William Wall’s new collection, Ghost Estate, takes its title from lonely places: the large, half-finished ‘ghost estate’ housing schemes of Ireland. First started during the height of the Celtic Tiger Boom, the economic collapse left them as unfinished and largely uninhabited chilling and empty spaces. Wall mirrors these qualities here. His sentences are carefully minimalist; his poems, thoughtfully constructed on the page. Places are described through missing details – the unfinished suburban landscapes are unborn children, mislaid games of hide and seek, the ‘lost lightness’ of a smile, forfeiture of health, the death of parents. Wall’s words search for meaning and structure in this emptiness, but find little, except desolation and insecurity – only “disbelief/silence/incompleteness” (“On Formally Undecid-able Propositions”).
In an interview with Upstart (an Irish art debates blog), Wall stated that he was unaware of the themes of his previous works until reviews pinpointed them. He does not choose themes – they choose him. Whilst the style of this collection is carefully controlled and measured, by contrast, the theme unifying many of the poems is a lack of control, the unpredictable – be that financial collapse, emotion and health, or natural disaster – and the consequent effects on human sociality.
Wall’s focus on this fragility is not confined to Ireland. Rather, he employs it as a theme linking Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the act of travel itself. Italy features strongly throughout, particularly in the final third of the book. Whilst the ‘ghost estates’ are a product of a modern man-made collapse, he finds similar stimulus in earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and catacomb burials. “The days are shorter/today than yesterday/& it has nothing/to do with winter/the world is spinning/faster than before” (“Earthquake 2”). Having described the disruption of individuals and families at home, Wall switches focus to the lack of universal control possessed by humans – the ghost estate effect – that emptiness, alienation, and vulnerability of circumstance and environment which affects us all.
Wall captures the small details: salt left on a discarded crisp packet, no smoking signs in airports, the click of a mouse in a study. He notices the aspects of his subjects that are not necessarily exquisite but rather are the realistic, smaller components which form the entirety. Likewise, he pays great attention to grammatical and aesthetic minutiae. Words stand out when subtly framed by double-spaces, a technique which is easy to overlook, yet effective and accurate. Punctuation is purposefully sparse; ampersands take the place of words, again, utilising that blank space to make the reader pause. Wall’s work is perhaps deceptively sparse. Although accessibly written, the poems require to be re-read and considered. Faced with emptiness, the reader is encouraged to look for Wall’s allusions as to how the spaces might be filled.
But this is not just emptiness – it is a breathing space. Generally, these poems are short (67 of the 79 fit on a double-page). Lines often run to only four or five syllables. The words are well-known, the lay-out clear. However, they all require time to be considered, appreciated, to let the reader see beyond the scarcity – to access hope. Amongst all the isolation and tragedy, there is hope: hedgehogs make homes in rubble, dogs recycle bones, there is the dynamism of change itself, and the promise of new days yet to come. Wall’s poetry is realistic and unforgiving, stark and with a measured anger, but it recognises and accepts frailty. The collected work links people, cultures and animals in the very embodiment of their fragility. It is worth taking time to access these links, and to consider what comes next.
Catriona Ward Sell