In this SPAM Cut, Helen Charman examines the politics, material poetics and radical pragmatism of Rebecca Tamás’ (frankly stunning) poem, ‘Communist Ghost’, which you can read here in Perverse issue 1.
> After reading it every day for a number of weeks, I read ‘Communist Ghost’ with my second year undergraduate students, alongside some of the Communist Manifesto and some of Spectres of Marx. They felt it very deeply, and they taught me a lot about it, including the (obvious, apparently) allusions to T. S. Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’ and the logic of chemical equations and the problems with the almost-Annunciation. I was pleased to be able to teach this poem without crying. Although the Eliot is an obvious intertext, it feels for me like an opposite of his cold and clevermelancholy feeling.
> Death and its moist terror is everywhere in ‘Communist Ghost’, but the skull beneath the poems’ skin is not so much ‘Ash Wednesday’—‘We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each / other’—but more like John Berger’s bones:
What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.
The politics of this poem—it’s called ‘Communist Ghost’, guys—are more in line with Berger’s lifelong commitment to activism than Eliot’s antisemitism, racism, and misogyny. Eliot’s bones are glad to be separate from the messy business of living and sink instead into the landscape, the sand, the juniper; Berger finds hope in the mixing of human remains, in the residue of love in the phosphate of calcium. In ‘Communist Ghost’, the land—the cool mossy language, the water, the wolves, the ‘actually quite obvious communist nature of the stones’—is a living entity that demands participation from the human speaker; not an escape from ethical life, but a commingling of matter. The poem interprets the old arguments against the communist past—‘warehouses and government issue shoes? hunger? snowstorms?’— as ‘only your faulty and specific type’ and constructs a new possibility of political life founded on communality. This, crucially, extends beyond the human but never falls into the ecopoetic neo-fascist trap of imagining nature as purity, or something that transcends humanity (humanity, here, is almost always racialised and coded as urban). Tamás is not sentimental, but writes of a radical pragmatism that incorporates difference and restrains from violence:
this does not mean everything and everyone is nice merely that they are nothing alike and still hold back fromdestruction
Refiguring John Donne’s ‘A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’, refiguring Frank O’Hara’s writhing and screaming ‘most tender feelings’, the final section of ‘Communist Ghost’ articulates a deeply felt hope that a new communist (small c) politics, a new ecological movement can draw on the specific and personal. The poem’s ‘I’ does not erase itself, but speaks with and through the ghost in a textual embodiment of lyric intersubjectivity:
my most tender feelings no longer hurt me my unbearable feeling that the people I love will fail and suffer no longer hurts me my awful love that fizzes over the boundary of what can be visibly given in return no longer hurts me my love of the dead in their mealy retching somewhere no longer hurts me
The awful love, the mealy retching of the dead; these still exist, but their ability to harm has been altered through the difficult, recuperative acknowledgement of everything else that exists in the world. Tamás offers no shortcut—‘even now I don’t have the best language all to myself or in myself it is still hard’—but the possibility for a union between the individual and the collective becomes the only mechanism for survival, the final lines an invocation of strength against the terrors of the future and the past, an incantatory expression of love simultaneously domestic and universal:
but it is just about doable to collapse the internal ugly machine automatic lived suffering if I say (through the ghost’s licking mouth) live with me live with me live with me
Text: Helen Charman
Image: Alina Miroshnichenko