THE TRUTH IS TOLD BETTER THIS WAY
Book*hug Press, 2017
ON ERECTIONS AND BANISHINGS
My flight is delayed. I am sitting in the Detroit Metro airport with The Truth is Told Better This Way, Liz Worth’s second collection of poems. I have a baculum with me—a gift from another writer—a reminder of things more profane, the undercurrents of bad choices, illicit behaviours, the less comfortable truths that spring forth regardless of their inconvenience. It is my talisman while I read.
I also am wearing a two-thousand-year-old evil eye. It keeps falling off. I have retrieved it from the floor twice in the last twenty-four hours. I remember mama Blackman—my Armenian elder—telling me that this sometimes happens, that they can even break depending on what it is that they might be warding off. I have been digging my heels in with some of my own banishings and so I hope that as the lens shifts, this talisman holds fast.
As I read, I feel as though itemizing these things is appropriate.
HOLLOW MAGICS/INCONVENIENT TRUTHS
The Truth is Told Better This Way (Book*hug Press, 2017), Liz Worth’s second collection of poems, is the site of different magics working themselves out. In the first section, Aspirations, the “hollow magics” (p. 25) of addiction, self-harm, abusive love and the more holistic magics of divinatory objects and plant magics culminate. Moments of clarity, sudden knowledges, gestures of reversal and quicksand fallbacks are the lights and shadows traversed as the poems unfold. There are no promises in these poems, just a pull and push of magics: lulling, bolting awake, forgetting, recalling. The yearning for higher spiritual ground and the very human, imperfect locations the body and heart sometimes need and want, despite the repercussions—they exist together, mix. The text is a rhythmic blossoming of awakeness in and amongst the drone and draw of asleepness. It is an honest claiming of the inconvenient truth of process—a truth found in the shifting middle ground of wanting knowledges and wanting oblivion, in the wrestling between justifying and letting go.
In “Suburban wilds: a self-portrait”, the sweat, the blackheads, the “drugstore concealer” (p. 9)— things that come with the terrain of late nights, narcissists, sleights of hand—are boldly addressed. Next, in the poem “Spit, sister”, the speaker aspires to “take meat from the bone” (p. 10), knowing this cleaving begins with a waking that is erect, inconvenient, virile. This waking is found with maps, divination, “Gemini logic” (p. 11) and has places of darkness within its unfolding. These poems are reminders that the “hollow magics” can bewitch, but can also leave one feeling dry in the mouth and ashamed the next morning. In the poem “Supermoon weekend”, the speaker asks: “what’s left to defy?” (p. 13), grappling with the wild and short path of defiance and the end-of-the-road crisis moments that come with this trajectory. Essentially, these poems hit bottom and then crack open, the chinks in the armour sprouting healing herbs in a closed system of awakening.
In The Truth is Told Better This Way, there is a process of letting go that needs to be experienced. There is a need to visit and re-visit the sick-sweet romance of oblivion, the grope up the skirt and the urge to “kneel, sticky floor, knees larval” (p. 22), to go “headfirst into ruin” (p. 22), before yielding or imagining how to “unfold” (p. 22). Perhaps it is only in this muck of self-destruction that one can come to acceptance. In the poem “Reach deep”, we are invited into an undisclosed location where we may reclaim, or at least pause. In the sea of forgetting, we are asked to invoke prayer. Once this invocation is uttered, a mystical, redemptive space opens in the text itself. The poems get much darker, but are also more actively punctuated by symbols and signs: dreams of scarabs, the rush of voice, the sting of citrus, the strength of charms. In each familiar brush with grit and sweat and piss, a compass is inserted, which points to somewhere else that can only be entered via the troubled narrative. In the poem “New math”, there is talk of other planes: “I wanted amulets for eyes” (p. 18). A different formulaic emerges, thrusting this collection in intuitive new directions: “Fail at math and make your own” (p. 18).
“There’s a hole where so many of my words have fallen into.” (p. 15)
I land in New York afraid. Lately I have run out of defiance. I have run out of the rope I gave myself to shoot fingers at my enemies, to participate in the dance of control that makes this world swing, drunk from a chandelier at my heavily-curated house party. The stars are dying. The dark is rising. These things come in cycles. I know the bathroom stalls, the shitty men loosened from ideas of home, the way a hangover smells sour and sweet like rot. I have called in my own healing, only to wonder after its devastating loneliness.
Thank you for calling me into prayer. I am merely a half-mystic. I still want to hold onto the most treasured of protections. They are the positions that nurture the ego—they are spooky, spookily familiar, familiars. They line orgasms, stoke thinness, whisper things my way. On an Instagram feed I shouldn’t have been looking at, I read the words “when you lose everything and just keep going” and thought yep, soon.
“I’ve been honest about my apathy / but can you say the same about your healing?” (p. 15). Worth’s poems ask me to consider such things while the car from the airport winds me through Manhattan. No. No, I can’t. There are really big holes in the healing bit. I am an addict: brilliant at stoking my ego, I look at letting go of this or that tomorrow, the magical day that never comes. I am a believer in the hollow magics when I am feeling uneasy about change. There is a girl with drugstore concealer and a variety of tics hiding just below the surface, protecting me from my own righteousness. And so, I am afraid. I wait for the tender green shoots that might guide me a little further. I am no longer shooting fingers at my enemies. I have run out of rope.
