If the Girl Never Learns
If the Girl Never Learns is Sue William Silverman's second poetry collection. Silverman is the author of a craft book on memoir writing and four books of creative nonfiction, including Love Sick: One Woman's Journey through Sexual Addiction, which was made into a Lifetime original television movie. If the Girl Never Learns reads like a novel in verse. In three sections: "The Girl and the Man," "The Girl and the Myth," and "The Girl and the End," Silverman tells the story of an unnamed girl who struggled to resist being consumed by man and myth (traditional myths, but also myths surrounding womanhood).
The book opens with girl in the throes of an affair with a married man who is always referred to as "the man." "The man" functions not only as a generic label (he could be any man) but also emphasizes the age difference between the two characters and places the adult man in a position of power over the young girl. The third-person perspective effectively creates distance between the girl and her experience. The girl does not directly narrate her story, and readers observing the girl draw their own conclusions. Silverman uses repetition and italics to visually enact the girl's obsession with the man and her quivering desire for him:
until she staggers at the feet of
the man, the man, the man
who wraps her in kudzu –
dense and thick.
The ingénue and lipstick-on-his-collar stories are familiar territory, but "smudge red" on his "green-shirted heart" revives the old cliché with fresh, inventive language. It also links the poem to the next poem ("If the Girl Never Tells the Man") in which "A smudge of a baby bleeds / into the toilet like red / crayons melting." The girl had a miscarriage or abortion which she doesn't disclose to the man. The "crayons" remind us that the girl is just a girl, too young to blame.
The end of the affair coincides with the end of summer at the Jersey shore:
smile is a last carousel ride,
wood horses distorted
But the girl rises and rebuilds in the second section of the book, attempting to reconstruct her identity post-break-up. She imagines herself a sorcerer's apprentice, a sibyl, a horror movie starlet. She inhabits a Bosch painting. She is a mummy "sworn to silence" who knows "who she isn't / but not who she is."
The girl regrets wasting time with the man and not taking more chances. She wonders what if…:
If only she'd leapt
from the window
when she had the chance,
her body stretched
across the stallion's.
If only she'd gripped
his mane until she
outdistanced that life.
The repeated use of the conjunction "if" works subtly, but effectively, to create unlimited potential. The opposite of the action proposed seems always, however unlikely, also possible. Sometimes, Silverman explicitly presents both possibilities, as in the pair of poems titled "If the Girl Becomes an Assassin" and "If the Girl Doesn't Become an Assassin." "If the Girl Dies, or Doesn't" contains both possibilities in the same poem. "If" presents the girl with choices and options and gives her agency over her life.
In the darkly humorous "If the Girl Goes to Hell in an Overnight Bag," the girl arrives at a hotel "advertising neon razor blades, / remorse under glass / and complimentary despair." It's the kind of place you might check into with Sexton and Plath for a slumber party. But she doesn't spend much time wallowing. Instead, she owns her "desire bright / and wild as pollen," "her lips ripe and independent." In "If the Girl is a Slut," she wishes the man would "come back / to life" so "she could kill him / again."
In the third section, the girl "has irrepressible memories" and "envisions death." The clever "If the Girl Does Phone Sex" explores the sometimes fine line between sex and death when she saves a suicidal caller who stays on the line "breathing. Hard." In "If the Girl is a Country-Western Ballad," the girl stops clinging to old wounds. A child falls from a jungle gym injuring her elbow and chin. Later a doctor "treating her chronic emergency" "shakes his head over the bruise / that lasted all / this time."
In "If the Girl Says the End is Near," she expresses no regret:
If the girl had it all
to do over, she'd choose
the same mistakes or ones
even grander – emptying her womb
of death until everyone sees,
as if behind frosted glass,
every sin, every loss,
The girl, boldly, remains a girl. She refuses to conform, but she does learn; she learns who she really is. She "turns the world upside down" cruising Route 17 with "a bottle of underage / scotch between her legs." She learns that "she is the map" and charts her own course. She survives, she resists, she lives on her own terms, and she "has no reservations – / no reservations / at all."
Here is a review of If the Girl Never Learns that appeared on 9/6/2019 in "The Poetry Question"
Poetry is a medium that's often visceral, but the poems of "If the Girl Never Learns" are truly intimate in their rawness. If you're looking to escape your reality, this book will certainly transport you – though where you end up may be much more severe than expected. While the poems can at times express hopelessness, rage and what feels like a long held grudge, there is a resilience in these words that very much feels like a reclamation of power – a reversal of every wrong done. At so many points one wonders, 'Did this really happen? Or is this just a story?'
Does a story sound like this?
smile is a last carousel ride,
wood horses distorted
in mirrors. She'd translate
her body back into its own
language, if only she could."
Sue William Silverman weaves a detailed fabric of words, slicing it through with imagery and detail that's meant to cut to the core. Gorgeous and disturbing at once, these poems pierce the imagination with truth – that painful and empowering thing we all want until we actually get it.
Here is a review of If the Girl Never Learns that appeared July 2, 2019 in The Bellingham Review.
THE ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES OF THE PRESENT
by Christa Rohrbach
"The balance between the said and unsaid creates a whirlpool of emotions that bubbles beneath the surface in Sue William Silverman's latest book of poetry, If the Girl Never Learns. Silverman crafts feelings of devastation, anxiety, trepidation, and ultimately triumph alongside the shared speaker as she weaves herself around the scenarios each poem presents. The collection uses these poems to pose hypotheticals that seemingly contradict one another—throughout the course of the book we consider, alongside the girl, the seemingly innumerable results that could come from the actions posed in each poem, each preceded by the reverberating 'if.'
