Acts of Contrition by Gwendolyn Cash

Acts of Contrition is the first short book in the first volume of the Lost Horse Press New Poets Series. “Today I’m going to lie about everything” begins Cash in the opening prose poem, “Lies.” The poem, like the whole collection, is actually stark and startling for its honesty, taking up Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” For example, under the guise of enumerating lies, the speaker tells us:

I’m going to lie about how many times I let a man break my heart, how many times I looked in his eyes hoping for a piece of myself, and finding nothing, crawled into the animal warmth of his body, gambling against the time when there was nothing left to take or give. I’m going to lie about every time I went back and begged him to break me again.

This gritty truth-telling reaches its apex in the title poem, a ten-part long poem sequence where a daughter who feels herself inadequate addresses her abusive mother. The raw imagery, bold address, and dreamlike progression are reminiscent of Galway Kinnell’s early masterwork, The Book of Nightmares.

“In the Mirror” continues the theme of ipsisexual family relations, this time addressing the speaker’s “loose” grandmother, relishing the power of social transgression in becoming a “bad girl, tart, tawdry woman,” wearing:

red lipstick waiting to rub off
on a collar, a mouth. Grandmother,
I want to buy you a drink tonight,
gin and tonic with two limes.
I will lick my lips, touch his thigh,
and eat cake off someone’s fork.

In the end, it is always the story beneath the story, the glittering terrible pieces of a seemingly ordinary life, that Cash studies and renders. In perhaps my favorite poem of the series, “Bully,” the speaker guides us deftly in second person from recalling the physical pain of bullying through moments of recognizing the bully on the post office wall, in the news at an arrest, arriving finally to teach a writing class in a prison to find him there.

In a symbolic act–is it empathy? fascination? revenge? or some mix?–“you’ll hand him a sheet of paper / and a sharpened pencil, your throat / so dry it hurts, saying, / Tell me your story, / Tell it like it is.” In twenty-two pages of tight-gripping poetry, Gwendolyn Cash does just that–she tells it like it is.

Acts of Contrition is available in New Poets | Short Books Volume I from Lost Horse Press. Read more reviews from the Lost Horse Press New Poets series.