Daniela Naomi Molnar

my Gender floats on salt : Body as Place in Flux in Sebastian Merrill’s GHOST :: SEEDS

You might be familiar with mirror neurons, those nodes that ignite in our brain when we observe another person’s expression or movement, involuntarily prompting us to imagine ourselves engaged in the same action. If you watch me put my palm to my sternum, your mirror neurons fire as if you’d performed the same action. If I smile at you, a part of you inevitably smiles back. We can thank mirror neurons for the pleasure we experience watching athletes do things our bodies can’t do, and for the horror that floods us when the news brings scenes of bodily anguish. And this pleasure or anguish we experience point to the fact that mirror neurons go deeper than mimesis of the body—our brains also create an emotional simulacrum of the feeling or thought that accompanies the witnessed action. By projecting ourselves into the physical movement, we also project ourselves into the emotional and psychological state of the person we are mirroring, creating what is called a “theory of mind” regarding the other. A theory of mind is the root source of empathy—the mirror neuron is our empathetic engine.

Mirroring and its concomitant empathy occurs not only through the sense of sight, but also through the imagination. When we read, we experience a type of mirroring, feeling what the imagined other feels. In his essay “Place in Mind,” Peter Streckfus proposes that sensory information in a poem is the primary means by which mirroring and its empathetic theory of mind is created: “The most interesting and significant difference between the everyday observation of another’s experience […] and encountering such an experience in a poem lies in the theory of mind, the access to mind that poetic language makes possible. […] The speaking voice of the poem presents a mind we would have no way of accessing merely by being present in the physical place. […] We occupy [a poem’s] physical sensations and build our theory of its mind. We become its ‘point of view.’” A poem, then, is an interactive space between reader and speaker characterized by heightened empathetic exchange. By sharing its consciousness, a poem makes a shared place.

Sebastian Merrill’s powerful, elegant debut, GHOST :: SEEDS, offers us the opportunity to share a complicated, beautiful place with the wide, manifold consciousness of a speaker who is many speakers at once. Likewise, the place this book makes is many places at once, reminding us of the teeming hauntedness of our world, the way all places are dense with histories and mythologies. It reminds us that time is thick and fluid, a medium we’re always wading through.

This layered multiplicitous speaker/place might be confusing or overwhelming in another poet’s hands but Merrill’s voice is calm, lyrical, and taut throughout, generously leading us with expert pacing through three long interwoven poems that complement, shadow, and reflect each other like three currents in one river. I never felt alone in this book—the speaker was always right there with me, experiencing the same empathetic place. With him, I felt the book’s central confusion for what it is: a grief that is also a love, a descent that is also an ascent, a loss that is also a gift. GHOST :: SEEDS reminds us: the body is a place, every place is a body, and both are alive with haunted history and always in flux, never stable, never singular, never still.

The book’s speaker is a trans man who is reckoning with the lingering presence of his “girl ghost” in his body and his life, as well as with how his transition impacted his family and his sense of self. The book starts off in memory without a clear sense of location but soon we are located in a remote cottage by the summer ocean. A kayak welcomes exploration and we find ourselves out on the sea, exploring inside sea caves and picnicking on remote islands, one the stars and the tides. At this point, at least three distinct voices become woven tightly together while retaining their unique tone, form, and diction: there is the ghost (who is also sometimes characterized as Persephone), the speaker, and the voice of the place. These three voices, through the book’s three plaited poems, construct a complex, layered kind of relational, empathetic place, made vivid and emotive by Merrill’s deeply sensory diction.

Water, with its inherently transitional nature, its constant tidal movement (even a glass of water is moved by the moon), its unseeable depths, its perfect memory, makes the ocean a ready home for Merrill’s haunted, manifold speaker. The haunted body is at home in this transitional place, so much so that distinctions between the body and the place become irrelevant; the place is the haunted body, the haunted body is the place. He writes:

I find comfort in the rhythm
            of the tide’s twice-daily cycle,
                        covering then revealing

                                    over ten feet of snails and seaweed,
                        slippery rock. This long, slow breath
            a constant reminder of the moon’s
pull, that no transition occurs
            in pure isolation.

There is an I here finding comfort, implying a distinction between body and place, but in the second stanza, that distinction breaks down, the isolation of the body is eroded by shared breath and lunar pull. The repeated enjambment visible here also occurs throughout the book and can be understood as another type of transition emphasizing the fluidity of body/place, carrying us smoothly through the sinuous wave-like form of the lines.

Another way the book creates a shared experience of the always-transitional and always-layered reality of body/place is by resisting the false solidity of answers, preferring instead the honest, ambiguous unsteadiness of questions. One of the last passages in the book poses questions that are left pointedly unanswered, thrown to the flux. Addressing the ghost, the speaker asks:

                                    Are we one or two?

                        Am I an and you a you?

            When I was young was I myself my I, or was I you

                                      Or were we a we, plural in our
                                     intertwined yet also singular self?

                                                I don’t know.

                        We elude easy definition.

This elusion of easy definition makes an honest place. The water continually moves, the sea caves are always too dark to see within, the moon is the only way to see the sun. One of poem-threads in the book is a visually spacious anaphoric poem that repeats the word “Gender” over and over, modifying it to near-senselessness, sometimes with humor, sometimes with pathos, always with a keen eye towards the way this word has been falsely frozen and flattened by our culture. The last of these series of poems uses the pronoun “our” to characterize the Gender, and pointedly sets it free:

                                                                                                            our Gender is a living thing […]

our Gender is galactic

                         our Gender howls and barks

                                    our Gender is difficult to hold

                                                                                                             our Gender is delicate


                                                            our Gender is about to take flight

Years ago, I asked my students about their favorite place in the world. One said her favorite place is inside an airplane, watching a prolonged sunrise or set. This “place” is an observational stance predicated on the constant, extremely rapid motion of the observer. Is that a place? And if so, where is it? Does a point in constant motion constitute a place? Can a point in constant motion be a home? At the time, I understood this point-in-motion as a space but not a place. I now think of it as one of the only legitimate versions of place. Our planet, after all, is a homeostatic body, different every day. Nothing is stable, nothing is alone. The relation is the smallest possible unit of analysis and “no transition occurs / in pure isolation.” GHOST :: SEEDS elegantly reminds us of the beautiful, deep, wild shiftiness of our world, which exceeds and holds us as it changes, as it moves.

Daniela Naomi Molnar                         

Daniela Naomi Molnar is an artist, poet, and pigment worker collaborating with the mediums of language, image, paint, pigment, and place. She is also a wilderness guide, educator, and eternal student. An entry in the Oregon Encyclopedia states, “Molnar pioneered the notion that art can speak to climate change.” Her work is the subject of a front-page feature in the Los Angeles Times, an Oregon Art Beat profile, and a feature in Poetry Daily. Her visual work has been shown nationally, is in public and private collections internationally, and has been recognized by numerous grants, fellowships, and residencies. Her book CHORUS is a finalist for the 2024 Oregon Book Award and was selected by Kazim Ali as the winner of Omnidawn’s 1st/2nd Book Award. Her work will be anthologized in the forthcoming The Ecopoetry Anthology and is anthologized in Breaking the Glass: A Contemporary Jewish Poetry Anthology. Her next books are PROTOCOLS (Ayin Press, 2025), and Light / Remains (Bored Wolves, 2024). She founded the Art + Ecology program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and helped start and run the backcountry artist residency Signal Fire. A 3G Jew and the daughter of immigrants, she is a diasporic student of the earth. www.danielamolnar.com / Instagram: @daniela_naomi_molnadanielamolnar.com / instagram /  hello@danielamolnar.com