Review by Ashley Jones
Scratching the Ghost By Dexter L. Booth, Graywolf Press, 2013, paperback, 69 pages, $15.00.
Dexter L. Booth’s debut poetry collection, Scratching the Ghost, was the 2012 winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, selected by Major Jackson. Booth’s poems have appeared in Amendment, Grist, New Delta Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Willow Springs.
There’s something eerie, warm, and familiar about Scratching the Ghost. Poet Dexter L. Booth takes us on a ride through a life—his life—with ghostly precision and a distant, yet personal voice. Booth shows us the delicate, harsh, and beautifully tragic nature of human relationships. Mothers, fathers, stepfathers, sisters, grandmothers, even relationships to oneself are cast in memory’s strange glow. In “Anniversary,” Booth documents a battered mother’s beauty rituals—“She puts on her wig like a smile”—and shows her tears, “the future / pooling on the floor.” Descriptions like these transport ordinary and sad everyday moments, into something sparkling and new on the page. To Booth, even the grass is something darkly spectacular: “and the ground was bare with the stubble of grass /hanging over the pathway like frat boys on balconies / puking out their guts before dawn.”
Booth expertly guides the reader through these memories with a fresh, poetic eye. Even “Scratching the Ghost,” a poem about the inevitability of decay and a grandmother’s death, is a shining picture of love where the speaker and his grandmother “dance like there’s nobody home.”
Booth is able to take control of the narrative in exciting ways—there are poems with one governing story and there are poems that weave varied experiences into one collage. In “Waste,” for example, we see Booth build three different stories about types of waste—a grade school “accident,” the truth about the human insides of Barney the Dinosaur, and whacking an old car at the school fair—into a singular story of coming-of-age and self-discovery that culminates in this epiphany: “We would have given everything away for someone to tell us we were men.”
Booth is not only a storytelling poet—he also includes a section of abstracts in this book. Each abstract poem features a less narrative voice, and a very detached, chillingly quiet tone. Dead deer with “Tails like rice” and “Cotton eyes” are a different approach to the same eerie atmosphere Booth has created in the rest of Scratching the Ghost, but without the narrative of the rest of the book.
There’s even room for a social commentary in Scratching the Ghost with “Queen Elizabeth.” This poem, a manifesto on modern literary blackness, is something I’ve been looking for, and I’m so glad to have found it so eloquently expressed. I, too, come from a place where “Jesus is dark-skinned and forgiving.” I, too have thought, “I don’t want to be a black writer.” But, just as Booth’s speaker concludes, I have found my own Black pride, literarily and personally. The speaker’s resounding plea to his black sister, “You are beautiful,” is a plea I hear, and scream out, as I devour this extraordinary debut book.
Booth takes the reader on a difficult, but necessary journey—his verse is calm, exact, and chilling.. The ghosts that live in our minds and lives need scratching up from time to time, and, after reading Scratching the Ghost, I’m eager to unearth the things I’ve buried and let my ghosts run free.