Wound from the Mouth of a Wound (torrin a. greathouse)

Reviewed by Clark A. Pomerleau

Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, torrin a. greathouse’s debut poetry book, brings us well-crafted intimate, intersectional truth. Although readers cannot assume poetry is autobiographical, greathouse (she/they)1 has explained in interviews that her poems reflect their quarter century of life experience. The book began during therapy and rehab and became a volume that decries the insistence that poetry must describe beauty. Societal norms pressures women to be beautiful, trans women to fit into a narrow space between too feminine and not feminine enough, and disabled people to hide differences society abhors. As a self-described transgender cripple-punk, greathouse masterfully explores the question how “to not write towards beauty as a trans woman but to write towards ugliness?”2 A key to their process comes from how others find her body illegible “through its fractures and dissonances.” In response, greathouse fractures traditional forms like the haibun or sonnet, “demanding that an assumed cisgender, heterosexual, abled, will have to engage in deconstructing their preconceived notions of poetic craft to enter these poems.”3

Powerful poems bookend the volume’s strong five parts. The first greathouse names for Luciano Garbati’s 2008 statue, “Medusa with the Head of Perseus,” reflecting her connection to the #MeToo movement against rape and sexual harassment. The statue depicts a thin, hairless, European-featured Medusa with muscular definition holding Perseus’s severed head by the hair in her right hand and a scimitar in her left. In 2020, New York City’s “Art in the Parks” program installed a bronze version across from the criminal court where Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape.4 greathouse’s book cover art—by Cael Lyons—centers the sleek, white statue image on a black background. Lyons added prominent fractures down the face, neck, torso, arms and legs. These gashes reveal purple geodes while wisteria vines hold the fractures together, winding around the torso, arms, and legs with hanging lavender flowers. The formerly white snake hair is gold and extended with the title, Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, around its halo effect.

The cover’s visual impact works with greathouse’s poem, which surpasses ekphrasis to explore unwillingness “to speak about the beginning / of this story.” It introduces the volume’s central figures, foremost the body: “Instead begin with the body—itself a kind / of ending. A new mythology,….” Readers glimpse themes the book unpacks: family trauma, disability, gender authenticity, and fears of repeating parents’ dysfunction. The parents replay the myth of an imagined god who felt entitled to a beauty. The “I” questions whether her resulting birth is a “bloodcurse,” whether curse explains their body, what it means that “I am wearing my mother’s / face,”:

Am I the serpent-headed girl? Or her endless
reflection? Or the winged mare burst
forth from her blood? Child of slaughter.
Wound from the mouth of a wound.

This opening establishes what become extended metaphors with recurring images from classical mythology, references to mother and father, mouths with teeth or tongues, wounds and painful physical disability, and blood as violence or the potential to inherit family behaviors like alcoholism and bipolar. Family trauma and coping through alcohol intersect with gender, physical disability, and emotional variance in the poems.

These experience-based poems heed Hélène Cixous’s 1975 call in “The Laugh of the Medusa” to represent the “infinite richness of [women’s] individual constitutions.” “Woman must write her self” as part of “her inevitable struggle against conventional man….”5 Cixous was part of an outpouring of feminist writing and helped initiate reimaging Medusa to focus on her status as an empowered rape survivor. Like Cixous, greathouse uses the body as a way to communicate beyond limitations of patriarchal language—to critique transphobia, ableism, sexual violence. These poems develop strong narratives that lyrically write the body as resilient.

The prose poem, “Phlebotomy, as Told by the Blood” deftly associates myth with how physical abuse and alcoholism bridge generations. “Burning Haibun” distills a paragraph through blackout technique into a second and third poem. greathouse makes the final haiku three times as potent as it reads against the first two incarnations about anger fueled by alcohol that flares into physical and emotional violence. “Heirloom,” a reworking of an earlier published poem called “Inheritance,”6 explores how emotional variance can appear through generations. greathouse juxtaposes a mother who buys plates “marketed as unbreakable” with three-generations of breaking cups. “I’m misdiagnosed—bipolar this time” makes sense in the context of the ending:

nothing left to inherit. My grandmother breaks a wineglass every visit.
Drinks herself to splinter. My mother & I both know the slow ballet

A glass shard makes beneath the skin.

