The truth is that this book is painful to read. A skillful confessional that dissects a history of trauma and recovery, The Truth Is by Avery Guess demands that the reader does not look away from the reality of the impact of abuse. Though the content addresses issues of sexual abuse, suicide, and mental health with honesty, there is hope here as well.
The truth hurts…The poems in this collection lay bare wounds. Ranging in style and form, they all use carefully crafted language that clears away the obfuscation and secrecy that often surrounds trauma. One may not expect to see wordplay and experimentation in a collection this open, but Guess skillfully uses both to bring scenarios to life for the reader. In “The Patient,” Guess reworks phrases from psychiatric admission notes to create a truncated and haunting found poem with lines such as: was adopted/was raised/does recall significant conflict/recalls school/reports abuse/did not enjoy/left home. This list mimics a patient’s mindset while playing with the constructs of a what a reader expects of syntax. In “The Patient’s Complaint,” Guess takes the manipulation of language to different level, using repeated and rearranged words and phrases. Here complaint becomes non-compliant (“But I swear, I’m only moving two letters around”) becomes Ain’t (“I’m sounding ignorant. But I’m not”). The non-compliance comes to a climax with another unnamed patient while the speaker ponders a newly-learned truth - “Each state a different hospital. Each hospital the same state. The same staff. The same game. You want to leave? Don’t complain.”
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The book approaches its difficult topics with bold clarity. This is most clearly seen in the sectioned poem “The Blue Notebook” which chronicles a suicide attempt and its aftermath in six sections. Learning which pills to steal from a mother’s medicine cabinet. Chronicling which pills were digested in which order. Revealing the location of the notebook which held the reasons for the attempt only to find the notebook gone when returning home from the hospital. And then, attending a birthday party as if nothing had happened in “The Blue Notebook: At J’s 15th Birthday Party”:
“I smuggle in a secret bigger than a birthday gift/covered in blue cardstock and tied with rope//thick as a wrist./Watch as the presents/are unwrapped. Listen as all the girls,//giddy and high on cake and ice cream, tease/each other about who has a crush on who.//Lift my mouth into a smile that says,/Yes, I’m having fun. See. Like a normal girl.//Just like you.”
Truth is stranger than fiction…Guess also uses ekphrasis and fantasy elements to give distance in some poems, lending a lyricism and fable-like quality to the otherwise direct confrontation of truths in the collection. In “The Glass Girl Recalls Her Transformation,” Guess uses a twist on a fairy-tale transformation to chronicle the speaker’s building of defense mechanisms:
“Something was wrong. The mirror/confirmed her suspicion –her skin was clear/as a cave pond. Her fibula and tibia suspended/from the ceiling of her calf like stalactites.//The next day her right cheek turned crystal./Her jawbone a bell, her tongue a dumb clapper.”
And, in “The Girl Stripped Bare,” she writes after Marchel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” or “The Large Glass,” calling back to the girl made of glass is another context.
“Here is a girl./ She is eleven or twelve. She is made of glass. You can/ see right through her. She sees the bride. She sees the bachelors. When she steps past the frame, she is/shattered. The bride is not made of glass. She is not/glass.”
A famous handle line accuses the listener You can’t handle the truth. And for some , the truth here may seem too painful to bear. Nothing could be further than the truth. The beauty, honestly and resilience of these poems will stay with the reader long after the circumstances of their narrative.
Image:Nightlife 4Julian RogersStirring, vol. 19 (3), 2017