1222 The contradictions humans live by
My Art is Killing Me and Other Poems
by Amber Dawn, with a foreword by Doretta Lau
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020
$17.95 / 9781551527932
Reviewed by Candace Fertile
Amber Dawn’s second collection of poetry, My Art Is Killing Me, certainly details the toll that personal revelations can have on a writer, but the book also shows the utter necessity of such revelations, for both writer and reader. The poems follow the mantra of “speak your truth,” and doing so, while often painful as it requires reliving difficult events, is an important step. Writing poems that form a loose memoir allows a writer the chance to reframe or re-embody experiences. And it allows the reader an opportunity to see experiences in another person, experiences that may be devastatingly familiar or devastatingly unfamiliar. Or even both.
The collection starts with a warning that the word “rape” is used sixteen times. The author goes on to say, “The ‘I’ in a poem is never quite the I that we are. How could a narrative ‘I’ stand in for all of our complexities and vastness? The ‘I’ in a poem gets to be particular; the ‘I’ is allowed to take a fixed and focused stance on the subject matter it is narrating.” Any new readers of Amber Dawn know immediately that they are in the hands of a compassionate and perceptive writer. Doretta Lau’s Foreword further positions readers in the world presented and emphasizes the point made in the poems that “art is for engagement, to bring people together in conversation. We are not meant to consume art, nor are we meant to consume creators, to ask that they suffer on our behalf.” Lau notes that Amber Dawn is dedicated “to illuminating narratives that many people ignore” and to creating space for others. That is a real gift.
The first of the thirteen poems, “The Stopped Clock,” is a long poem that describes the poet’s life when she receives the call telling her she has been admitted to UBC for an MFA in creative writing. At the time she’s in Alabama and is a sex worker. One of the more cringe-inducing moments in the poem is the revelation that a mother hires her to have sex with her teenage son before he goes to college. Amber Dawn reflects on the fantasy created by Hollywood, and how “sex / work isn’t going anywhere.” The poem moves geographically as she goes to Italy and sees the Corsa degli Zingari, in which young men race barefoot down a mountain to kiss the stone feet of the Virgin.
The next long poem is guaranteed to make anyone think further about the contradictions human beings live with and by. The movie topic expands as Amber Dawn explores sex work on screen (and off). The poem explains a basic conflict: “Filmdom vanity, ersatz divinities. By the year 2015, twenty five actresses / had received Academy Award nominations for playing sex workers onscreen. / In 2015, over twenty five actresses signed a letter opposing human rights / organization Amnesty International’s proposed policy to decriminalize sex work.” The poem names various actresses and roles, including Meryl Streep who says she had no idea about Harvey Weinstein, so didn’t say anything, but who objects to Amnesty’s proposal. Streep becomes a “composite” who “doesn’t see / the sexual violence happening to colleagues right beside her / while / she imagines sexual violence happening to truly invisibilized / workers around the world, and that she is an authority / on ending this sexual violence, as she imagines it?” As we already know that “sex / work isn’t going anywhere,” maybe Amnesty has a point?
Later in the poem, Amber Dawn says, “Only now have I begun to wonder why / Hollywood actresses are so hot damn desperate / to draw distinctions between themselves and ex workers.” The fantasy world and the real world are not so distinct. Amber Dawn notes that of all the studies done, none is on how sex workers prevent violence. In lighter font, the poem says, “This anti violence wisdom falls outside / of institutional and Hollywood imagination.” The light font is used in other places to denote ideas that are ignored.
The poems dip into family problems and then into the challenges experienced at UBC with a person called “the tenured professor” in a long poem titled “How Hard Feels.” One of the most powerful techniques in this poem is the repeated line “everywhere there is a man.” In “Outsider Artist,” Amber Dawn reveals the pain of being asked by one of her students about nude photos of her online: “disclosure is a great- / er risk to me than to the men whose violence I speak to” and then she asks, “Who do I confide in about pain when pain is my praxis / and best performance?” In the poem immediately following, “Tragic Interview,” anaphora (“We will ask you . . . ”) powerfully creates the further assault a survivor must endure when asking for help.
Overall, the poems move forward in time and reflect the essential hopefulness at the heart of their creator. Amber Dawn has written about how poetry has saved her. And her poems may save others. While the book ends with a question, it’s one that has a glimmer of light: “And how will I claim my body this time? / And will poetry still help me make this claim?”
Candace Fertile has a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta. She teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, writes book reviews for several Canadian publications, and is on the editorial board of Room Magazine. She has reviewed books by Rachel Rose, Susan Alexander, Katherine Fawcett, Marjorie Celona, Garry Thomas Morse, Nazanine Hozar, Tiziana La Melia, Rita Wong & Fred Wah, Carla Funk, and Jen Currin for The Ormsby Review.
The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster