THE MATING CALLS OF A SPECTER by Kelly Gray, available from The Tusculum Review


By Chelsea Fanning | April 18, 2024

Kelly Gray’s newest chapbook, The Mating Calls of a Specter, is a haunting exorcism that explores in stark, incisive language the profound ways in which sexual trauma imprints itself on the body and changes that body’s very composition.

The structure of the book wherein each title is right-aligned immediately creates a sense of unease while also drawing parallels to the idea of an afterimage, or perhaps more aptly for this collection, a ghostly reflection. This theme of duality is reflected in the speaker, who is simultaneously alive and not alive. We understand the clear demarcation between the she before the abuse and the she after; how the abuse obliterated that former self who now haunts her present self: “I whisper to my descendants, I am the haunted one, / and they keep crying back: / This place is haunted!”

Throughout the collection, the speaker struggles to reorient her understanding of self and, most strikingly, her body. Having been the site of her trauma, her body no longer feels human. Instead, the speaker envisions it at turns as a place, a jellyfish, algae, a lake filled with tiny silver fish, and “a tapestry of handprints.”

This image of hands resurfaces continually and creates a pervading sense of oppression. In every poem, we can feel these hands reaching out to touch, to grope, to bruise, so that there is never a sense of safety. Instead, an ominous presence strikes a discordant note in every setting from public spaces like schools and parties to the intimate spaces of the home: “A woman is a series of deaths in a kitchen.”

Reinforcing this idea is the collection of textiles by fiber artist Sarah Jane Castellon, which, like the speaker’s body, is fragmented and threaded throughout the book. Just as the kitchen and the home are spaces inherently associated with the feminine, so are the techniques of embroidery, stitching, knitting, and quilting that Castellon employs. By juxtaposing Gray’s poems with these creations, we are reminded of the ways in which a place or thing of alleged safety can also be a site of trauma and danger: a blanket can both comfort and suffocate, a scarf can both warm the throat and choke it. 

There is no easy resolution to be found here, only the speaker’s acknowledgement that “grace exists in the life of grass / upon a hill, turned golden / and razed, / and then birthed again as blade.”

You can purchase The Mating Calls of a Specter by Kelly Gray from The Tusculum Review here.

About the author

Kelly Gray is a writer and educator living in the redwoods, nine miles and seven fence posts away from the ocean. Most recently, her poetry chapbook, The Mating Calls of the Specter, was selected by Justin Phillip Reed as the winner of the Tusculum Review Chapbook Prize. Her writing can be found in Cream City Review, Fatal Flaw, Lake Effect, Southern Humanities Review, Passages North, Pithead Chapel, Rust & Moth, Jet Fuel Review, Storm Cellar, and Permafrost, among other places. Gray's collections, Instructions for the Animal Body (Moon Tide Press, 2021) and Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife (Quarter Press, 2022), can be found at

Chelsea Fanning is a poet, editor, witch from New Jersey. Her debut poetry book, To Love of Fierecess So Bright, is forthcoming from Nymeria Press in 2025. Her poetry has been nominated for the Best of the Net award and has appeared in Mom Egg Review, Miniskirt Magazine, Coffin Bell, OyeDrum, Ethel Zine, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in poetry from Drew University and is the poetry editor at Fatal Flaw Magazine.

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