Poems also take the medical establishment to task in relation to transition and the chronic pain of a spinal irregularity. “On Examination/Dereliction” depicts a misgendering nurse and the first of many mistaken doctors. “I am always first the crookedness of my body.” The protagonist imagines:

…my fingernails bloom into wisteria. Memory of how slowly, gently, a flower choked my childhood home. How removal could leave the building unable to stand. She prescribes Estradiol, Spironolactone, offers something for the pain. The way my mother whitewashed the porch. How she knew the structure was beyond repair & still insisted on a graceful collapsing.

Excellent poems critique infuriating models of disability, describe chronic pain in an ableist world, and feature being a trans woman amid homophobia and transphobic violence. The final poem explains how poetry can intervene against societal oppression. greathouse combines the “ars poetica” tradition of maxims for poets with the first line from a poem by Kimiko Hahn about associations. For Hahn, the word sparrow suggests the word sorrow, which suggests sorry. For greathouse,

where I cannot say reflect & not suggest
a bending back. Where back does not suggest

the fractured glass of me. I am told to
sever, with a pencil’s blade, the word body.

What a fitting end to the volume. After depicting similar ways that authorities medicalize trauma, disability, and trans, the protagonist rejects society’s oppressive teaching to come to terms with the reality of the body society has told them to cut away and writes as the final words:

… a body—mine.

& at least a poem that can’t be read without
it; crippled, trans, woman, & still alive.7

Notes:

  1. I follow torrin a. greathouse’ alternating between she and they pronouns.
  2. Poetry Escapes the Beauty Bind in ‘Wound From The Mouth Of A Wound’,” Morning Edition, NPR (December 28, 2020): https://www.npr.org/2020/12/28/946850500/poetry-escapes-the-beauty-bind-in-wound-from-the-mouth-of-a-wound.
  3. Bailey Hutchinson, “5 Reasons to Teach This Book: Wound from the Mouth of a Wound,” Milkweed (December 8, 2020), https://milkweed.org/blog/5-reasons-to-teach-this-book-wound-from-the-mouth-of-a-wound.
  4. Valentina Di Liscia, “In New York City, a Public Statue Reimagines the Myth of Medusa,” Hyperallergic (October 12, 2020): https://hyperallergic.com/594050/medusa-sculpture-new-york-county-criminal-court/.
  5. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Paula and Keith Cohen, trans., Signs 1.4 (Summer, 1976): 875–893, here 876, 875. In a noteworthy move against biological determinism, Cixous cited two women and a gay man as the twentieth-century authors already achieving her goal of “women’s writing.”
  6. Christian Arthur, “Lineages of Addiction: Interview with torrin a. greathouse, a Trans Poet in Recovery,” The Fix (June 7, 2018: https://www.thefix.com/lineages-addiction-interview-torrin-greathouse-trans-poet-recovery; torrin a. greathouse, “Inheritance,” The Penn Review 68.1 (2017): https://www.pennreview.org/inheritance.
  7.  Kimiko Hahn, The Narrow Road to the Interior: Poems (W.W. Norton and Co, 2006).

Title: Wound from the Mouth of a Wound
Author: torrin a. greathouse
Prize: Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Date: 2020

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About the Reviewer:

Clark A. Pomerleau creates poetry as an invitation to record, reflect, and regenerate. His work features memory, place, nature, queer aesthetic, and transformative agency. A writer and teacher from Washington State, his first chapbook, Better Living through Cats (2021), is out with Finishing Line Press. Other poetry appears in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, Peculiar: a queer literary journal, Poached Hare, Coffin Bell Journal, and the poetry anthology, Welcome to the Resistance. Pomerleau’s scholarly essays and book (Califia Women, 2013) historicize feminist diversity education, feminist views on sexuality, and trans-inclusive praxis.

Read Clark A. Pomerleau’s poetry and a review of his poetry chapbook, Better Living Through Cats, in this issue of Wordgathering.