The first time I read Amber Dawn’s Where the Words End and My Body Begins, I was standing over my kitchen counter peeling and eating tangerines. It wasn’t my plan to dive in right away but I didn’t want to do the dishes and it had just come in the mail, replete with a soft pastel cover that is at once sugary and arcane, paradisal and dismal.
There I was with wet fingers, slurping all over this freshly published collection.
“you never considered yourself femme”
This is Dawn’s first book of poems. She’s written a novel, Sub Rosa and a memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, in addition to editing several anthologies. With this new work, it feels not exactly like she’s sharing secrets, though there are some, but that she is in the middle of the street, making pain and pleasure known, whether you like it or not.
Like all writers who take reading seriously, she has help from some of her most intimate literary influences. This interplay is magnified by the 15th-century Spanish poetic form on which Where the Words End riffs: the glosa.
But, forget the 15th century for now; this book’s birth is in P.K. Page’s Hologram: A Book of Glosas, the first book of poetry that Dawn bought as a student at the University of British Columbia.
As Dawn writes in her introduction, called “Glossy Solidarity,” the conventional form of a glosa consists of “four 10-line stanzas, with the last line of each stanza derived sequentially from a quatrain of another poet — a glosa is an opportunity for a keen poet to interact with their peers and influences.”
Most stirring is a sentence that puts desire on the table, a desire that frames the rest: “I too wanted to gloss,” she writes.
“Ashes! Ashes! is what I learned to say.”
Each of the 19 poems in this collection starts with a kind of shout-out, four lines reproduced from a poem by writers including Anne-Marie Alonzo, Jillian Christmas, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, Christina Rossetti, Trish Salah, and Gertrude Stein. There may be a sociological or historical connection to draw out between these poets but what matters most is that we are reading and/or rereading through Dawn’s constructed genealogy, a genealogy in which she doesn’t force us to choose between an always already shaky dichotomy of bodies and bodies of work.
In other words, this is a book that backs poets up. In this ethics of citations, we find a testament to finding and rereading. With titles like “Queer Infinity,” “Whole Messy Thing,” “Autophobia,” and “A Group of Sluts is Called What?,” Where the Words End substitutes as a syllabus you write by hand for a best friend.
It is like Rich said: “Re-vision — the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction — is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.”
“No one imagined us. We wanted to live like trees”
Despite the centrality that direct literary influence takes in the skeleton of the poems, the emotional logic revolves around the everyday: the time Dawn shaved her head in high school, the smell of rotting wood, soaking sheets, gifted workbooks, protests that double as dance parties, muddied depression.
Certainly, many of the poetic lines, preceded or followed by enjambment after enjambment, feel fresh. Still, Rich’s “fresh eyes” don’t cut it like a fresh wound might.
My own rereading practice of Dawn’s contribution left scars. By the time I finished writing this review, it looked like I had had Where the Words End for years. It was worn-in and worn-down.
Even though Dawn makes each poem a dedication, there was no time to feel bad for tainting this pristine object. There was no time to wonder if I shouldn’t have curled it up in my triangular handbag so I could catch a glosa while standing between stops on the subway.
It is like Audre Lorde said: “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury.” And in a different piece, she writes: “Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.”
If poetry is not a luxury, why does reading Where the Words End feel so luxurious?
“I’m so often floored.”
Dawn, however, makes me remember that perhaps we want something else outside of the often tyrannical terms of luxury. The last time I read Where the Words End I was horizontal and now I’m sure, this is a book to take to bed with you, and more than anything, as the last line reads, this is a book “to mark the occasion.” However small.
Tiana Reid is a writer living in New York City, where she is a graduate student at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Briarpatch Magazine, The Feminist Wire, Hyperallergic, Maisonneuve, VICE, and more.