The Patient Admits by Avery M. Guess
dancing girl press, 2017
poetry chapbook, $7.00
There are numerous and subtle definitions for the word admit, and Avery Guess uses several to take the reader on a harrowing and honest journey through abuse and recovery in her chapbook The Patient Admits (dancing girl press). Guess uses variations in form, language, and style to engage the reader as both witness and confidante.
The first definition of admit – “to confess to be true, typically with reluctance; to confess to a fault or one’s responsibility for it” -is threaded throughout the book, but becomes embedded in the form of both the title poem and “The Patient’s Aversion to Bananas Begins.” In the title poem, we hear the speaker’s narrative of waiting for the father to enter the bedroom, the tension building with the lines “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. / so, one time, just once, you seek it out”
and then the phrase “(just once, just once, I swear, just once)” repeating at the end of the poem. The speaker here, as many victims do, takes blame for something over which they have no control. Since this is the third poem in the chapbook, it very clearly sets the stage for the voice of the collection and the exhausting emotional work being done by the speaker in the rest of the poems. In “The Patient’s Aversion to Bananas Begins,” descriptions of a family therapy session are interspersed with italicized facts that seem harmless but carry an increasing sense of dread:
The average height of a father is seventy inches. / I sat in the same awkward triangle with my mother / the week before. No, I wasn’t ready to do this again. // The average height of a toddler is thirty-six inches. // I stared at a spot on the ceiling, an old water stain / or trick of light, I’m not sure. That day, I swear I saw / a face, a Rorschach portrait waiting to be unlocked. // The average length of a banana is six inches.
The poem continues with the result of the therapy session, but the tension built by those facts early on clearly establishes a slow release of information that mirrors reluctance. The patient doesn’t want to “admit,” and the poem doesn’t want to, either, but the build-up makes the blunt conclusion of the poem all the more powerful.
Another definition of admit – “to receive a patient into a hospital for treatment” – is skillfully handled in two very different forms in the poems “The Patient” and “The Patient’s Complaint.” In “The Patient,” Guess boldly culls phrases from psychiatric admission notes to create a truncated and haunting found poem with line jumps such as: was adopted/was raised/does recall significant conflict/recalls school/reports abuse/did not enjoy/left home. This fragmented list mimics a conflicted and confused mindset while playing with the constructs of a what a reader expects of a sentence. In “The Patient’s Complaint,” Guess takes the manipulation of language to another level, using repeated and rearranged words and phrases to great effect. Here complaint becomes non-compliant (“But I swear, I’m only moving two letters around”) becomes Ain’t (“I’m sounding ignorant. But I’m not”). The non-compliance comes to a climax with another unnamed patient while the speaker ponders a newly-learned truth – “Each state a different hospital. Each hospital the same state. The same staff. The same game. You want to leave? Don’t complain.”
A third definition – “to allow for the possibility of” – is here, too. The possibility of healing. The possibility of another way to live. The possibility of hope. In the penultimate poem “The Patient Decides She Wants to Live,” we start with uncertainty – “But no one explains what to expect. How to court life. She’s spent too / many years chasing death” and end with not some fairy-tale platitude, but with the realism of “She thinks/living will be like hugging barbed wire. First the steel bite and / surge of / blood. Then the scab.”
To write about something terrible in a beautiful way is a unique gift. This chapbook holds moments of pain and beauty, sometimes in the same line. As a reader, hold it and experience both.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recently The Girl (Porkbelly Press).