Review by Anne Champion
by Carol Guess
2013, 70 pgs., $14.00
Personally, I never considered erasure poetry to be a legitimate genre. It’s not that I didn’t see its merit, as I have been known to dabble in erasure poetry myself and I thoroughly enjoyed the outcomes. However, erasure poetry served a specific function in my writing: an activity used to overcome writer’s block. Thus, it was hard for me to look at my own erasure poems as serious creative work wrenched from a long wrestle with the muses. I likened it to those poetry magnets you can get for your refrigerator: you can dabble around, play with the words given to you, and even possibly create something clever and worthwhile, but is it a real poem if you simply found it and shaped it?
Carol Guess’ new collection, F IN, answers that question for me: yes, absolutely. Guess, who has authored several collections of poetry and has a reputation for working in marginalized genres such as flash fiction and prose poetry, presents a chillingly visceral and evocative collection about a “ubiquitous dead girl from the perspective of a curious girl who makes up the murder.” The collection is taken from a novella titled Willful Machine that Guess authored and subsequently decided to pull from publication weeks before its release. Unsatisfied with her efforts, Guess started to erase her central narrative, and what remains is a skeleton that haunts readers with every page turn.
As a woman, dead girls haunt the periphery of my life on a daily basis. From a young age, girls are all too aware that they can easily become prey. We internalize the ever-present headlines about murdered women, raped women, and beaten women at the same time that we blossom into awareness of our own bodies and the power of our sexuality. It is that very power that becomes a threat: in those headlines, we start to attempt the piece together stories of the slaughtered faces: what love led to their destruction? What man hunted them? It’s a fear that has followed me, caused me to enroll in self-defense classes and grip my keys between my knuckles as a makeshift weapon when walking alone at night. This pervasive dread and the imposition of narrative upon the death of a woman permeates Guess’ collection. Consider these lines:
“He had crazy eyes, the kind that sink
Inside you like fishhooks and come up with scales, all the gunk from the sea.”
The text gives just enough to hint at the horror, and the white space becomes the mind-racing, pulse quickening, panic of an imaginative space where readers piece it all together, just as we do with stoic news headlines. Additionally, these lines reveal the inner fears of many women: the predatory capabilities of men, the gruesome disfiguring power that they can possess. In this collection, Guess touches on the profound truth that lurks behind every story of a murdered woman:
“the dead come back; it’s just a matter of naming”
In hearing about this kind of crime, we instinctively begin to name the victim, concocting her narrative to the tune of our own terrors.
In this ghost story, Guess has sought to give her heroine “agency and appetite.” In doing so, Guess creates a tremendous feat of irony: even in the erasure of this narrative, a distinct voice emerges at the same time that it fades away. Guess’ speaker admirably questions dominate assumptions of femininity. As stories of murdered girls make us wonder about the role of sex or romance in murder, Guess turns these notions on their heads, shaking an accusatory finger at conjectures that blame femininity for destruction. Take these lines, for example:
“No one drowns
I don’t want to marry”
chain link fence”
Here, we see that feminine expectations serve as a cage; this speaker’s ‘appetite’ is for freedom from conventional expectations of what it means to be female. Marriage is likened to drowning; lace is personified to a person wrestling against constraints. This speaker’s voice is not only powerful, it’s downright subversive. Here, the speaker reveals her largest revelation about her identity:
“fucking. It was a thing.”
“Do you want to get married?”
“Not to a boy.”
In these lines, Guess causes us to question traditional narratives of women that assume antiquated notions of femininity and heterosexuality. In the slow unraveling of these sparse poems, Guess forces the reader to undergo an interrogation of the damage caused by societal “norms.”
Additionally, Guess’ rich text explores themes of grief and loss. Here, in one of the rare interruptions to the text that begins with a chapter title, Guess writes:
“They act like she was never born.”
These lines sent chills through my body: the chapter serves as a reminder that this is a long story, a life’s worth of a story, a mystery and a loss that continually tangles and untangles. In stating that people act as if the murdered girl was never born, Guess turns a mirror onto our culture of denial towards violence against women. Because we can hardly stomach it, we deny it. In denying it, we commit an injustice, and we let these dead women become terrifying specters on the margins of our existences. In one of my favorite sections of the collection, Guess reveals how this denial can become a disrupting mania:
“Ella found The Silent Wife while looking for swans.
s w a n s
a headless woman”
Here, grief causes the woman to lose her head, and we feel the onset of mental illness yoked with grief as the woman obsesses about swans and polka dots. It’s alarmingly clear that the effect of this type of violence gauges at our inner sense of serenity and stability. The text feels off kilter and unsettling.
Guess’ collection of erasure poetry is like nothing I’ve ever read. I applaud her ability to change my mind about the usefulness of this form as a genre. In this erased narrative, the form perfectly embodies the underlying meanings, and those meanings are truths that nauseate, haunt, and refuse digestion.
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared in Pank Magazine, The Comstock Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Poetry Quarterly, Cider Press Review, The Aurorean, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a Pushcart Prize nominee, a St. Botolph Emerging Writer’s Grant nominee, and a Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop participant. She holds degrees in Behavioral Psychology and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College. She currently teaches writing and literature at Emerson College, Wheelock College, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston, MA. She also serves as a poetry reader for Ploughshares. (anne-champion.com)