Book Review: The Holy Ghost People by Joshua Young
|The Holy Ghost People
A Play in Verse
by Joshua Young
|Plays Inverse Press, 2013
The power of drama is that it plays back to us the human condition in a way that, while not always wholly realistic, seems just real enough for us to understand and absorb. Add to that the connotative meaning-making and compression of language found in poetry and you have Joshua Young’s The Holy Ghost People: A Play in Verse. Equal parts supernatural, ominous, and linguistically beautiful, Young’s play has all the right stuff to help us make sense of a subject—religious disagreements in America—that we might otherwise find incomprehensible in its vastness.
But to boil the book down to that one simple nugget seems unfair to the scope of Young’s project. This is also a wonderfully terrifying god-cult horror movie, a study in metaphysics, a slightly surreal retelling of life in fundamentalist Christian communities—or maybe just everyday American suburbia. Young’s archetypal character names (the Holy Ghost People, the Speakers, etc.), indeterminate setting (a city neighborhood, time: whenever), and his placing us directly in the midst of a situation (“we’ll come in at the half-act & the holy ghost people will be here already”) make this play an allegory with all the potential to stand the test of time. This is 2014’s Vanity Fair, another story without a hero depicting humanity’s inevitable failings of morality and understanding, but Young doesn’t seem to share Thackeray’s desire to promote a specific mode of thought.
From the outset, the Speakers attempt to show how different the Holy Ghost People are from typical humans. Their hair looks like neon, they can conjure a deity known as Sylvia, they wear white cloth and seem to glide when they walk. The list of items they consider blasphemous seems laughable to us:
SPEAKERS the holy ghost people find the strangest of things blasphemous: bibles, cru-cifixions, dalmatians, great danes, orange cats, nikes, paleontologists, hair braids, cocaine, mirrors, horses, snakes, egg shakers, egg beat-ers, diet soda (except pepsi), pickup trucks, red pens, paper cuts, dogs smaller than 10 lbs, people who don’t believe in time travel, gold, silver, red light bulbs, energy saving light bulbs, hybrids suvs, parkas, flip phones, thongs (both kinds), smoked salmon, alloy bats, the sci-fi channel, alt-country, nu-metal, bark in play-grounds, dead pigs…
The Speakers decide that the Holy Ghost People’s religion is nothing but “a story punched together/ with astronomy & pop-astrophysics & [they] do not/ believe [the Holy Ghost People] because there is nothing to believe.” They tell the preachers, “we have learned to recognize cults.” And this attitude seems warranted for most of the play—the Holy Ghost people speak at times in unintelligible nonsense, at other times in unrelenting dogma. At one point they react violently to blasphemers. They deliver to the Speakers a menacing prophecy:
HOLY GHOST PEOPLE god will come for you in the ether-light of dreams, your throat will be slit in your living room, in your lawn, in the road, in your workplace, in your bed. when there is a dead owl without its feet in your back lawn, you have been judged & god is coming, or he is sending us to finish. you will know in the morning & god will come in the night & the owl will rise & you will be dead flesh. you’ll ask for sylvia then.
Over time, though, it becomes clear that the Speakers are just as dogmatic as the Holy Ghost People. They worry that “the weakness of faith revs.” Their biggest issue with the Holy Ghost People is that they cannot prove that their god is more real than the Speakers’. The two groups are cut from the same cloth and only separated by the names and qualities they give to their gods (jesus, god, sylvia, science). Twice throughout the play they break into a chorus of the repeated line, “we drink from the same water.”
Young shows his smarts with these characterizations. The reader, at first, feels gradually more and more comfortable with the Speakers, until she realizes that they are simply another shade of the Holy Ghost People. Who, then, in the play stands in for your everyday person? We’re given three representatives in the supporting cast: the Barfly, who only drinks; the Policemen, “kind of annoyed with the holy ghost people,” who dismiss both the Holy Ghost People and the Speakers from the scene of a stand-off; and the silent people who sit quietly on barstools or in parking lots. Young’s world, then, is one of high drama created by a passionate fight between two small groups over religious truth—the rest of the population either drinks to deal with the chaos, feebly tries to hold onto order, or entirely surrenders its voice. Sure, the Holy Ghost People are not quite anything we’ve seen before… but this world is ours.
After reading through the play once for the story, I’d encourage you to go back and examine Young’s language more deeply. There are many beautiful lines and stanzas that could inspire or stand as full poems in their own right. At one point the Speakers, presumably speaking to other Speakers about the Holy Ghost People, say, “but you are so right about them./ they are not truthful & you look like your/ mother in the garage shadow.” The Holy Ghost People decree that “all you need to/ make a star is tongue-baths & god’s will.” And the language is not only beautifully lyric—at times it enters a space where meaning is built solely by connotation:
SPEAKERS give us the good stuff. the black tongue & stomach deep. give us the army jacket & stairwell run. the dresser of good booze. the holy ghost people parade. the holy ghost people preach. sermon-flare. the snake handlers have been bitten, give into the holy ghost people. the tv’s waving lights ruptured in four.
Almost Steinian in its way, Young’s language here is certainly poetic but also suits his subject matter. In conversations like those between the Speakers and the Holy Ghost People, words almost never mean what they seem to on the surface. At one point, Young compresses an entire debate between the two groups as the Holy Ghost People saying “evidence, evidence” and the Speakers replying, “we respond. ok. evidence, evidence.” His language is at its most compressed here, entire opposing dogmas being concentrated into the same two-word phrase.
As a reviewer, it’s always wonderful to come across a work of literature that is simply too well-written to be fully articulated in the span of a single review. Young’s play in verse is certainly one of those works. It’s my hope that the lines above inspire you to seek it out but, as a final motivator, I give you my favorite “poem” from the play, some lines from the speakers which I think very easily stands on their own:
SPEAKERS transit into the trail—the detour, the hedge, the channel spike—you are so drunk when i pick you up & you want to see the floating bridge, the construction—you say, there’s supposed to be an abandoned piano, abandoned train cars, filled with gravel & chunks of coal. you’re asleep when we get to the bridge. i watch the construction lights from the hood, waiting for you to wake & demand a cigarette.
JOSHUA YOUNG is the author of When the Wolves Quit (Gold Wake Press), To the Chapel of Light (Mud Luscious Press), and, with Chas Hoppe, The Diegesis (Gold Wake Press). He is the Associate Director of Poetry and Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. He lives in the Wicker Park neighborhood with his wife, their son, and their dog.