The Terrible By Yrsa Daley-Ward
New York, New York; Penguin, 2018, 224 pp., $16.00, paperback
Reviewed by Erika Gallion
Yrsa Daley-Ward’s new memoir, The Terrible, posits that “there is no word to describe the feeling of disappearing and being there at the same time”—and then creates a rich vocabulary for that feeling. Ward is an acclaimed poet whose visceral 2014 collection, bone, was self-published via CreateSpace. It became a best-seller and, in 2017, was repackaged by Penguin with a foreword by Kiese Laymon. Born to a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother, Daley- Ward grew up in Northern England with her maternal grandparents, devout Seventh Day Adventists, and went to a majority white school. Daley-Ward came to poetry as a way to process her inner life, and she expands on that journey of selfdiscovery in The Terrible.
The memoir is structured in four sections. First, is her childhood in Northern England, in which she confronts childhood-ruining concepts such as racism, addiction, male violence, and the hyper-sexualization of girls. During her depression-plagued adolescence, she battles with body image, disillusionment, continued experience with excessive male dominance, and the beginnings of sexual power. In the third part, her early adulthood features experimental drugs, sex work, her brother’s loss of innocence (which so closely mirrors her own), “a pure romantic love, her mother’s death, and surrendering to the darkness,” and, finally, Daley- Ward reckons with The Terrible—her mental illness and trauma made tangible—and eventual acceptance that The Terrible both disrupts and defines her.
The first reference to The Terrible occurs before the prologue begins, in a short opening note: “in love with how it happened so far, / even the terrible things. / and God, there were terrible things.” The last line exists at the bottom of the page, distant from the previous two lines, and is flipped upside down, creating a mirror-image before the book begins. Daley-Ward sets the tone of her memoir here, showing the dual nature of her battle with depression—the beautiful moments exist simultaneously with the hideous ones, and they speak to one another endlessly.
Many of the beautiful moments lie in Daley- Ward’s relationship with her baby brother, “Little Roo,” to whom the book is dedicated. In the prologue, Roo and Daley-Ward see a unicorn in their garden: “Sometimes, when the world around us grew indistinct, when facts would blur into less certain truths and frightening things looked set to occur, the two of us could see clearly into the Fourth Dimension.” These magical capabilities offered a reprieve for the two siblings, sustaining their hope amid the terror of their reality; as long as the two of them could see that unicorn in the garden, The Terrible starting to form would not win. Readers witness Roo and Daley-Ward struggling against their own versions of The Terrible, and see the siblings’ attempts to comfort each other as well as their inability to bridge the gap of one another’s pain.
As in bone, structure, spacing, and repetition play important tonal roles here. Daley- Ward purposefully plays with the visual representation of her words on the page, producing further metaphorical language in negative space. For example, in her poem “a test—things our bodies have been,” Daley-Ward makes an alphabetical list, each word existing on one line, creating a slim corpus of words edging the page. The Terrible uses similar tactics—her prose broken into stanzas or repeated via enjambment and spacing. Daley-Ward also uses subtitles through her memoir ’s sections, as if titling poems; in section one, pages are titled “Aa” and “Bb,” perhaps indicating her age and learning to read and speak. Later, Daley-Ward uses numbers (ages) in the same way, indicating a linear passage through the memoir. The Terrible varies between verse and prose, employing poetry (and in one instance screenplay) to build distance around the especially traumatic moments of Daley-Ward’s story. Her ability to traverse different genres amplifies the movement of the memoir, accelerating the story and disrupting readers’ grooves to intentionally ask for a closer reading.
“Beautiful moments exist simultaneously with the hideous ones, and they speak to one another endlessly.”
In sections one and two, Daley-Ward introduces readers to the racism and misogyny that bring forth The Terrible and force her to deny it. As a young girl, her mother tells her that her stepfather will be tempted to commit sinful acts because of her sexually maturing body. Meanwhile, her grandfather asserts that men are biblically above women and that male violence is inherent—male prerogative—so she must avoid triggering it. Later, at school and in her modeling career, Daley-Ward is encouraged to view her black body as a negative to be overlooked and forgiven due to her “cool” attitude and acceptable personality.
When Daley-Ward’s grandparents and mother begin taking notice of her gray moods, she is mocked, so she commits to hiding her pain. “I learn what not to feel,” she writes. Little Roo, too, is learning not to feel, a slippage that Daley-Ward notices early but is incapable of addressing. Nor can she address her hatred of her reflection and her obsessive eating habits; she believes that by following instructions laid out to her via the Bible and Disney, she will bloom into a likeable beauty.
As Daley-Ward grows, she gains “powerfear,” the name she gives to her ability to tempt men by playing in to her sexual appearance. Powerfear plagues nearly all sexual relationships Daley-Ward recounts in The Terrible. In one powerfear-fueled moment, Daley-Ward abruptly has sex with a window cleaner at her mother’s house: “He gets it out right there and then / and slides on a yellow condom. Yellow, she thinks. Ha, / yellow, she thinks. / My favorite color as a kid. / Yellow, she thinks. / Shit, I used to be a kid. / Yellow; / am I still / a… ”
Awareness percolates under The Terrible, which contaminates something as innocent as the color yellow with something to be scrubbed off in two sessions of bathing. Daley-Ward is masterful in how she depicts her constant distancing from awareness that The Terrible is real and has control. She turns to drugs to lift her out of “the terrible here and now.”
In section three, Daley-Ward meets William, falls in love, and finds a new narrative for relationships: “He stays. I can hardly believe it. It feels like the bottom will drop out of our thing. Any / Moment / Now. When he sleeps, I stare at his eyelashes in the dark and hope he never leaves. Sometimes I hold my breath to give the thing some weight. Some promise.” In the safety of this relationship, Ward faces The Terrible in a new way; instead of escaping, she looks: “There is something underneath my seams. What’s new?”
Things don’t miraculously resolve, and by the fourth and final section Daley-Ward is an adult coming back to visit troubled Little Roo. She tells him: “unicorns don’t exist / I say. Roo / says / ‘yeah they do / remember the garden?”
There is a satisfying reckoning as she ultimately faces The Terrible. “You may not run away from the thing that you are/because it comes and comes and comes as sure as you breathe. As certain. The thing is deep / inside your linings, way down in the marrow. People have a lot of words for it. / Wherever you are, it catches you up.” Daley-Ward names this lonely pain, over and over again: The Terrible, this undeniable force in her life. She has bled out, silenced, and loathed The Terrible, but it thrives. The Terrible gives her poetry and darkness; The Terrible encourages her to distrust and to be alone. How can one combat The Terrible?
Yrsa Daley-Ward grabs The Terrible by the face and insists: “There will be more love.”
Erika Gallion is a writer and reader originally from Ohio and currently living in Los Angeles. She works at UCLA as an Academic Advisor.