Where the Words End and My Body Begins
by Amber Dawn

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-551-52583-9.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 12/07/2015
Review of the Month, December 2015

Poetry; Nonfiction: Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender

Amber Dawn wanted to gloss. That is, she wanted to write poems called glosas: four ten-line stanzas in which the last line of each stanza "derived sequentially from a quatrain of another poet." It gave Dawn an opportunity to interact with her peers and the poets who influenced her. She connected with the "survivorship verse" of Lucille Clifton and other legendary poets as well as contemporary poets who are among her friends and "part of larger queer literary communities."

"Story Book," begins with four lines from Clifton's "won't you celebrate with me." Dawn's response begins: "Be here with me only if you can." Perhaps that first line could apply to every poem in the book. In this particular poem she continues: "The 1900 block of Pandora / is where I was raped by three men/ You don't have to do anything but listen."

She strays from the strict glosa form, as she says "when breaking the rules served me. Glossing allowed me to immerse myself in a kind of living appreciation for poetry and for the personal memories and values that shape my writing."

If we listen as the poet suggests in "Story Book" and act as witness, we also can celebrate the poet's "return to Pandora" where "Chosen family in leather welcome one another." Dawn's words meet with Clifton's in the last line: "come celebrate."

"A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is," Jeanette Winterson wrote in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. She said literature "isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place."

In this collection of glosas, Dawn forges into that "finding place," a courageous testimony to her own survivorship as well as to the poets who have inspired her. She describes those inspirers as "somewhere along the queer, gender-creative, feminist, and/or survivor spectrum."

In "Sandra Anna's Baby Book" that begins with four lines from contemporary poet Ritz Chow's "to bring you home," Dawn writes: "I've claimed the page / is where a poet heals. So I offer this poem / as our long-ago cricket song, our brightly-lit cellar door / our spray of new maple keys on the forest floor."

The form poem can help tell a story not yet told, naming the previously unnamable. Dawn, in an interview, encourages writers to explore form poetry as it "gives poetry a place to live, and poetry shouldn't be homeless."

I've been reading Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir and what she says about "life-story writers" definitely applies to Amber Dawn: "Truth is not their enemy. It's the banister they grab for when feeing around on the dark cellar stairs. It's the solution."

Speaking of the truth, in an interview in PRISM International, Dawn says she wants to write about trauma and healing. The reason she gives is "Because I want to fight stigma and I want to add to the texts that exist that other survivors will read and hopefully feel seen within."

In the interview, Dawn says: "I'm always looking for community. I'm looking to belong to something bigger than my own lived experience... There's my final answer. There's the truth."

Dawn literally met with contemporary poets to share her poems. As for the poets no longer with us, such as Gertrude Stein, Christina Rossetti, Lucille Clifton and Adrienne Rich, Dawn joined them in a "kindred conversation." The poets seemed to invite her in and she offered something back. I can imagine her finding delight in the particular unfolding of her glosas, as I did in reading them.

"Let me remind you queer roots reach deep. / Never forget the graves of our foremamas and papas, like" Dawn writes in "Queer Grace." She meets Adrienne Rich's words with the last line: "our animal passion, are rooted underground."

Amber Dawn is a writer, filmmaker and performance artist, and the author of the Lambda Award-winning novel Sub Rosa and the memoir How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler's Memoir (winner of the Vancouver, B.C. Book Award.) She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Amber Dawn was the 2012 winner of the Writers' Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT writers. Visit her website.

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