Let me begin by playing a round of Two Truths and a Lie… We all know how this works, right? The speaker shares two truths about themselves, and a lie, but the lie must not be easily distinguished from the two truths, and the other players are supposed to guess which statement is a lie. So, here it goes. As a reader, I most often seek and yearn for poetry that is self-aware, but does not apologize. I want poetry that, to utilize a cliché, is honest to a fault. And I want poetry that physically makes me hurt: makes me cringe, makes me pause, makes me close the book for a hot second, makes my (again, cliché) chest hurt—we’ve all read those poems, right? But now here’s the trick: these are all true. Again, they are all true. This combination of elements in one poem, or one cumulative collection, is one I yearn for as a reader, and as a poet, but which I do not often see done, or done well. Tracey Knapp, in her debut collection, Mouth, performs these tasks beautifully. These poems are capable of being self-aware but unapologetic and far from self-important; they are honest, and overly, brutally honest at that; and they pull me out of my corner and face me with my own concerns, with my own hurts. And these poems are capable of doing this again and again, no matter how many times I’ve read them.
Undeniably what lures me so steeply into this poetry is Knapp’s unapologetic self-awareness and bluntness. Her persona is extremely realistic, logical, and unlike so many personas that point out their own faults or shortcomings, unapologetic. To use one of her poems, “Old Loaf,” as an example, we see the valuing of material possessions, and food, over what society might deem as more “moral” priorities—as well as no apology for this shift in values.
The bread crumbled
all over my floor, a crunchy sea
of stale. Sometimes I worry that this
is all there is. Won’t you come over,
bring some soft rolls to calm my nerves,
some garlic oil? We can eat together tonight.
Godless, yes—but I have wine and cable.
Whether or not this persona actually views the characteristic of being “Godless” as a shortcoming is not explored and does not need to be. Instead of an interpretation, we are offered cable and wine, a comfort many of us Netflix-binging, wine-drinking, carb-inhaling readers understand (I know I do). And this sort of offering reoccurs throughout the collection, whether it be food or wine or cable or sex, in exchange for some other shortcoming—Godlessness or heartbreak or anything else—and these reoccurrences become a constant that is as familiar and welcoming as the persona. This persona, in fact, becomes so frank and familiar throughout the collection that readers may feel as if they know her, and some (me) could see a blooming friendship if such a character were to be physically realized.
This kinship, too, is established in this persona’s, or Knapp’s honesty. Delving into the places that we all feel but often delete or avoid in our poetry, such as relationships and physical intimacy and abuse, we are then given even more relatable ground to stand on with Knapp’s persona, thinking I’ve been there, too, or I never knew anyone else felt that way. These relatable, and even surprising, moments strengthen that relationship between the reader and the persona, and this relationship creates a certainty that we will continue to come back to this book as a safe haven, and even a comfort.
But don’t let this book’s abilities as a thing of comfort fool you: large sections of this collection are painful, too. That is the gray area of Knapp’s ability, where her wit and humor as the self-aware, unapologetic persona meets the blunt edges and observations of a self-destructive, fatalist persona. This collection is wildly funny in its bluntness and self-awareness, but some of its observations and declarations descend into the fatalist, following the more self-destructive tasks of the narrator, or even the acceptance of materialistic gains when the more important gains cannot be had. Knapp’s poem, “Everyone is Smiling,” is a nice examination of this relationship between the two sides of the persona:
Everyone Is Smiling
There is no good reason.
The sun shrugs from behind
the fog. But everyone
is smiling! I look down
at the sidewalk. Still,
the faces of strangers
cannot be avoided,
their cute mouths curved upwards
and their arms swinging
like happy ropes. I groan
at the sky. I walk by the balloon shop,
past the pack of nannies
pushing carriages bubbling
over with babies. Hoping the mood
might come over me, I go to
the pet store, hold a puppy.
I have two beers at the Squat
‘n Gobble. I have the pie—delicious—
but it doesn’t fix the day. I have
no idea why everyone is smiling.
There must be something
in the water. Something in my hair.
On my face. Frantic for a mirror,
I crash into the waiter on my way
to the bathroom. He spills two sodas
and a plate of chicken wings.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry,
barbecue sauce on my knees.
And what does he do but laugh?
Why is this mess funny?
He tells me it’s all you can do
in these moments, but now someone
has to wait on their wings. I scan
the room for an agitated face, but
nothing. Everyone is smiling
into their coffee, out the window,
smiling at their newspapers and at
their friends. It’s like at this minute,
everyone is filled with joy
or the world’s best chicken.
It leaves us in a state of inexplicable
bliss, every mouth softening into sweetness:
we are good, we are happy,
we have wings.
This poem, while funny in its pursuit of the mundane and the repetition of “Everyone is smiling,” edges into that place of hopelessness, reminds us of those days when we feel like we are the only unhappy person on earth, and joins those feelings of potential happiness with small, fleeting things: having a basket of wings, holding a puppy we have not adopted and will have to leave, straightening our hair. These things, these acts, are fleeting and do not give us immeasurable, unending happiness; they, too, will lead us back to that place of hopelessness or of being less than fulfilled. I think that’s what’s so surprising about this poem, and so many of Knapp’s poems, is that inability to attain the thing, the relationship, the something that relatively ensures ongoing happiness; instead, we are always presented with the fleeting wine bottle or cable box or basket of chicken tenders that can and will be depleted—which is a true reoccurrence for so many of us.
I think perhaps what I love so much about Knapp’s poetry is her ability to expose reality for what it is: we want to eat carbs, we have wings, we see things we don’t want to see and do things we don’t want to do. Our hearts get broken. We break other hearts. And we survive—most of us, anyway—and most of these things inevitably happen more than once, and we are left to survive them again. But perhaps there’s hope in Knapp’s poetry, too: that want for companionship, the humor, the occasional frozen moment of happiness or beauty. Why observe these things, expose them, make light of the harder situations, if we didn’t have hope? I think that is the final edge of Tracey Knapp’s poetry—the ability to hope—which gives us not only a familiar and frank persona, but a comforting, and endearing one. Here are my final truths: This book will be one that I will turn back to for a long while—for humor, for beauty, for comfort—and I think that after you have initially enjoyed this collection, you will find that comfort here, too. Give this one a read, have some wine and turn the cable and lights down low… You won’t be sorry.