Wound from the Mouth of a WoundPoetry
Reviewed By Jordan Osborne
- Milkweed Editions (2020)
- 88 pages
In the opening poem of Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, we find this line: “Instead begin with the body—itself a kind of ending.” The more I think about this stunning collection, the more this line becomes a map of sorts—or a guiding specter. Of course, there is also Medusa, who features in this first poem and whose likeness graces the cover. Through this story of disobedient femininity, of a body turned against itself, of beginning with an ending, we are able to peer into the layered complexities that follow. torrin a. greathouse writes about being a trans woman and genderqueer, being disabled, and the violence that ghosts through these states of being, of body. These poems are both physical and spiritual—always touchable, tasteable, and ephemeral. They live in hospitals and in memories and are themselves ghosts, in a way.
I can think of no better poem to show what I mean than “Ekphrasis on My Rapist’s Wedding Dress.” To gush about this poem for a moment, I keep returning to it again and again; every time it moves me to tears. There’s something so soft and vulnerable about it, but also angry, upset and upsetting. Details of the assault in question are shared, and we are asked as readers to linger with the speaker in their hurt. The opening is so tenderly wrought and the ending a so honestly crafted thing. It all works together in a way that I can only call perfect. Consider these lines:
Still as a scar through the screen’s glow, perhaps, this is the origin
of my obsession with the color white. Searching to name this shade.
Color like bitten bedsheets, color like a failed dove, or split lip
when red as ceased howling its way to the surface.
We are given violence and suffering cradled in the softened, blurry distance of the speaker seeing their rapist in her wedding dress through a screen. Their body is evoked through the image of a split lip before we get to the details that follow, and in the evocation of “shade,” we aren’t allowed to forget that trauma haunts us for the entirety of our lives that follow—our after-lives marked by violence are now entirely different than all that came before. The color white becomes a stand-in for the trauma they lived through and live with. The pain doesn’t fully sink in until we are given the line, “For any metaphor I can put to it, the dress / is still beautiful.” It hurts so much because beautiful things like white dresses and horrible, ugly things like rapists shouldn’t exist in the same space. It’s an affront to our individual and collective ideas of justice—not to mention that goodness and beauty have been linked in our cultural consciousness for longer than any of us living can remember. The speaker is righteously angry; their rapist shouldn’t get to be happy in a beautiful dress. But she is. So where is there to go from such a shaking reality? There are as many answers to this question as there are victims of this kind of violence, but the speaker here turns in. They think about their own writing, saying, “& isn’t this just like my poems? / Dressing a violence in something pretty & telling it to dance?” (and this is what I mean by the ending being honestly a crafted thing). This motion speaks to what is left for victims of sexual violence with a justice system that so wildly fails them, fails us: we have the hurt, the violence and the memory of it, and we have ourselves. What’s left is to try to make something different—hopefully beautiful and good, but if not, better—from it. I think this is why this poem moves me so profoundly.
The conversation about beauty and ugliness is also woven into our societal discussions about womanhood and femininity, something greathouse also examines throughout these pages. Trans women are often included or excluded from womanhood based on whether or not they “pass,” and great lengths are taken in our cis-centric society to exclude trans and gender nonconforming women from being valued (this is true of the white supremacist patriarchy at large and white feminism, which only focuses on the experiences of thin, able-bodied, white, cisgender women). Being trans or nonbinary is inherently disobedient in a society entrenched in the gender binary, and so these poems that deal so deeply with the speaker’s experience expressing their identity are disobedient as well. In “An Ugly Poem,” this reality is laid bare for readers—especially those who, like me, don’t have to deal with being misgendered. greathouse offers us lines like, “I just wanted to talk pretty enough to be mistaken / for what I was” and “Sometimes, a strange man calls me BITCH when I will / not shift for the ‘big-dick’ of his stride & this is a conjuring, / a spell, a blessing. Sometimes, this is the most woman I feel / all day.” That they feel the most feminine when a man is swearing at them, handing them the ultimate curse levied on women like a closed fist, speaks to the violence of the gender binary in a multifaceted way. Their disobedience—both by not stepping aside and by being a trans woman—leads to a negative affirmation of their gender.
