“We have all perhaps read folktales about ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told. There is wisdom in this,” poet Veronica Golos once wrote (Muuss ii). But when your story is unspeakable, how are you to tell it? Terri Muuss shows us how to in her poetic memoir, Over Exposed. In a collection of both prose and poetry, Muuss explores specific moments in her life, reliving the raw pain of trauma and filling in the gaps of her memory. Each poem is a vivid and jarring snapshot enlaced with rich sensory details. These details along with the variation of form map the long road through the black mud-waters of trauma, mental illness, and addiction; while encompassing in its language the vulnerability of childhood and in its form, the growth and progression of Muuss’s recovery and reclamation of her life.
The organization of this collection mimics the seemingly impossible process of trying to find the words for what is unspeakable. It is divided into four sections: Shutter, Focus, Click, and Develop—all corresponding steps in the development of film. All of these sections include some combination of poetry and prose—a combination that functions in guiding the reader into Muuss’s experiences at varying levels of depth.
The long, descriptive sentences in Muuss’s prose pieces allow for more in-depth exploration of certain memories in a stream-of-consciousness manner. The prose creates a sense of movement and urgency, of something that continues to nip at the neck of the speaker’s memory. This movement reflects the internal stream of panicked thought during moments of intense fear, such as in the piece titled “Neighbor.” It moves from conversational-like thought, “I open the door to this old man from/next door who brought gifts and would kiss/my round, eight/year-old face with a slight turn of his head and his/hand firmly behind my head” to more alarming and irrational thoughts: “I think it must be bleeding or on fire. I must/spit. I must run. I need to brush my teeth” (52).
Muuss’s poems, on the other hand, are distinguished by their form which allows for a feeling of containment or confinement that parallels Muuss’s struggles coping with traumatic childhood events. Line breaks are used effectively, as in these lines from “Between the Dark and the Daylight”: “the wind hangs/it on the telephone/pole. from there/the balloon dots/the pink underbelly/of sunset and/streetlights/coming on” (28). These breaks highlight the contrast of ‘pretty’ and darker imagery—how ‘hangs’ is cut off from ‘it on a telephone,’ the same way the pink sunset is cut off from the oncoming streetlights. In later lines, Muuss makes her father a physical object that interrupts and frightens: “We fumble/over father’s yell—/hide behind/the lilac bush/near the tarred/logs of our/neighbor’s fence” (28). Here, the lilac is placed in stark contrast to the tarred logs of wood next door.
Muuss establishes a theme of innocence and a tone of vulnerability that stretches through the entirety of the collection. This is accomplished largely through the language. For example, Muuss chooses to use “daddy” rather than “dad,” for its connotative meaning and to create an unnerving feeling: “My daddy loves me so much. He pulls me into his arms. My daddy is so strong. Pulls me into his arms/ tighter, tighter and I just dis diss disappear. I/ disappear” (11). In “The Date,” the established tone of vulnerability is heavily felt. After a stream of anger towards her stepmother getting all of her dad’s attention, the piece ends with these chilling lines:
“My stepmother thinks she knows so/much. The bun tied tightly
up, her no-makeup face/ the lingering scent of Emeraulde, the
perfume that/Daddy picked out just for her. But, youth is on my/side.
Her eyes show crow’s feet, and the lines around her mouth are
beginning to sink down. And me, I’m 13 today” (16).
The sense of vulnerability and naivety expressed through Muuss’s language provides a heightened understanding of her experiences and encapsulates the small and fragile mind of her younger self.
The poems in Over Exposed have a precision of detail and use of color that loudly echoes the ache of trauma and its persistent throbbing presence. Muuss remembers her brother’s t-shirt as having “yellowish sweat stains under the right armpit and a spaghetti sauce stain below and to the side of the faded iron-on, brown but nearly perfectly circular” (29). In “Stewart’s Root Beer Stand” Muuss recounts the “five red circles” on her thigh where “his fingers dug into my white flesh” (58). In “Pieces,” she describes the memories she cannot locate of her father and his secrets as one would describe a piece of old, frayed fabric: “just when I think I can touch the hem/it unravels in my hand/the coarse feel of a cheap bedspread, small cracks/running in parallel lines along the beige ceiling, steam/rising out of heating vents, a crushing weight on top of my small frame” (51).
All of the prose pieces and poems in Terri Muuss’s poetic memoir, Over Exposed, have one thing in common: in writing them, she gave words to the experiences that freeze the heart and mouth shut. In writing them, she found the way to speak of her trauma and cease the reverberation of her painful past. The balanced and dreamlike language found on the pages of Muuss’s writing unveils spine-curling descriptions and images—ones that showcase the innocence of a childhood uprooted by the unforgiving fingers of trauma.
Reading this book of poetry feels a lot like watching someone you love cut their palm on a shard of glass—watching the sharp edges plummet beneath tender flesh and release mountains of blood and plump, raw organs of childhood. It feels impossible to see beyond this red—but I felt as though I watched this person replant themselves in rich soil. I saw this person emerge from the rubble of trauma and mental illness. I watched them walk up to the fixed mirror and see a full image— a reflection of the self that Terri Muuss lost to trauma and recovered later through her writing.
Reviewed by: Juliet Wenzel