A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens

Laraine Herring
Regal House Publishing ($17.95)

by Kelly Lydick

How do we comprehend life, especially when faced with death? What does it mean to be empowered while being pulled into a place where unknown forces reign supreme? How do we describe the ineffable in mere words? Laraine Herring’s treatise on life and death, A Constellation of Ghosts, begins with a diagnosis (cancer) and a recollection of a father’s heart attack at age seven. The world for the narrator changes in an instant, and a new trajectory of life immediately begins:

     A raven appears between the panes, right leg shorter than the left, a lit Pall Mall cigarette clipped in its beak. . . . The raven cocks its head, its right eye finding yours, and winks as it steps through the keyhole, turns back for the dead cigarette, and then hops to your bare feet.
     You reach your hand through the hole and touch the exterior pane, the world on the other side of it increasingly unfamiliar. You retreat and the raven fans its wings and leaps to your shoulder and its cool breath raises the hair on your still-naked flesh.
     You have no words for this.

Thus begins the narrator’s relationship with the raven, a symbol for and mirror to the narrator’s existential searching.

When faced with death, or near-death, most people ask the same question: Why? But others, like this narrator, decide to learn from the opportunity and see the light through the darkness. There is power in words, and Herring taps into that power to choose how her life’s trajectory will go. She begins a dialogue with her deceased father, whom she comes to believe has taken the form of a raven to interface with her on the physical plane through this challenge in her life:

     “Tell me, daughter, are you so attached to me that you will die as well or now that you are at your crossroads will you reconsider what you’ve held and toss it up and down and out so you can see from sea to shining sea what still can be? Are you ready? Shall we write a script?”
     His unpunctuated speech unspools your throat. All you’d ever wanted was one more chance to talk with him and so you whisper, while Shadow-you is filling out forms and calling your mother and researching words, while her cells are eating themselves, you whisper old-new words, “Daddy! Yes, let’s make a play!”
     “It will be a cast of only four: you and me and my mother and my father, and we will speak until there are no more words between us,” says Raven. “And then you can decide the ending.”

In alternating chapters, Raven and the narrator together weave a dream-like story, a form that feels appropriate for the topic of life and death as well as proportionate to the emotional magnitude of the narrator’s experience. Herring uses this weaving technique to display a return to an almost shamanic state of consciousness.

With existential realization comes a kind of primal recognition—a stripping down of sensory experiences, values, and beliefs, to determine what is at the core of importance. This is what Raven asks of the narrator, and what the narrator asks of herself in these dire circumstances. Herring makes clear that the narratives we form to create stories are not so different than the narratives we each form about the self, and that both are more fluid that she once believed:

I would traverse the obstacles, nearly losing everything only to find what I was seeking was within me all along and the closing credits would roll. But there’s no brass-laden soaring score to redeem me now. No a-ha moment when the audience magically understands the meaning behind the struggles and can relax, at ease knowing the heroine has suffered bravely and justifiably and has been redeemed through that suffering. Now, the audience understands, now we can love her freely. She has suffered for her wisdom.
     This narrative is false. This structure is a lie.

Beneath these narratives, the answers to her existential questions lie—figuratively and literally. In searching for self, the narrator also begins to come to terms with the grief she holds for her departed father. In a meandering way, she moves through surgery, hospitalization, dreams, and her interactions with Raven to find answers to big questions: What is time? What is a ghost? How does a ghost move through physical space? What is grief? In what ways does grief haunt? What does it mean to be alive? What meaning does life have when faced with the prospect of death?

A journey of mythical, shamanic proportions, A Constellation of Ghosts reminds readers that words do have power, that personal transformation is possible, and that sometimes an encounter with death is exactly the thing one needs to fully confront life.

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