A review of Ghost Poetry by Robbie Coburn

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Ghost Poetry
By Robbie Coburn
ISBN: 9780645536898, January 2024, paperback, $24.99, 96 pages

Robbie Coburn’s knowledge and love of horses is evident in his new poetry collection Ghost Poetry. It’s not only the striking close-up of a horse’s profile on the cover, or the many poems about horses which explore physical qualities of an animal simultaneously powerful and subservient, but also in the way horses function throughout the book as symbols, sometimes for life and virility and sometimes the unconscious with its deep well of pain and desire. Coburn’s writing manages the transition between the visceral and the philosophical so well that what is physical often will slide into the emotional or the symbolic seamlessly, blurring the lines between the two.

Although the writing is assured and ambitious, taking on big topics with confidence, Ghost Poetry is a delicate and vulnerable book, contrasting pain and fear with an instinctive  imperative to live – a cry of defiance against the ever-present lure of suicidal ideation. This theme, in conjunction with the many references to horses, conjures Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and especially Plath’s “Ariel”, a poem which pivots around the image of a horse. As with “Ariel”, Coburn leans into the pain of depression and addiction, focusing it through the lens of the dream experience and playing with what these traumas might mean. It might sound dark, and the poems don’t shirk from exploring self-destructive anguish, but there is an exuberant energy even at the darkest moments. Perhaps this is created through the exhilaration of galloping across a country with its big sky and open spaces – the striving of wild horses for freedom.  

The book is divided into three sections, “Blood Ritual”, “Wreck”, and “Straw Horses” each of a similar length with 18-20 poems. “Blood Ritual” and “Wreck” both contain the section title poem second, highlighting the role of the title poem as an anchor.  “Blood Ritual” occurs just after “Ghost Poetry”, which creates a conversation of sorts between the two title poems – one that unites the sections and the one that separates them.  “Ghost Poetry” the poem is one of my favourites in the book – a rich, powerful metapoem that invites the reader in calling attention to its own poetic construct, and setting up the themes of journeys, dreams or nightmares, pain and redemption through judicious spacing and a jagged rhythm:

I will be the ghost who dreams of you
until our eyes collide.
there is no map in my flesh, no doorways or windows.
No spurred heart of bruise throat when we touch.

When set next to “Blood Ritual”, the connection of the missing map with “the inconceivable weight/of a book bound in flesh” becomes clear. As with the rendering of horses, there’s a connection between the physical and the emotional that calls upon the reader who is cast in the role of collaborator and observer:

“I saved the pieces of you
when you fell apart.”

the deepening puncture
of my fingers against paper,

The landscapes in Ghost Poetry are familiar ones. Coburn’s country Victoria features prominently with its farm paddocks and pine trees. There is a comfortable sense of belonging that is woven through these poems, but there is also strangeness. This is the shadow space of dreams where bushfires destroy landscape, hospitals replace fields, stillborn foals lay in formerly bucolic settings and bodily torture replaces care so that the notion of what is real and what is memory/dream becomes subverted. There is a tenderness towards the body even as it is being deliberately hurt, edges blurring between subject and object, the self and other:

You stand me before the mirror;
I see your hands
taking hold of my face
and shaping the skin,
moulding me into a stranger (“Dream of Recovery”)

Though horses are present throughout the book, the second part, “Wreck”, is particularly horse rich. Horses appear in many forms, burnt in a paddock after bushfires, falling, giving birth, running as wild brumbies, screaming against constraints on a carousel, or exerting ghostly pressure as buried horse bones. These horses are both in the moment, real animals, and symbolic, reflecting both the flow of time and timelessness:

remember we would wish time was not illusory
and not drenched in all the lives we had lived before
the unforgiving landscape where time buried us
In the whitening night air. (“Rodeo”)

The title poem in “Wreck” uses the horse’s might as an extended metaphor of human violence, trauma and abuse:

I hear their frantic braying 
as they crush my paper bones
in front of your eyes. 

The final section, “Straw Horses”, extends the exploration of loss, addiction and trauma, with the creative process as a force for regeneration and hope. There is an elemental quality to the work in this section – the way rain becomes a connective tissue for example:

I told you the rain, like love,
was reaching us both at this distance.
that it was the same rain.
that it meant our bodies could wake
and start again. (“Dream of rain”)

The connection here between humans and horses is subtler than in previous sections, with blurred boundaries and animorphism: 

I would like to be like the sun, faceless and distant again,
burning unbridled inside the sky’s ceiling and braying silently
a long night in a city bar tried across the paddock’s edge
and forever returning to try again. (“Horse of God”)

The title poem makes expert use of repetition and anaphora to create a driving rhythm that feels like mournful, like an invocation – or a way of bringing back someone or something no longer present:

forgive the unchanging dawn
forgive the burning rain.
forgive the horses colliding
with your childlike flesh 

Ghost Poetry is a poetry collection that converts anguish and sadness into a creative power. There is suffering throughout the book, but the strength that underpins the pain is unmistakable, like a wild horse “burning unbridled inside the sky’s ceiling” exerting its will to live. Robbie Coburn has created a powerful and moving collection that will appeal to readers of all kinds, but for those who have experienced depression this is a book that will resonate deeply.