DUAL PLANT MEDICINES
Juniper is a dual plant. It has healing properties, such as preventing weakness and warding off evil. It retrieves lost objects, and is held in the hands of the sarcophagi and the hands of the Pharaohs so they may be nurtured in their soul forms. It is also the bathtub gin I once drank in a rooming house on Hastings Street, instead of going to my own reading. In the second section, Forest Tides, Worth ventures boldly into the polluted third eye, where there is necrosis, shooting galleries, where we cough with our mouths uncovered. But there is a turn: we also plait our hair, have tea. There are oak leaves knocking in reminders of stability and vitality. “It is not as late as it seems” (p. 34), and so, the magics combine and the alchemy of their mixture is the complexity of self-recovery. There are those who will “never see us happy” (p. 35), not because we won’t be, but because we cannot exist simultaneously between realms. We have to let go of some people who cannot imagine our rising. We hold our juniper in the rotting hands of the corpses of our old selves, and find as much ease as possible in our passing.
In the poem “Osso”, there comes a time where one must “be sober and inadequate / the strict regimen of solitude—a faltering ally” (p. 36) that can no longer “indulge in deterioration” (p. 36). The spirit can be released from the bones, but it is a tall order. It is slow work. It is work that culminates in the pain of lost children, in the places where real earmarks of pain replace shallow self-destruction. There is a gravitas to this brand of suffering and its urgency shifts everything, finds the cracks. There are small plants that reach towards new suns. They need our protection and awareness. Once there is a claiming, it is prudent to protect the tender shoots that are cast in other directions. As in the poem “Anise and fennel”, we gather our medicines—even if we balk a little. Our life depends on our own death of self, and so we quit fighting.
LET’S MOVE IN WITH THE WITCH OF POSITANO
In the last section, Unfolded Confessions, “something opens” (p. 61) and the language of Worth’s collection moves into itself. These poems are an eruption of self-acceptance. This is a no messing around defiance. It is a defiance that has stopped saying “fuck you, I am out of here,” and now says “fuck you, I am staying.” With this repositioning, a mature strength emerges, exerting a defiance that has grown up and found its voice.
In the poem “Transcendence”, the speaker says, “this is not a confession: it’s an eruption” (p. 63). The eruption—one of exorcisms, wishes set afire, white light births, new graves—is forceful and has a clear shot. The poems in this final section are surefooted and unwavering. They are the face tattoos on the witch of Positano, who sits at the bar with us, while we “grow a sallow fang / disguised as a miracle” (p. 68), where we face our demons in the mirror and “confess on the threshold of reconstruction” (p. 68). Here, in Worth’s poems, we stay. We “stay up all night and do spells” (p. 70), we channel, we bid “Medea, a warlock’s teat” (p. 70), we accept the tramp of a night that we just crawled from as part of us. We “lift her clothes, feel for sunlight or perfume or a way to keep her” (p. 71) and we ask that this is not the end.
WET COATS AND LIGHTNING BOLT TATTOOS
“What do you think of me? / The rain of the car windows / could answer for both of us” (p. 47).
I have spent a lot of time with regret. I have spent a lot of time in the romance of oblivion. I have also spent a long time thawing out and now I am spending a long time accepting and processing. I think of all this as I walk in the rain from the Lower East Side. I am in a forest-green wool coat, soaked. I talk myself into moving forward, even though I feel completely upended. Ugh. At every revolution of this process, it is always the same: when the breadcrumbs emerge, I say alas! there will be some relief—but then more lessons follow. The letdown is real. I, too, have “done too much” (p. 47) and the climb back from this breach seems as though it will last forever. “My solitude is seen as stamina” (p. 47) far too often, and I allow this misperception to exist—even with myself, the one person I can’t afford to lie to. The truth is that I am tired again. I need the rain this evening. It is cutting through my own bullshit. I re-re-re-rally and emerge soaked, but with intention. There is nothing worth hanging onto anyhow, not even the dulcet tones of long-held grief. I commit to a deep rest in the coming hours.
New York is strange this time, lined with loss and paintings. After my rain-soaked walk, I run into a woman in my favourite thrift shop who has purple-tipped hair and a sun drawn in black eyeliner around her left eye. She gives me her card, which says: Angelique—Tarot Reader. She insists I buy the earrings of moons and suns that I am wearing around the shop, seeing if my ears will erupt in itch. It was as if the Witch of Positano from Worth’s poems was standing with me, giving her punk rock blessings, proving there can be passage. Live big, she says, nobody will do it for you. Let the marks remain, the “mares of moon signs,” the “stampedes of seawater” (p. 68). Let time emphatically shape you. Live in the hotel of dreams and be sullied, be bohemian. Be a laughing stock. Go down the dark paths in order to see the signs as they pop like stars being egged on by death metal. What else is there, for us, the ladies in bars, the ladies ‘who understand,’ other than to fall right off the ledge of this into the exploding stars below? Let us champion the things mentioned in the poem “Saturn changing signs”: the “hem of a long white dress dim / from what she dragged it through” (p. 57), rings piled on fingers, glass beads. Let us get with who we are and roll with it. Let the lady tattoo a lightning bolt on the inside of your knee, so that you do not forget. Run with it. Run with the horses, die knowing that you bloody well did. I leave the thrift store with moons and suns in the palm of my hand and my ancient evil eye pinned to the inside of my collar.
Published online August 15 2019.
Melanie Janisse-Barlow is a poet and artist. Her first collection of poetry, Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica, 2009), was listed for the ReLit Award. Thicket, her newest collection is forthcoming with Palimpsest Press in 2019. Janisse-Barlow is known for her personal essays, including Detroit (Bayou, 2013), listed in Best American essays for that year. Recent essays appear on Joyland Midwest and MOMUS. The Poets Series Project—Janisse-Barlow's portraiture project of living poets—was featured in Taddle Creek Magazine (January 2017) and Poets and Writers (December 2017).