Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Inside the Ghost Factory

By Norman Finkelstein

Reviewed By Alyse Bensel

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In any poetry collection inspired by a work of art, specifically sculpture, the poems must be carefully crafted, wholly engaged in the art form. Working from photographs and visual memory to create sparse but lyric poems, Norman Finkelstein’s newest collection, Inside the Ghost Factory, functions as an ars poetica, yet goes further than the parameters of a poetic theory, by expanding the sense of art beyond its most basic aesthetic definition. Inside the Ghost Factory complicates notions of past and present, infusing each poem with ghosts that not only haunt the speaker (and reader), but continually subvert the reader’s preconceived notion of poetry. The ghosts that haunt this collection connect directly to Tom Every’s sculptures, which provide the foundation for the collection, leaving the reader to question how art haunts us in the everyday.

Ghosts become active entities in Finklestein’s book. They appear and reappear at random and do so with a subtle yet rich fervor, such as in the title poem. Giving rise to poignant ghostly images that undergird much of the collection, the speaker claims that “The ghosts / are in cabinets, though sometimes you may / meet them in open fields.” He continues on to mention the living, saying:

                                    It has been said
that the living press down upon them, though
they press down upon us too, until we are

indistinguishable.

The becoming “indistinguishable” of the “we,” due to the pressures of the past, derives from the speaker’s notion of the ghostly ever-present that the poem continue to flesh out during his contemplations. The idea of ghosts and the living begins to blur in “Some Vorpals” when the speaker claims “We were / the images, and yet they clung to us, / like ghosts.” Then the line subverts itself, proclaiming that “We were the ghosts then, and // then again, maybe not. Inside out.” Like these ghostly mediums, the poems shift in and out of the corporeal. The poems speak the need for a more secure foundation, and Finkelstein responds in his concern with sculpture.

Finkelstein shapes the collection around the sculptures of the Forevertron exhibit by sculptor Tom Every, a self-taught artist who works with scrap metal. Pictures of the exhibit inhabit the cover and preface each section of the book, looking as fantastical and precise as a Tesla coil, with otherworldly spherical structures surrounded by intricate gears and curled fanciful ironwork. Detailed in the back of the book, Finkelstein explains his fascination with the project, describing it as “a visionary combination of whimsy and sublimity.” In “Forevertron,” a poem acting as a preface to the collection, the speaker responds in tight, lyrical stanzas that parallel and articulate Every’s sculptures. In some lines, the speaker jumps from image to image, pronouncing that:

              Queen Victoria is watching
among the giant insects, the fiddle-shaped birds.
The stray voltage goes in the stray voltage

cages, all silver, red and blue.

He then continues, piling more and more images into the lines that mimic the packing of parts into a sculpture:

I tell you motors, generators, compressors, transformers.

I tell you boilers, pumps, transmitters and flywheels.
When you ask me if I found them I say no,
I rescued them.

The poems represent a kind of collaboration, not only between two artists, but two different media. The sculptor’s creation and the poet’s lyric attempt to articulate the difficult creative process simultaneously connected to, and disconnected from, the artwork itself. The poet copes with these intricate connections by displaying them on the page. In “Content under Pressure,” Finkelstein places the poem underneath a line and halfway down the page to try and visually show the relationship between form and content, asking:

             but how much space
must be left, and why place
this front and center when it is

meant to be marginal, hardly there?

Many of the poems remain self-reflexive, with footnote commentary by the speaker that either expands or attempts to summarize the poem. In “The Oberon Project,” the speaker turns meditative in stanzas crafted in tercets. While watching the mist on the river off the Torrence Parkway, the speaker contemplates that:

there are voices. And if there are

voices there are figures and if there are
figures there are lovers and if there are
lovers you can read it in a book,

whenever you want.

At the end of the poem, the footnote reads: “And there he found himself more truly and more strange.” The footnote implicates an after-commentary on the feelings of the speaker, functioning like an afterword. The book’s complicated structure allows for deeper introspection by both speaker and reader; the footnotes themselves demand a more interactive rather than passive stance with the poem.

Like many of the ghosts, the speaker inhabits each poem with a distinct and witty voice. In “Up On the Roof,” the speaker addresses an anonymous you, recalling a memory of a man in a lobby. Using clear imagery as metaphor, the speaker claims:

I take full responsibility. I take

it in small doses, the ice water dripping
through the sugar cube. Let’s call it L’Heure
Verte. Let’s call it a night.

The mixing of metaphor and place continues in the self-titled poem “Norman Finkelstein.” Examining himself as a work of art, melding together family history and language, the speaker expresses language as “a word trans- / lated from our old and venerable / tongue.” The footnotes read “‘Norman Finkelstein’ is an object, not a subject,” furthering the poet’s ideas of the interplay between subjectivity and objectivity, objectivity here being the inevitable end of the artwork’s process. In “Interpretation” this division gains lyric quality: “The spirit is in the box, and then / it is in him. Then they are on / risers, rising.” The poem ends with the footnote “None of this is made up,” an apt statement from a collection breathing with both the living and the dead, haunted by its own art.

Alyse Bensel is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry at Penn State. Her poetry has appeared in the Meadowland Review, and her book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Newpages, Calyx, Coldfront, and many other publications. She works at non-profit art organizations and at the local CSA.