The Truth Is
by Avery M. Guess
Black Lawrence Press
Reviewed by Trish Hopkinson
Yes, in The Truth Is, the first full-length collection of poet Avery M. Guess, as the first poem’s title tells us, the secret swallower reveals her swords; and in doing so, we learn of a childhood that should have been simpler, rather than the devastating trauma that needs constant unpacking in adulthood. This first poem prepares us for the depth and intense honesty to come: “She draws more swords out. Names them after the secrets they carry—half a dozen, a dozen, two dozen, until she loses count.” Guess unleashes a vulnerable honesty that only poetry can hold—the human capability of empathy and awareness. She reminds us that we can be survivors, that living creatures endure and still find remnants of desire in the smallest of things, “Holding the plum / my mother handed me / still wet from the sink…That first bite. The taste. / So unexpected. So alive.” And in silence, in a life with less noise, how we ache for it and imagine ourselves into it when physically we can be nowhere else.
In contrast to the yearning for silence and simplicity, there is a second powerful voice in these poems named “the patient,” who admits and attempts to describe experiences for which we may otherwise have no insight, delving into years of sexual abuse:
And the waiting. The waiting. 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,
and you are helpless to stop it. Or avoid it. . . .
the television humming snow, and (just once,
just once, I swear, just once) whispered, Dad.
In a society where too often victims are not heard, not believed, their actions turned against them, Guess takes a stand. But as a human being, she also acknowledges fear of her characters’ own power—one that is represented in the poem “No Peace”—about an 18-year-old who cannot withstand the abuse in his household, where his only escape is to kill his parents and sister. Again, the patient admits, she dreamt of her father’s death, but chooses to squelch it when it nearly comes true.
My father’s van caught fire
soon after I dreamt it would.
He wasn’t hurt, but it scared
me enough that I went back
to only dreaming of escape.
In this poem, the strength of humanity offers a capability so powerful, it seeps through the terrors of everyday life to reveal a sympathetic and kind conscience, even toward those who have caused so much harm.
All the poems in this collection are unique and strong in individual ways, but several are particularly striking, due to either the unique form or the palpable imagery. In the poem “Nails,” Guess uses columns to accentuate meaning and metaphor, with a center column as the hinge for the left and right columns—an unsettlingly dark poem that ends, “The antlers that / grew in their place / like bright tines / poking / through leaves / on a forest floor.”
I was completely taken in by the ekphrastic pieces: “Two Objects and a Girl” and “The Girl Stripped Bare.” In the first, as noted in the footnote, the poem uses imagery from Méret Oppenheim’s “Object” (a gazelle fur covered tea cup, saucer and spoon) and “La bicyclette à la selle d’abeilles” (a photograph of a bicycle seat covered with bees). In the second, the imagery is inspired by a three-dimensional work of art by Marcel Duchamp entitled, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” from the permanent collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both poems play an important role in the ongoing narrative or theme of the book, as well as bringing in visuals from other works of art without depending on the original context.
While many of the poems reflect on difficult memories, childhood abuse, and the realities of recovery and survivorship, there are moments when the imagination becomes the escape—and how that escape becomes a personal truth. In the title poem, “The Truth Is,” our narrator describes how when she was little, she could watch movies on her bedroom wall, but “The truth is they were not real. The truth is I saw them, still.” There are moments of hope, as portrayed in these lines about a visit with friends and a canoe:
Our grunts and the paddles punching the only sounds
on this empty lake until we send chunks of ice singing
across its crystalline surface. Landfall comes sudden
as winter. On the damp, peaty ground, wintergreen’s
red berries and dark, waxy leaves poke through fall’s
detritus. I gather and crush a bunch in my ungloved hand,
inhale the scent of starting over. . . .
The Truth Is leads us in and out of fantastical metaphor and the animal weight of our own skins, from angry boiled lobsters, regenerating sea cucumbers that turn their insides out in a plea to escape, to gazelles and alligators, and a girl made of glass. There are moments so tragic and truthful, you’ll wish you could unbelieve them, but you cannot.
Avery Moselle Guess is a recipient of 2015 NEA Fellowship for Poetry, grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and residencies from the Albee Foundation and the Ragdale Foundation. She is a PhD student in creative writing, poetry, at University of South Dakota and assistant editor for poetry at South Dakota Review. Avery lives in Frankfort, Kentucky, and works full-time as the Grant Program Manager for the Kentucky Foundation for Women in Louisville. Recent and forthcoming publications include poems in Crab Orchard Review, Moon City Review, Thrush, Rogue Agent, Tinderbox, Glass, Rust + Moth, and Deaf Poets Society and creative non-fiction in Entropy and The Manifest-Station. Her chapbook, The Patient Admits, is out from dancing girl press, and her first full-length collection of poetry, The Truth Is, was published in April 2019 by Black Lawrence Press.
Trish Hopkinson is a poet, blogger, and advocate for the literary arts. You can find her online at SelfishPoet.com and provisionally in Utah, where she runs the regional poetry group Rock Canyon Poets and folds poems to fill Poemball machines for Provo Poetry. Her poetry has been published in several lit mags and journals, including Tinderbox, Glass Poetry Press, and The Penn Review; her third chapbook Footnote was published by Lithic Press in 2017, and her most recent e-chapbook Almost Famous was published by Yavanika Press in 2019. Hopkinson will happily answer to labels such as atheist, feminist, and empty nester; and enjoys traveling, live music, wine-tasting, and craft beer.