The Narrative of Things Unsaid

A Review of Home Truths by Ryan Guth

When the original version of Home Truths appeared in 2006, it was already an accomplished work of great technical sophistication and emotional insight. This expanded and extensively revised edition manages to substantially improve upon the earlier book, drawing on recently-discovered source materials to clarify and deepen the complex and emotionally charged narrative of the author’s parents’ courtship in Dayton in the 1950s—a story of often short-lived triumphs and sometimes lingering disappointments—centered around the formidable figure of the poet’s maternal grandmother, a matriarch who did whatever she had to, to ensure that the family business, a funeral home, would continue to prosper after her husband’s sudden and unexpected death. Mixing personal recollection with a wealth of reconstructed correspondence, Ryan Guth displays an enviable facility with both poetry and prose; while the majority of the verse pieces presented are scored as free verse, the sequence also contains one extraordinary sonnet.

In every poem, postcard, or letter herein, a wealth of specific detail gives substance and vivid life to the lost world of the poet’s childhood, as in this passage, near the beginning of the book, where the poet’s parents reluctantly pose for a photograph:

Back home, Phyllis and Hank
(still newly-weds, almost)
in the back yard. Un-
cooperative, he’s
kept his shades on,
jammed his right hand
so deep in the pocket of his blazer
the sleeve’s wrinkled
clear to the elbow.
What’s he after –
notebook? car-keys? cigarettes?
He’d crush the pack,
from the look of him.

This is a narrative built primarily on what is not said, subtly exposing the underlying tensions beneath everyday interactions. Elsewhere, we find a telling exchange between the poet—then a young child—and his grandmother:

“Daddy says you never paid him
when he worked here,”
I informed my grandmother
just before lunch. I was seven,
sitting at her feet
with a new yellow Tonka truck
and a cold that had kept me
out of school.

she sighed, “I paid him.” […]

“How much?”
I asked again.
This time
the dragon squirmed,
uncoiled a little.
Sighing through her nose,
she stared down at me for a moment,
searching my face –
I could see light from the window behind her
through her thinning hair –
then turned back to her program.

“That’s between your father and me.”

In one of my favorite passages, the underlying, and ongoing, tensions between relatives are leavened by a flash of unexpected levity, providing some welcome comic relief. The poem, entitled, “Elvis and My Father Fail to Reach an Artistic Agreement,” presents an almost surreal—but thoroughly believable—conversation set in a hearse, and occasioned by the music that happens to be playing on the vehicle’s radio:

A body pickup,
out to St. Elizabeth’s and back.
Tom, in the passenger seat,
turns on the radio
(not asking Hank if he’d mind, of course)
and of course it’s that Presley kid –
little more than half Hank’s age
and trying it all in the home stretch
of a two-minute single:
veering from eerie
delta-blues falsetto
to gospel shiver to burbling
Bing and Dean. Too deep,
too high, too
close to the mike….
For Christ’s sake,
he’s got no idea what he’s doing,
throwing it all together like that:
like a taxi-dancing booth
at a church fund-raiser. […]

And why, oh why,
would they ever
put a radio in a goddam hearse?

Here, and elsewhere, the delicate balance between the heartrending and the genuinely funny serves to heighten our sense of the elegiac, of a nostalgia for a time and place that remain compelling despite the overwhelming presence of loss. The poet clearly loves and honors his family—warts and all—without ever losing sight of the quiet tragedy that infuses everyday life. The result is both a tribute and a coming-to-terms; over the course of these 31 poems and prose pieces, long-silent voices request, and receive, a kind of absolution.

Throughout, the vernacular of 1950s Ohio is pitch-perfect, and his characters and situations are so deftly drawn that authenticity sings in every line. Whether the reader chooses to approach the work as a series of interdependent poems and prose poems, or as a single, sustained poetic memoir, Home Truths resonates with humanity, pathos, and occasional flashes of humor, made all the more poignant by its exceptional range. Here is a remarkable achievement, a book to reread and remember, and one of which the author’s novelist father would surely have been proud.

Robert Lavett Smith is the author of four collections of poems. He lives in San Francisco. Read other articles by Robert Lavett.