Cardyn Brooks reviews The Terrible, a memoir by British poet, Yrsa Daley-Ward
Penguin Books paperback £9.99 June 2018
adult creative non-fiction memoir
Similar to the ways in which Billie Holiday and John Coltrane used the same musical notes and scales as other musicians yet managed to produce otherworldly compositions exponentially more complex than the sum of their individual elements, in The Terrible Yrsa Daley-Ward has crafted a ballad of her life in prose poetry that exceeds conventional expectations of a memoir.
A prologue, four numbered sections, and an epilogue produce a score of varying measure and tempo, volume and intensity. The rhythm of her revelations is supported by the layout of each page. This score also functions as a map of her many struggles with fatherlessness, family friction, undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues, self-medicating with controlled substances and risky behavior, sexual identity, grief, and internalised racism, misogyny, colourism, and classism.
Trying to satisfy her insatiable needs and appetites, which seem to be manifestations of her longing for permanence and reliable love, is a recurring motif. On page 68 she writes, “I wanted to… be completely adored and wanted and loved; I was sure of the heaven in that.” The Terrible documents her circuitous and dangerous search. Along the way the challenges in distinguishing fact from fiction regularly surface. The quirks of memory are mentioned on page 114 with “Sometimes the facts around our first meeting change.” And on page 165 a loved one’s ghost asks, “Can’t you see that by now I am entirely fact and entirely fiction?” This question resonates as an echo of the broader idea of memoirs as non-fiction because human recollections are influenced by circumstances and the passage of time. Maybe even the most honestly rendered memoirs are impressionistic works that convey the essential truth of a person’s experiences instead of an exact account.
Yrsa Daley-Ward imbues each description of terrible things with multiple facets of menace and painful consequences. In “awayness [sic]: an almanac” beginning on page 196 “the terrible” is a sentient entity acting as a schizophrenic hydra trickster parasite who harangues, distorts, and drains its host, but not completely or permanently. The Terrible begins with love and ends with hope.
There are few shining examples of manhood in The Terrible. Picking up a biography about Nelson Mandela or Sidney Poitier’s autobiography might help balance the emotional scales for disheartened readers. Dark Girls by Bill Duke and Daughters of Men: Portraits of African-American Women and Their Fathers by Rachel Vassel also offer mitigating spiritual boosts after reading this beautifully composed, emotionally wrenching memoir.
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