Joseph by Dena Rash Guzman is not a comfortable book. I found myself gritting my teeth as I was reading. My jaw became tense and when I became aware of that, I forced myself to consciously relax it while I continued to read. It didn’t work.
Some poems, like “This is a Circus of Rats & Masses, joseph,” made me stop breathing for a few seconds. The speaker of this poem is on a roll, and as she gets going, the poem spins out into this beautifully glittery anger, and then: “I do not want to be good today. / I want to hunt rats with machetes / and hate religion and faith / and hate good intentions.” Damn. It’s an echo and subversion of Mary Oliver’s popular poem “Wild Geese”: “You do not have to be good.” But Oliver’s advice to let “the soft animal of your body / love what it loves” is still being awfully good, isn’t it?
One thing I’ve noticed about the poetry that’s become popular on social media is it’s often uplifting. It feels like you’re meant to leave the poems feeling healed and more certain. There is value in that for many readers. But it’s not why I read poetry. I like books that are more question than answer. I read poetry to understand myself better and feel more alive. Joseph is a book that does that for me.
The title of each poem in Joseph includes the italicized name joseph. It’s used as a stand-in for patriarchy, but also, men are not the point of this book. The speaker is dynamic, shape-shifting and strong, showing herself from every angle. The soundtrack to this book could be “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks: “I’m your hell / I’m your dream / I’m nothing in between / You know you wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Rash Guzman wields humor like a knife. Her titles are their own poems, too: “Oh gosh! I’m fresh out of fuckbacon, joseph.” “Fuck it, I’m going for a manicure, joseph.” “I like bee snuff videos, joseph.” “I am in an extravagant bathtub like Roosevelt’s on the USS IOWA, joseph.” The italicization made me sometimes read the name joseph the way the dumped teenage boy’s parents say the name Laura in the Kids in the Hall sketch “Break Up.” In the sketch, the teenage boy yells whenever his parents say Laura and then says, “I gotta get away! / Get away from her name.”
The speaker in Joseph sometimes wants to get away from his name, too, but sometimes she also wants him. She is brutal, telling him “you are the reason David Bowie is dead.” She says, “You are cruel, but you pay the fine so tenderly.” She is simultaneously tender, hungry, and mad.
When I finish a poetry book, I think about which poems I remember best, and which images stay stuck in my head. In Joseph, it’s “I wrote an open letter to the baby deer I nearly hit tonight, joseph.” One of the interesting parts of being a reader, and scary parts about being a writer, is that readers apply their own experiences and memories to what they read. Each reader will picture a different scene, no matter how detailed the writing. (This is also why it can be strange to re-read a favorite book after seeing the movie version. It’s hard to summon back your original image when you know the actors’ faces.) In this poem, I pictured all the times I’ve driven on dark country roads in Wisconsin, slowly, watching for movement. Even in a poem ostensibly about deer, Rash Guzman is also writing about motherhood and fear of death, tying it to the rest of the collection. She writes: “Your mother came after you, rearing / as I might have.” Then suggesting the fawn’s mother “might be a single mom.”
It’s a cohesive collection. The poems talk to each other. The repetition of joseph in the title is a strong mechanism to tie the book together, and when the repetition became mundane for me, I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s exactly the point. Patriarchy is mundane. Women’s pain is commonplace. Joseph is a battlecry.
Abigail Welhouse is the author of Bad Baby (dancing girl press), Too Many Humans of New York (Bottlecap Press), and Memento Mori (a poem/comic collaboration with Evan Johnston). Her poems have been published in The Toast, Yes Poetry, Ghost Ocean Magazine, and elsewhere. Subscribe to her Secret Poems at tinyletter.com/welhouse.