Exit Ghost: A Review of Callie Siskel’s Two Minds

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Two Minds
by Callie Siskel
(W. W. Norton, 2024, 80 pp. $26.99)

In “A Sketch of the Past,” from the posthumous selection of autobiographical essays Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf recalls the great psychological breakthrough of her adult life:

It is perfectly true that she obsessed me, in spite of the fact that she died when I was thirteen, until I was forty-four. Then one day walking round Tavistock Square, I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; […] and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother.

Callie Siskel’s apostrophic Two Minds, an eighty-page meditation on her father, the film critic Gene Siskel, appears intended to affect an expurgation—exorcism?—similar to that which Woolf performed via her fictional matriarch, Mrs. Ramsay. Siskel’s title, a précis in ambiguity, is poignantly resonant, first of the uncertainty connotative by being of two minds about something, then of the book’s paired subjects, Siskel and her father. The title also suggests marriage, both the Sonnet 116—“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”—and Hamlet kind. Siskel’s widowed mother, claiming her pain to be the greater yet “wanting a stage, a soliloquy,” comes across in these poems as Two Mind’s admitted impediment. Perhaps unjustly so, given Siskel’s concessions that “Grief does not divide // evenly” and, damningly, “Vanity and grief are closer / than we think.”

“I was a lot to carry in summer,” Siskel writes in the introductory “Mise en Abyme,” a story less about Matryoshka dolls than about the abyssal nature of loss, of one life suspended in the wake of another. The final poem, “Parentheses,” which declares “I stream consciousness, / withhold emotion, / nest inside myself,” thus lends symmetry to the collection. Parentheses prove an apt figure, both for touching resemblances

The mourner’s yarmulke,
…….the mouth
of her grief, the shape

of his face, the cleft
…….on his chin, how she
cleaved to him

and for the fact that, alone, a parenthesis is meaningless. To eerie effect, the poem represents Siskel’s only departure from the first person, as if the book outlives its author by a page. What comes before has been left “misaligned, the seam exposed,” or scarred—as with the Cesarian section of the poet’s birth (“They cut her open to lift me out”). Take the cover art—id of many a poetry collection—in which half of a toy house, its interior lit as though by a poltergeist, rests on a windowsill through which a real house is visible.

Strewn around are mundane reminders of death, particularly the awkwardness of a corpse: flower buds that have unexpectedly rotted, a splayed book face down on a chair. But the days bring mercies, too, like Siskel’s mother cupping bumblebees in her hands; though Two Minds skews lugubrious, the lesson is that into grief’s clearing, parted “in half / like a child’s hair,” some grace must (or is likely to) fall. Thus, the calm following a long illness, for instance, may leave one weirdly serene as “the mind wait[s] to be filled again.” On the formal side of things, we get the de rigueur acts of disappearing punctuation and block-like justification. Or Siskel will periodically, to no apparent benefit, break into stanzas what is essentially prose, such that the lines all enjamb prematurely:

their basset hound is howling. I keep
eating my grapefruit. Each segment is a
day spent the same way, carving its coral
flesh, releasing mist everywhere—juice

rising over the brim like a babbling-
brook effect the neighbors tried to
achieve in their yard. They took a year
to excavate and once the construction

While men have reportedly told Siskel she looks like a Modigliani—her face “long and plaintive, [. . .] head on her neck like a leaf on a pear”—more interesting is her rather Freudian displacement of Modigliani’s wife, the painter and model Jeanne Hébuterne; Hébuterne’s suicide, we’re told, overshadowed “Two still lifes, a portrait of her husband, and a portrait of herself,” and it is hard not to identify in those portraits Siskel and her father, wedded as they are in elegy’s logic.

Siskel’s ambition is well summed up by what Mark Strand called “the burial of feelings.” Surprisingly for a work of mourning, there is little intensity in Two Minds, with neither teeth-gnashing nor the tectonic pressure that quietly forms diamonds out of the dead. Put another way, these poems do not sorrow so much as murmur darkly. The stronger passages are knowingly ruminative, maybe with an echo of Beckett:

It was time to go. I wanted to stay
and watch the sunset,
the two women still heading up,
but I was afraid to walk down in the dark,
and I wanted to call you and ask you something.

Oftener, the irrepressible facts of biography help color what is as grisaille as rain. Cold poetry should freeze your blood, not merely slow your heart rate. Privilege, when it is acknowledged, is acknowledged sideways with contextualizations that treat being a Yale legacy or begrudging a canceled vacation as simply a matter of lived experience. Except this out-of-touchness actually suits the dissociative streak, bordering on voyeurism, which runs through every recollection of the author’s childhood (“When they called to us, / I stayed where I was. I wanted to see them / without me too”). “There’s a way,” Siskel explains, “to position yourself above where your life is taking place.”

In lonesome interrogatives like “How do I become the streetlamp?” I’m reminded, not of Sexton or Plath, but the blind speaker in Wallace Stevens’s “This Solitude of Cataracts,” who “want[s] his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest / In a permanent realization.” Painting offers Siskel a kind of leveled, domestic permanence, or “how to figure ourselves / in the ruins / of what we can’t traverse.” “I tell friends,” she writes, “imagine the present is the past and you will be happier,” though I prefer her mother’s formulation, which chides “try thinking what is instead of what if.” The difficulty is that, to the bereaved, symbols abound. Practically anything can serve as remembrance’s sad fodder:

What we’re seeing is the overlaying
of many scenes in which two figures cannot
bring themselves to face each other—
the younger girl aligning herself
with the table, the realm of the mother
(not pictured), while the older stays at the hearth,
where their father, who died suddenly,
would normally be.

Siskel is describing one of Pierre Bonnard’s fuzzy interiors, but the coding is so determined that the artwork which inspired it is ultimately treated like a dinner jacket draped over a puddle.

Hurt becomes its own sensibility, one that compares love to debt and refuses hand-me-downs (“Said no to her wedding dress / preserved for decades in an acid-free box”) in a manner which smacks of adolescence. The book’s strictest litany, however, adroitly swings between anonymized indictment and the anecdotal:

My father said, do what you love, and the money will follow.
Mrs. Ramsay added, but you’ll have to be up with the lark.
My mother said, I had children too early.
We all make our choices, my sister said.
My rabbi said, repeat after me, I am my beloved’s
and my beloved is mine.
A crow on the powerline imitated the call of another bird.

[. . .]

When people cried needlessly my great grandmother was known
to have said, crying with a loaf of bread under their arms.

That dilemma, of going on when you cannot possibly, includes the refusal to chase after lost innocence until the past, “not who we were, but who we are not,” is disowned by a vengeful present.