Ghost Tracks, the second chapbook from Sneha Subramanian Kanta, was published in December of 2020 from Louisiana Literature Press.
In an interview with The Shore, the poet cites her fascination with Kingdom Animalia—“Cognitive biology taught in school often disregards the fact that ‘human beings’ belong to the Kingdom of Animalia,” and so her collection seeks to correct that failure. Although the collection is titled for ghosts, I initially expected Kanta to re-imagine life cycles; what is stunning, and likely the goal for a collection named for it, is her presentation of death. In Ghost Tracks, humans are animals, and the dead is food—Kanta creates dozens of intricate scenes, showing us what ghosts are for, re-creating and re-defining her own mythology as such. Poets’ fascination with ghosts rivals that of the moon, ghosts often manifesting as ancestors, as memories, as placeholders for trauma; in Ghost Tracks, however, they are just another being. Ghost Tracks declares when humans are rightfully considered the life cycle, the food chain, and the death cycle, ghosts find their place, as well.
The opening poem, “Fifteen Ways of Saying Hunger,” is our first tool to reading her mythos. The collection begins:
“The birds have flown south. Gardenias blooming in the sky. / The city roars in my palm with its leafless branches.”
My favorite lines in poetry engage multiple senses at once. I love the simplicity of the first two moments—visuals just signaling winter—setting up the third: a mutation of an environment, the city sounds, the way those vibrations can be felt in the body, and the complex visual of “leafless branches” and its possibility of referring to literal trees or skyscrapers. Throughout the collection, Kanta’s poems are often visually uniform; there are couplets, tercets, even-lengthed stanzas that follow each other down the page. There are moments of departure, of course, but this neatness throughout is mostly suitable for the heavy, intricate lines each poem contains. There are moments that feel a bit verbose, needing more than a second reading to tease apart the meaning, but Kanta’s lyric is more often rewarding than not.
I want to put “Fifteen Ways of Saying Hunger” in conversation with “Ancestry,” the opening poem of Hala Alyan’s Hijra that begins with these lines:
“I’ll lament the seeds flung / into ocean. Roots in fish gut / and everywhere the cities leak / mouths.”
In their first lines, both collections engage with a reimagining of urban life as collapsed into the natural world. In Hijra, Alyan is concerned with lineage, with the ancestral connection of the body to land, with our bodies and whatever the land serves. Like “Ancestry,” Kanta’s opening poem gives us a way to read the rest of the collection. I see a similar line of questioning in the relationships to the different realms of living and the different realms of death to each other. If humans are animals, included in Kingdom Animalia, then our ghosts must be, too. When Ghost Tracks blurs the line between two natural realms, the collection gives space to blur the lines between all of the others, too. hosts, then, can be everywhere—which brings us to the second poem in the collection.
“Everywhere, Ghosts—” is made up of couplets—however, this time, Kanta carries the end of each second line to the new verse, producing a fluidity apt for the content of the poem. With a striking, Manichaean opening line, “The light that creates us assimilates into the bodies of ghosts,” the speaker travels through a menagerie of absolutely gorgeous scenes, each line reading as if a nature documentary’s script was compelled by spiritual wonder. The poem begins with death, gives the reader access to a wondrous amount of life, and concludes with death again—”Everywhere, ghosts walking through an infinite light.” Kanta cements the absolute poetic potential in exploring the death cycle as celebratory, for what it is, rather than mournful.
I love the ways in which feasting occurs in this collection. I am always looking at the way food shows up in diasporic poetry—as apostrophe for home, as shorthand for nationalism, as sites of transformation—and here, it is inextricably wrapped up with death, with ghosts. I was struck by this moment in “Fifteen Ways of Saying Hunger” (not to mention the hunger that opens the collection!)
Once again, Kanta calls on multiple senses to build her image; the winter sun is such a unique feeling, a hopeful thing in a cold season—perhaps another poet would have left the modifier of “dead” off, as the image conveys food preservation well enough. I like this detail, this calling to attention of what our food is, connecting it back to ghosts. This happens again, later, in “Syntaxes of Conversion”: “An omen of seeing / crows gather & devour a dead rat”, continuing “The crows peel off the dead rat until there is none left.” Again, I am enchanted by the modifier of dead—this scene is violent, very baseline animalistic, but while the scene of preserved fish is humbled by the inclusion of the word “dead,” this one is elevated; the poet aligns our human eating habits with animal eating habits and emphasizes we’re all just eating dead creatures anyway. The ritual of food expands.
Ghost Tracks is dense, rich, and strikingly beautiful. This collection accomplishes what its title promises—a compelling use of the figure of the ghost, and a successful re-entry of the human into our conceptions of Kingdom Animalia.
(Louisiana Literature Press, December 2020)
You can keep up with the author Sneha Subramanian Kanta here.
Summer Farah is a Palestinian American poet and editor. She is the outreach coordinator for the Radius of Arab American Writers and co-writes the newsletter Letters to Summer. Her work has been published in Mizna, LitHub, Voicemail Poems, and other places. You can follow her @summabis on Twitter.