Substantial Ghosts by Doreen Hinchcliffe

My review of Substantial Ghosts originally appeared in issue 61 of The Journal.

The reader is offered an odd encounter towards the end of Doreen Hinchliffe’s Substantial Ghost, her second collection after Dark Italics in 2017. In the poem, ‘Twin’, Hinchcliffe describes the narrator visiting an apparent twin’s bedroom, after fifty years. (‘Inseparable, we move and one, each/ Of us the other’s half, reflected back.’) The poem is striking for the way it teases at questions of autobiography and identity, and seems to undercut the completeness of a narrator, who up until this point, had seemed fairly knowable: offering a portal to a different kind of poetic self. 

Mostly the ghost of the title settle in descriptions of family history, which are affecting for their emotional acuity. ‘Grandfather’s Funeral’, while prosaic in title, is a rather lovely memorial, and it shows the subtle power of poetry, often ignored, to evoke emotions for people we have never, could never, have met, ‘and I’d a child again/ laughing, standing on tiptoe to stroke the thick/ bristles on your chin’ Hinchliffe declares, and it’s quiet reminder that often we mourn for two lives when we lose a relative: the dead, and the self we once were.  

More corporeal ghost abound in a sense of place. ‘Ghost Stations’, about abandoned London Underground stations, offerings a pleasing take on a niche subject, offering an ending reminiscent of Carol Anne Duffy’s ‘Prayer.’ ‘Trains’ also offers a neat sense of London’s geography through its arterial railway, contrasting the pleasing accuracy of city descriptions with a personal reflection on ‘the way the breath of trains festooned my childhood.’

There are a couple of false steps along the way. Two works offer different takes on Wallace Steven’s ’13 Ways of Looking At A Blackbird’, which is two too many in this reviewer’s opinion, and seem more like writing group exercises than belonging in the world of this collection. Still, Hinchcliffe’s voice is an engaging presence throughout: emotional, reflective, but able to tease out the brightness of tangible detail from the world. It’s the encounter with the twin that offered a real sense of pleasing unease— of the sliding natural of personality and the lack of completeness to our conception of ourselves— which might point the way towards future work.  

Oversteps Books 978-1-906856-86-1 £8 

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