The final section of the book explores the violence trans women face in more depth, including a poem about the speaker’s brother still misgendering them and another that includes the lines, “The body of a girl lies on the asphalt like only the body / of a girl, & still someone will name her a man.” This all speaks not only to the fear of violence—of being killed for being trans—but also of losing one’s identity to a world committed to denying trans people their genders. I keep thinking about the ending lines of the prose poem “Litany of Ordinary Violences,” “Today, I slide the dead bolt shut behind me—exhale a breath I don’t remember holding. Tomorrow, who knows? Forgive me. I cannot find the poem in all this, but I can’t bear to let it go unspoken. I want to make this violence a stranger in my mouth. I want to make it something worth remembering.” Throughout this collection, greathouse displays incredible range and depth of skill; they are able, as a poet, to both dwell in the realm of image, sound, and metaphor and address the matter at hand directly. It’s incredibly apt, since experiencing violence of all sorts is something that’s somehow both a difficult experience to describe and one that we must address head-on. greathouse has found a way to hold both in the same space. In addressing violence this way, she does exactly what she tells us she’s trying to do: not let the violence go unspoken, unnoticed.
It would, of course, be a mistake not to also address the ways in which disability factors into how the speaker of these poems navigates the world and understands their relationship to their own body. In “On Examination/Dereliction,” greathouse writes, “I am always first the crookedness of my body. Before nail polish—calloused palm. Backless dress—a window to the choking of trees.” These lines deepen the conversation throughout this collection of the triangulation between ugliness, beauty, and value. Since beauty is associated with being able-bodied, then ability is also conflated with goodness and value as a person. Examining the experience of being disabled is also an exploration of the violence that the cult of beauty and femininity enacts. greathouse conveys the frustration of being disabled in a world made by and for the able-bodied beautifully in “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination Before a Diagnosis Can Be Determined” with the line: “I just want to be a question this body can answer.” The body is the focal point for the oppression faced in our society: what it can do, what it looks like, whether or not it follows certain rules. It’s easy to be angered by our bodies when they limit us—when we are in pain but don’t know the cause and doctors aren’t being much help (as they often aren’t to gender nonconforming people and BIPOC). Navigating in the trenches of our healthcare system is exhausting, and this poems dwells in that space:
My new doctor writes one referral, then another, still
no guesses. A man in a scowl & a lab coat
offers yoga, more painkillers.
The frustration is tangible, and when we are given the line “The body is a fickle / language” in “Still Life with Bed Sores,” we know from the experiences of the speaker with their own body that this is true, even if we aren’t currently living with the daily vexation of that fickleness. We see the lack of care they are treated with in the scowling, lab coat-wearing man and in the way their new doctor keeps writing referral after referral, shuffling them from one specialist to the next, making the “problem” of the speaker’s body someone else’s to solve, but never really offering any solutions to the chronic conditions of their disability.
Wound from the Mouth of a Wound is a collection about body and being, identity and the scope of the world’s violence on individual bodies—the ways in which identity and being are denied again and again to those whose bodies and identities don’t conform to social constructions or expectations. Though there are no monoliths of being—no entirely shared experiences or viewpoints or stories—this one immensely sincere voice both offers the small comfort of being seen to those who do find themselves in these pages while asking readers whose privilege makes these experiences unknown to consider more carefully the violence they inflict—because other people have to live with its aftermath. This book is so, so important. And aside from all of this, it is beautiful, even when it shows us something ugly. Regardless of who you are: read it, live with it, and then read it again.
Jordan Osborne is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University, where she works as an associate editor with the Colorado Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Canary and Rogue Agent.