“Reunion,” The New Yorker Sept. 1, 2008
What I like most about “Reunion” is line six: “You should be elsewhere” (italics Skinner’s). Is the speaker speaking? Is the ghost of his dead relative speaking…dead father maybe? Hard to say…and in a ghost-poem, any and all moments of not-knowing unsettle me.
Jeffrey Skinner’s “Reunion” works via a series of oppositions, the central being strength and weakness. It seems the poem’s speaker would like to be strong enough to move beyond his grief but remains prone to that loss as manifested by the reoccurring ghost of (let’s just say) his father.* “Why do you keep returning” he asks the troublesome vision in line one. Though he never conjectures the reasons, it’s easy enough for readers to conjecture reasons why he’d like the ghost to disappear: so he can get on with his life. So he can finish his dinner amongst the comfort of the living. So he can release his…guilt? Many ghosts do return for retribution. Later the speaker declares, “Same teasing of the strong, / same muffled terror of the uncertain.” He can neither explain nor verbalize the visit, but he knows he’s powerless to it much as he is to doing anything about it. He can’t speak of it, as though petrified. When he (possibly) does—“You should be elsewhere”—he preempts the moment with “the suspicion I cannot speak.” It’s mental speak. Overtly, he’s powerless
Another opposition is that of fear and complacence. The speaker acts as if he is scared speechless, but his tone is practically serene with indifference. Several of Skinner’s verb-less sentence fragments help create this detachment: “Thanksgiving dinner with all the relatives…Heavy drinking, as always…The newest baby / passed around like a contagious glow…Same teasing of the strong…” No verbs equal no action, no engagement. The ghost has arrived to engage the speaker, but the speaker chooses not to pick up the baton. If this is an attempt for the speaker to bypass grief and get-on-with-it, it isn’t working. As Skinner writes in the first line, the ghost keeps coming back regardless of the speaker’s cold shoulder. Perhaps it’s this very rebuff that brings him back?
The other major opposition that runs through the poems is that of the living and the dead. Is the speaker truly visited by the ghost of his father? Not believing in ghosts, I have to say no. The speaker has simply conjured him up out of grief and the refusal to acknowledge the dead as dead. In fact, the man is “alive,” Skinner writes, though his body is “more holographic / than warm.” The only dead person at the table is the poem’s speaker, dead because he refuses to act: he can’t talk to the ghost, he’s one-hundred percent removed from the living guests at the table, and he can’t summon the powers to overcome this latent grief he’d like to keep buried in his subconscious. Ironically, it seems this latter issue is exactly why the ghost returns “like a signal / carried by a frayed wire.” The signs are there; the speaker just doesn’t see them.
Of all the images in the poem, Skinner’s “frayed wire—there, gone, there—“ is my favorite. It’s a dead ringer for the holographic ghost that keeps coming and going, coming and going, who’s too dangerous to touch. “The newest baby / passed around like a contagious glow” is a nice, contrastive echo of this heat, as it is of the ghost—it’s implied he’s cold, “more holographic / than warm.”
Unfortunately, the “Reunion” noted in the poem’s title never quite occurs. It’s more like a meeting of old friends in line at the grocery store. Each sees the other, but neither wants to acknowledge that fact with much more than a glancing head-nod, if that. The ghost of the dead father attempts to toast his living son, but, as the son notes in the poem’s last line, “the rim never [touches] your lips.”
*Why dead father? Line 10 states “you, at the head of the table.” Of course, a father could sit anywhere, and anyone could sit at the head of the table, but it’s an odd detail to include if it isn’t intended to be telling. And, I just don’t believe the speaker would have this much trouble facing facts if the ghost was someone else, including his mother.