Amber Dawn takes on Hollywood and CanLit in new poetry collection

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Author image: Sarah Race

Toward the end of My Art Is Killing Me and Other Poems, Amber Dawn offers the Poetry 101 course I wish I had been taught in school. "And the wraithy hiss that often visits jaw and ear is poetry./ And the gritty hymns that enchant mending skins are poetry," she writes. "The feral shade of blue that shows itself at four a.m. is poetry."

Poetry is visceral and expansive. And for readers of Amber Dawn (the name is a mononym), poetry is an act to speak your truth. Through the various expressions of her poetry, whether hiss or hymn, she names abuses of power in certain spaces and communities. By doing so, she shows us how poetry can witness us speaking out in myriad ways.

In her second collection, Amber Dawn deftly experiments with form and structural devices: repetitions, intentional spacing, a palindrome, and spells. An anagrammatic poem titled "tragic interview" that can be rearranged to form "creative writing." Poems take the shape of an interview, a redacted email form, a Twitter collage.

She fulminates against the selective solidarity we take part in under the guise of feminism in "Hollywood Ending." "I think about this a lot --/ what it means to launch an illustrious career playing/ the part of someone you believe is singularly synonymous/ with violence and exploitation," she writes. "What it means to play the part/ of someone you believe should not legally exist."

Here, Dawn references that fact that certain actresses both receive nominations for playing sex workers and are staunchly committed to opposing policies that would decriminalize sex work. Meryl Streep, Elizabeth Taylor, and Mira Sorvino are just a few of the names that Amber Dawn cites, but the list is long. Some remain silent on the sexual violence that permeates the Hollywood film industry but are loud voices on the decisions that dictate sex worker rights.

Throughout the collection, Amber Dawn asks, "Who is being consumed?" What weight are we placing on artists when we consume their art and expect their personal narratives to be divulged? What does it mean for writing to be both a cause of suffering and a ritual for healing?

Her memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life, which won the Vancouver Book Award in 2013, tenderly explored Amber Dawn's life in sex work and activism. Seven years later, she ends her new collection meditating on the consequences of that book, on what poetry can do and where it can take us. "I want poetry that makes me feel like I am/ back on the viewing side of that two way mirror," she states. Elsewhere, on grief, she writes, "this is how/ my healing took shape/ and this is how poetry/ held its vital language/ out to me."

She seamlessly weaves together humour with different registers. Italian appears in descriptions of the countryside and fountains, while Old English is melded with writing about sex work. In the opening poem, "The Stopped Clock", she writes "O striptease stage/ O hallowed ground. [...] Face downed belly rolled until I met god/ or a staph infection. Same difference."

Amber Dawn's use of spacing is controlled and masterful. Like unwritten breaths, these spaces act as a governing meter. They temper a difficult poem on the world of creative writing degrees and the Canadian literary community. "Everywhere there is a    woman    queer or fury or holding her beloved body," she writes.

These are poems with such vivid imagery that I found myself holding my breath at times, seeking an even stiller silence in which to engage with them. Aluminum walls are "poverty gnawed," and bruises "pull young blood to and fro like the tide."

Some of the most beguiling poems expose the scaffolding of the writing itself. Amber Dawn intersperses metanarrative markers about what she would like her poetry to accomplish. "I'd like to say something true and complete about compassion," she writes. Exposing the what of her work never reads as unsteady or self-doubting. These are the sharp words of a writer who knows where she is guiding us.

"Poetry can certainly be narrative," she said in a 2016 interview with The Town Crier. "And it can also be a meditation. An experiment. A letter. Instructions. A thesis. A manifesto. An experiment. Somatic. A credo. A rupture of the fourth wall. A disruption of the status quo. Oracle. Activism. Speculation. A finding. A collage. A treatise and more." In My Art Is Killing Me, she has twined and twisted poetry into exactly this; into an exploration of the shapes that poems can embody.

Poetry is the collage of Twitter messages that Amber Dawn received from survivors. It is also a loving dialogue that the poet engages in with the reader. With poems that take on many forms and defy the status quo, the collection seems to say: look, look at what poetry can be. In her poem "touch ≠ touch screen," she writes "I put it in ink: I write/ for other survivors. I am listening./ As well, in ink, presently, on this page: I'm here/ for the divine and complex work that is healing." Healing and grief do not exist on linear timelines, nor can they follow a specific set of prescriptions. In some instances, the ink and the page are mediums for processing these boundless states of being.  

Stunningly ending the collection with "The Ringing Bell," she writes "And the ringing bell said hoc est enim corpus meummeans this is my body/ this is my body/ this is my body." Long after reading My Art Is Killing Me, Amber Dawn's resounding words continue to ring and draw us closer to a praxis of healing. To heal the poet, the reader, and "maybe even healing the fallacious world around us," she writes. In her final 17-page poem, with the repeated mantra "this is my body" echoing throughout, she asks "And how will I claim my body this time?/ And will poetry still help me make this claim?"

Her words remind us that through poetry, we may try to heal, and inhabit our bodies. With this, she reminds the reader that it is a challenging and hopefully healing practice to choose to come to the page again and again.

Alexandra Valahu is a freelance radio producer and writer based in Vancouver, B.C. ​

Author image: Sarah Race.

Editor's note, April 4, 2020: The main image on this article was updated with a new photo of author Amber Dawn.​

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