"In one poem the girl could become an assassin, or not. In another poem she is presented as a sorcerer's apprentice, though this presentation remains unconfirmed by any of the text. She could even be a horror movie starlet, we discover, as the collection progresses—or not. The message simmering beneath the surface of each contradicting hypothetical is that the possibilities in this book are as endless as they are limited if the girl is able to harness her power and resist the destruction laid out before her.
"I found myself becoming more and more engrossed in the presentation of these innumerable successes, challenges, and outcomes in the poems as I kept reading because their potential felt so linked to how a life is experienced. Each day, we wake up with the same choices: to fall into what has been pressed down upon us or to face our personal challenges and confront them. Everything that happens in this collection starts with the protagonist's reaction to her surroundings, and these reactions are ultimately what open the door for her to seize her own strengths. This seizure of strength is not an easy choice, nor a perfect one—but we remain aware that what lies within the words that are spoken is only half of the story. The power of this poetry lies in the balance that is uncovered through this tension between surface-level communication and what bubbles below in the subterranean levels, communicating both the destructive future the girl could embrace alongside the power rumbling beneath the surface in only one phrase.
"Despite the balance struck here between the gruesome and defiant details in these poetic fates outlined by Silverman, I cannot help but feel restored after finishing the collection. It is as if I have been transformed alongside the girl into a new iteration of identity with each progressing line, and yet a small piece of the girl at the heart of these poems is also revealed in these descriptions. The reverberating 'if' throughout each of these poems thus becomes the catalyst on which these possibilities hinge, casting readers at once in the present moment and towards a future that is, as of yet, undefined. These future moments are steeped in images as gruesome and haunting as they are beautiful—'a skull / embroidered in her / stomach,' 'a birthmark whose disputed, opaque borders / define who she isn't,' 'mercury sizzling / her palm.'
"We follow the girl through escaping a Bosch painting, walking into Lake Michigan, and going to hell in an overnight bag among other dystopian futures that each seem incongruent with one another. But linking all of these potentials together is the yearning to be loved that the girl expresses within each image, line, and phrase of the book—a love that appears on the surface to be held by "the man" in these poems. Upon closer examination, it is clear that this love is instead something that the girl must earn from herself. As the last few lines of the collection state:
There's a border between
life and death and she's
crossed it, or perhaps erased it.
Her passport has a thumbnail
photo like an obituary
headshot. If a guard challenges her
to show her papers,
she'll say she's an expatriate
from life and dare him
to send her back.
'Silverman's work in If the Girl Never Learns balances in this proposed area between life and death, hovering at once betwixt the oppressions experienced by the speaker and the subversion of the textual limitations mapped over her. As we travel alongside the girl through If the Girl Never Learns from 'The Girl and the Man' to 'The Girl and the Myth' and finally 'The Girl and the End,' we find that the final moments that have been laid over this girl figure are merely representative of another beginning—a journey no reader will want to miss."
If the Girl Knew Who She Was
She steps into darkness unafraid
in a man's 1940s
a fingernail against
a tumbler of musty scotch
in motel rooms abandoned after
she slithers through the key
hole slippery and wet.
She'll pour gas
down your chimney, cowering
in full view, if she has to,
holding out to you
Her love is
purple and black,
but only before
she bathes in bleach.
As it is,
she's a warning, a sign, an error,
a mummy sworn to silence,
a birthmark whose disputed, opaque borders
define who she isn't,
but not who she is.
Table of Contents
The Girl and the Man
If the Girl Never Learns to Cook or Sew ~~
If the Girl Never Tells the Man ~~
If the Girl Becomes a Bridesmaid ~~
If the Girl Fills Out the Questionnaire ~~
If the Girl Stalks the Man ~~
If the Girl Thinks Love Is Here Every Day! ~~
If the Girl Knows Where To Fuck ~~
If the Girl Sees New Horizons ~~
If the Girl Wears the Man's Green Shirt ~~
If the Girl Considers Revenge ~~
If the Girl Could Learn a Skill ~~
If the Girl Becomes an Assassin ~~
If the Girl Doesn't Become an Assassin ~~
The Girl and the Myth
If the Girl Is Reborn as a Mummy ~~
If the Girl Enforces Overdue Fines ~~
If the Girl Knew Who She Was ~~
If the Girl Is the Sorcerer's Apprentice ~~
If the Girl Ungoes to War ~~
If the Girl Escapes a Bosch Painting ~~
If the Girl Refuses ~~
If the Girl Turns the World Upside-Down ~~
If the Girl Is a Sibyl above the Last Exit on the New Jersey Turnpike ~~
If the Girl Wears an Artificial Eye ~~
If the Girl Is a Horror Movie Starlet ~~
If the Girl Sprouts Wild Orchids from Her Hair ~~
If the Girl Prepares to Feed a Cannibal in a Dark Alley ~~
If the Girl Loses Her Soul ~~
If the Girl Swallows Her Rosary ~~
If the Girl Never Writes on the Tower of Babel ~~
If the Girl Considers Salvation ~~
If the Girl Walks into Lake Michigan ~~
If the Girl Considers Predestination ~~
The Girl and the End
If the Girl Does Phone Sex ~~
If the Girl Is a Slut ~~
If The Girl Is a Country-Western Ballad ~~
If the Girl Goes to the Next Whiskey Bar ~~
If the Girl Unzips Her Body ~~
If the Girl Has Irrepressible Memories ~~
If the Girl Never Learns What She Learned ~~
If the Girl Receives a Caress from a Man Without Hands ~~
If the Girl Is Slow to Love ~~
If the Girl Envisions Death ~~
If the Girl Says the End Is Near ~~
If the Girl Goes to Hell in an Overnight Bag ~~
If the Girl Dies, or Doesn't ~~