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Dreamlike Transformation: On Gabriella R. Tallmadge’s Sweet Beast

by Laura Villareal | Contributing Writer

Sweet Beast. Gabriella R. Tallmadge. Trio House Press, 2021.

Gabriella R. Tallmadge’s debut collection Sweet Beast is a gorgeously lyrical exploration of marriage, military wifehood, and our most basic instincts. In particular, she examines survival when put into overdrive due to PTSD and domestic violence. Confronting the life-altering psychological trauma the speaker’s husband has undergone after returning from military service, the speaker reckons with how to love and live in a marriage that is dissolving. Tallmadge raises questions about whether we can ever even know our loved ones and about how far the boundaries of love extend. When people are turned into war machines how can they return—after everything they’ve seen and endured—to who they were before? These poems are revelatory in their compassion and startling in their handling of the most basic emotions love and fear.   

Tallmadge’s poem “Parasomnia” begins:

What is it that you see when you wake
in the middle of sleep? The veil over
your eyes so the next morning

you don’t remember saying Did they
shoot me? You don’t remember the night
I startled it as you slept and you

almost shot me. Endlessly 
on-call in Afghanistan, your hours
were only punctuated with sleep.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD varies depending on the war but more than 10% of soldiers come back with combat-related PTSD. Recent wars and occupations such as Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom estimate that between 11-20% of soldiers that served have PTSD. Trauma associated sleep disorders like parasomnia are common. There are several types of parasomnias, like sleepwalking and talking, but for the most part they aren’t as severe or dangerous as is described in “Parasomnia.” Though the central point of tension could have easily been the speaker almost being shot by her beloved, the poet instead writes into the question, “I wanted to ask who I was in your dream, / The loud sky? The Pashtun man who eyeballed / you before they rushed your post?” There is a deep empathy in this questioning and a sense of dreamlike transformation that occurs as the poem continues to unfold. 

At first, the speaker questions: what has the beloved’s parasomnia transformed her into? When she becomes the one transforming her beloved and herself, the speaker regains control. She writes:

                                          The only thing

my hands could do was touch your chest
and tell you. It’s me. Cold, you came back
down. Fell like a pruned rose back to sleep,

I turned into a birth-wet fawn, flattened
in the steppe grass.

The poet makes a dynamic choice to use imagery that is gentler and removed of danger, such as a “pruned rose” and a “birth-wet fawn.” Not only has the situation been diffused, but the imagery mirrors that. 

“After War After War After” echoes the disordered sleep. Tallmadge writes, “You’ve come home from deployment / but can’t rest, you sleep with a radar field // inside your head.” It’s compelling that both poems address the “you” who is living, as if he is dead and unable to respond. Perhaps because the version of the beloved before war has died. As the poet writes, 

You’ve already been dead. You were gone
so I buried you at my desk and you died 

again, again. Your many deaths 
showed themselves like cards face up

 on the black mantle inside my skull.

These lines feel like a pressure point for the book. The speaker buries the “you” at their desk, perhaps in the very act of writing. A slight lift of the thin veil between speaker and writer.  

Sweet Beast includes several poems that are part of a series such as “The Hypnotist” poems and marriage poems. The marriage poems in particular are an interesting lens to view the relationship of the speaker and her husband. The first poem in the collection called “Marriage An Animal Language” borrows the rhythms of other poems and prayers. The repetition of “we” seems to be evoking the cadence of “We real cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. “We frog-eared, / we lick the black off plums. // We sweet? We beast?” And later it distorts the hermetic idiom often used in Christianity “as above, so below” which becomes “above you, so below.” All the marriage poems except the first, “Marriage An Animal Language,” use only the pronoun “we” which imposes the idea that the speaker and her husband are interlinked and inseparable in these poems.

The book is broken into two sections. What differentiates them is their focus and form. The poems in the first section are often written in couplets, using lines that rarely depart the left margin and don’t utilize visual caesurae (except for one). Their content focuses mainly on the dissolution of the marriage and the mental decline of the speaker’s husband. The second half is written with more poems that are formally fragmented, more inclined towards visual caesurae such as blank space. There are echoes of the first section via the associative language system Tallmadge has built, but these poems are moving towards the speaker’s reclamation of her selfhood. 

The second section begins with a poem called “When I Was Astarte,” a powerful evocation of Astarte, the ancient Middle Eastern goddess of war, sexuality, and healing. With lines like, “My milk is a miracle. I am sovereign. I wander / and take up with still-born stars” and “The gates of hell / sing to appease me. They meant my name / to mean shame but rams grow wombs in my sight, / their fluted horns discarded.” This persona poem is setting a triumphant and resilient tone for the poems that will follow. The reclamation of the speaker reverberates through each poem all the way to the final poem “How Women Inherits the Earth” where the final two lines say: “Let not my fear, my love for this world / be a coagulant. Let me bring it to my lips and drink.” These words are a final prayer or promise to the self. 

In addition to having degrees in English and Creative Writing, Tallmadge also holds a degree in Counseling and is certified in Mental Health Recovery and Trauma-Informed Care. Her education certainly informs how skillfully she handles discussing mental health in this book. Moreover, her poetry showcases that she is an expert of lyric and form as well. Ambitious and unflinching, Gabriella R. Tallmadge’s Sweet Beast is an outstanding debut. 

Gabriella R. Tallmadge is a Mexican-American writer and educator from San Diego, California.  She is the author of Sweet Beast which won the 2020 Louise Bogan Award for Artistic Merit and Excellence from Trio House Press. She holds degrees in English, Creative Writing, and Counseling. She is certified in Mental Health Recovery and Trauma-Informed Care by San Diego State University. 

Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She has received fellowships from the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts and National Book Critics Circle. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, AGNI, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.