Reviewed by Christine Stewart-Nuñez
When I heard Avery M. Guess read her poetry at the John R. Milton Conference in Vermillion, South Dakota in 2018, I didn’t expect revolution. The October sun streamed through the windows, warming the room despite the chilly morning outside. Conference attendees chatted quietly as they filled the chairs. I found one in the front at the edge as Guess walked to the podium. Then she began to read, pulling poems from pages yet simultaneously from what seemed a deep place inside her body. I listened, accepting the intimate gifts one by one. Then she read “The Alligator Girl Becomes”and my perspective revolved. It felt like a bodily barometer change, the way one might apprehend an imminent lightning strike. Goosebumps ran along my arms; hair stood up on my neck. At the end, I sat stunned. I can still feel that poem.
When I said yes to the opportunity to review The Truth Is, I knew a few things about its author: Guess is a survivor of multiple kinds of trauma; she identifies as lesbian and she identifies as disabled. When I didn’t know was how trauma and disability inform her subject matter and her poetics in her world-shifting books. A recent interview with Sheila Black on Poetry International Online gave me language for what I experienced when I read The Truth Is: “Part of what disability poetics is for me is the process of making normalcy and ableism visible and thereby highlighting their strangeness. Which makes disability poetry inherently a poetry of liberation/revolution.” Defining disability poetics as liberation/revolution resonates with the intellectual project of The Truth Is and the way I experienced it as a reader.
Truth-telling can be a revolution in understanding and connection for readers. As someone who has experienced depression contextually—not chronically—I felt my understanding of mental illness become both more expansive and deeper as I read The Truth Is. “Before the Quiet, the Storm,” for example, juxtaposes the intensity of stillness post snow-storm, “A quilt of quiet covers/ the restive street” (7-8) with the speaker’s quest to still the “thoughts / that urge early endings” (20-21). She compares this feeling with a childhood experience: a friend standing on her back in a pool until, unable to breathe, she was “forced / to breach the surface” (35-36). That physical feeling of weight under water sparked a visceral reaction in me, illuminating connections between emotions and states of being that I hadn’t recognized before. Again and again, the sense arose: Okay, I see that now.
The poems that moved me the most were those revealing insight on abuse.“The Patient Admits,” for example, speaks to the excruciating terror of knowing abuse might happen and waiting, waiting, waiting. Here, Guess secures plain, painful images in prose syntax, and she strips metaphors of sensual imagery to illustrate a point, not transform an image: “Imagine /knowing the exact moment an accident / will kill your children or being told the day / but not the month, not the year you will die” (19-22).These words powerfully illuminated the psychological impact of this part of the abuse cycle. I was similarly devastated, in the way a witness to revolution and trauma should be, by “Attempts at Flight.” This poem points to some of the most heartbreaking realities of survivorship—the long-term fall out. Here, the speaker and her partner sit on a couch in a moment charged with intimacy. To stay in the present pleasant experience, the speaker must ground herself in the physical world by touching “real” things, such as the couch fabric. Because past trauma makes her feel like leaving, like lifting and flying away just as the birds outside the window can. She works to steel herself, even though “the words steel myself have no place/in lovemaking” (16-17). I admire this truth-telling, which helps me understand (albeit incompletely) the power of emotional residue, and I adore the way Guess speaker turns the flight imagery in the last stanza:
“But I am tethered
to this body that remembers, so I steel myself
because I somehow still have hope, and I take control
for a while because sometimes it’s easier to help someone fly
than to fly myself, so I make sure that she flies and flies and flies.” (25-29)
Transforming the flight from negative for her to positive for her lover felt both surprising and inevitable, a rich and meaningful way to close this frenetic poem.
Guess’ truths wouldn’t pack as much power if not for her incredible writing skills. I admire how she crafts form to perfectly fit the tension. In “The Patient Attempts to Explains PTSD with Time Travel Theory,” for example, Guess presents pared-back, didactically scaffolded lines with precision and grace. The breathless, long-lined, one-sentence, paragraph-like stanza of “The Patient Experiences a Flashback for the First Time” overwhelms and pains, just as it should.“The Patient Attempts to Describe Her Experience with Depakote” stuns with its fragmented montage of traumatic images obliterated by medication in the final line. “Nails,” however, stood out among the best exemplars of poetic structure. It cleaves, and the poem couldn’t exist in any other way. The lines that justify left can be read as a group and the ones that justify right can as well; the cleft juxtaposes the two stories of the nails:
This is a poem
about how my mother
got her nails done switched off. How
each week her replacement
by a Cuban woman self switched on,
named Marta— dragged me up
The cleft yields drama visually as well as in terms of meaning; it transforms the once-benign image of manicured nails into the image of a weapon of abuse.
Part of the power of revolution comes from surprise. The poems in The Truth Is distill time and experience into a strong serum of words that sometimes surprise with a revelation of experience and sometimes surprise by yoking loveliness and horror.“The Glass Girl Recalls Her Transformation” does both, so it’s appropriate to close with Guess’ words that signify a transformation necessary for survival—being not seen—and illustrates the paradox of fragility as her means of survival:
The girl watched the transformation
in the mirror, fascinated by the tight grasp
the fingers of her ribs kept on the fist
of her heart. The way blood pumped
through the aquarium of her body.
Her lungs, two glass sponges,
her uterus a jellyfish floating above
the seaweed of her intestines. (8-15)
Title: The Truth Is
Author: Avery M. Guess
Publisher: Black Lawrence Press
Publication Date: 2019
About the Reviewer
Christine Stewart-Nuñez is the author of Postcard on Parchment (2008), Keeping Them Alive (2010), Untrussed (2016), and Bluewords Greening (2016), winner of the 2018 Whirling Prize from Etchings Press (theme: disability). She is a Professor in the English Department at South Dakota State University, and the current South Dakota Poet Laureate. Find her work at christinestewartnunez.com.