Confessions of a Barefaced Woman
By Allison Joseph
Red Hen Press, 2018
120 Pages, $17.95
Review by Natalie Berger
This year marks the 50th anniversary since women were accepted to Kenyon College, Allison Joseph’s alma mater, and the school where I attend. One day this past February, Joseph returned to Gambier, OH to give a commanding and lively reading from her recent collection of poetry, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman (Red Hen Press, 2018). When Allison Joseph reads her poetry aloud, her words announce themselves like firecrackers. Her poems are not two dimensional entities. Her language has a pulse that is activated through her eyes, fingertips, the belly of her laugh. The reading served testimony to the potential women have in the institution when given the space, and prompted me to revisit her collection.
While Confessions of a Barefaced Woman is the latest of fifteen collections of poetry written by Joseph, she does not claim to have the answers to life, either hidden or apparent in her words. But this collection is a convincing and raw attempt to guide her readers through the dark alleyways of life.
Though a work of poetry, Confessions of a Barefaced Woman acts as a kind of bildungsroman-in-verse. The poems sing in unison about the confines of beauty, the delight of words, the disappointments of adulthood. “I have no solace/ for what life might hold, / won’t offer the knowledge / I know you’ve been told,” she writes in “First School Dance.” Joseph crafts a coming-of-age tale, and like a Super 8 film, this work offers glimpses of her life unearthed from childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In many ways, this collection works as a memoir, a series of moments from her life that have sculpted the shape of her self as she exists in the world.
Each poem is a memory or meditation presented in chronological order. Because of the tapestry-like quality of the collection, the individual poems lose their punch when extracted from the larger whole. For Joseph, aging is a linear force. Her poems about girlhood, early on in the book, are attended to with the same level of tension and urgency as those about womanhood. Feelings of guilt, wonder, rage, and being perplexed pull and flex on each page. Her language is blunt and precise. She writes about her grandmother in “Father’s Mother:” “So all/ I carry of yours is a name— / Elaine— your first, my middle— / name of burden, of complaint.” She imbues the abstract with a sense of clarity that underlines, rather than simplifies her sentiments.
Joseph is particularly attentive to the female body – the way it can turn on itself when confronted with a razor, high-heels, a bad haircut. She exposes the uncomfortable entrapment of female beauty and how it evolves with age. She describes how “Lipstick has never felt right– / too waxy and thick, so heavy I’m always tempted / to wipe it off, smear it across my face.” She presents her body as an honest entity, “no second skin for me to wipe away / at day’s end, nothing to reveal.” Beauty is a concept that cannot be realized with artificial color. Joseph seems to want to shake herself free from the standards presented to her in magazines, and in “A History of African-American Hair” she states, “I am glad as any woman can be / that I cut my hair, that the woman in the mirror / now has hair she can touch, / cropped close to scalp, to skin.” She is liberated, untethered to hair that shrouds rather than reveals her truth. But this realization is one that only arrives after suffering from blisters on her heels, razor cuts on her leg, her father’s reprimands. But as Joseph learns from her past, she also retreats into spaces of self-loathing, a desire to be outside of her own body, living another Allison’s life, “not the humdrum woman I am / who listens politely to strangers.”
Towards the end of the collection, Joseph lingers on bodies that are buried beneath the ground. She grapples with the loss of her parents, examining their physical legacy in her poem, “Headstone.” She tries “to see what they have left behind / in us: my sister’s face like his, like hers, / my family’s laugh I listen for.” Even something as contourless as laughter takes desperate shape in her understanding of memory as it relates to the body.
The title of this work is apt: Joseph stands in front of her story, laying herself bare to strangers’ eyes. She is unapologetic, yet writes with humility. She has more to learn, more skin to sink into, and her unresolved tone lends a sense of hope to living. This collection wraps its arm around the modern woman, lonely in her skin. In a society that crams women into professional and physical standards, Joseph’s words are freeing. Upon this new decade, Joseph’s collection deserves to be revisited. New meaning may be formed from her words that lean on the past to speak to the present and future generations of women who have dreams of becoming. The coming-of-age story is one that is ongoing.
As I prepare to graduate in May from a school that has in many ways defined my identity as a writer, the future feels precarious. But reading Joseph’s collection reminds me that there is safety even in the midst of precarity. The final poem reveals the malleable nature of adulthood. As soon as the poem ends, the page will beckon you to flip back to the beginning, and begin all over again.