learned in the course of writing, gave me a way to think about illness that was neither delimited by language nor entirely free of representation, neither caged nor uncontainable. Ghosts have being but their edges are not clear. They exist in such a way that we experience them but cannot find them if we look. “Spectral” comes from spectrum, which defies the limits of categorical designation. When a spectrum is used to describe a person or an entity, change is accounted for in the very act of trying to freeze, to delimit, to contain.

For this reason, Ghost/Home was a great relief. It was like the images I found, after scouring the public domain for a cover, of Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes of British algae from 1843. Atkins’s goal was to provide a companion document to William Harvey’s Manual of British Algae. By placing different types of algae on a treated piece of paper and exposing them to sunlight, a spectral impression of the algae was left in white on rich blue. These cyanotypes, which constituted the first book ever illustrated with photographs, were meant to aid the process of classification and designation. At least in my eye, however, they became something more.

To me, Atkins’s cyanotypes contain the ghost of the algae, a body the eye could not see until the light flowed through it. They are beautiful in a way not created by a human hand. The cyanotypes exceed their classificatory function, which is when they begin haunting.

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I am now living in Amherst, Massachusetts, far from Denver where I wrote Ghost/Home. The houses are old here. Haunting seems natural, and for that reason the prospect of it is less frightening—even less so now that we never leave the house. Quarantined, we walk from room to room, haunting ourselves.

What is frightening is the numbers. Every day the death count rises. The charts in the newspaper show the number of infections, which weave in ever more intricate patterns as statisticians and graphic artists attempt to replicate the pandemic. It becomes clear, the more we try to represent it, that it is impossible to represent.

“Numbers Don’t Tell Full Story.” It is the numbers’ inadequacy, I think, that leads those of us who remain living to feel like ghosts of ourselves. A life, or a death, is greater than a chart, no matter how high the number on the chart reaches.

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If you’re from Cincinnati, or if you’re a baseball fan, you know what happened to Pete Rose. Four years after his historic 4,192nd hit, he was banned from baseball for betting on baseball, including games played by the Cincinnati Reds. The moment preserved on my wall as a kid was cut off suddenly by an ignominious ending.

If only the bad could end with a single stroke, the way the good seems to do. But the bad lingers, especially in the United States, where profit is prioritized over human lives and leadership means denying all responsibility. This form of national gaslighting creates a gap between the suffering we understand and the suffering we feel, which results in the inescapable sense of unease so many of us are experiencing. Just a few weeks ago, a headline on The New York Times front page declared, “‘Still Catching Up’: Jobless Numbers May Not Tell Full Story.” The full story is what haunts us, because we cannot find it printed anywhere.

The spectrality of this moment is distressing, but is also a reminder that not knowing how to name something does not mean it is not there. A haunted form of knowing matters—the kind where something passes through and all we have is the feeling. Along with, and especially, the kind where we are what is passing through.

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Dennis James Sweeney is the author of the chapbook Ghost/Home: A Beginner’s Guide to Being Haunted, as well as three other chapbooks of poetry and prose. His first full-length book, In the Antarctic Circle, won the 2020 Autumn House Rising Writer Prize and is forthcoming from Autumn House Press in 2021. A Small Press Editor of Entropy and former Fulbright Fellow in Malta, he has an MFA from Oregon State University and a PhD from the University of Denver. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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