I debated whether or not to use a really tired cliché when I sat down to write this review of Vancouver writer, filmmaker, and performance artist Amber Dawn’s recently released memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life. In the spirit of a writer who’s not afraid to title two of her poems “What’s My Mother F***ing Name” and “Hey F*** Face,” I then thought ‘fuck it,’ I’m going to say it anyway: this book made me laugh and it made me cry. I mean this in the best and the most sincere way. Let me tell you why.
There’s a certain messiness and refusal to be contained that this book, subtitled A Hustler’s Memoir, celebrates and shouts from the rooftops. First of all, its form and structure are not exactly what you expect of a memoir. Poems are interlaced with personal essays and more straight-forward narrative pieces cut from Amber Dawn’s life. These are alternatively heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and hilarious. (One of my favourite pieces begins with this killer opener: “It happened suddenly. It happened without warning. One day I woke up, and I was an old ho.”) The memoir ends especially on an unexpected note: three very erotic postcards that include fisting in an alley outside a lesbian bar in Paris and speaking of her wife, the self-addressed question “Have you not limped through your days appreciatively sore from her fucking you?” As Amber Dawn says in an interview with Xtra!: “It really breaks from a traditional memoir. I mean, it ends with erotica! … Who ends a memoir with erotica?”
How Poetry Saved My Life is not just about queer and survivor identity, or sex work, or the life-saving and transformative power of poetry and writing, but all of these things at once, and more. It’s a tender, nurturing book while being necessarily hard-hitting and painful. Reading it is a cathartic, fulfilling experience, but it’s also not one that ends when you close the back cover. Make no mistake, this is not a book that is easily forgotten. And that’s a great, and important, and vital thing.
One of Amber Dawn’s most interesting strategies throughout the memoir is her frequent use of the second person, a startling and arresting technique rare enough that it stands out like a red dress in a sea of black suits. The book’s first section “Outside,” which tackles outdoor or survival street work, contains an immensely powerful poem titled “Bikini Kill Lyrics” and it’s consistently written in the second person:
Why are you sitting with your back to the only exit?
is dangerous. Didn’t the speaker grow up shutting up
like you did? If you stay perfectly
no one will see you
While you understand that Amber Dawn is addressing herself—perhaps a past self, the use of ‘you’ can’t help but make you imagine yourself in her shoes (or, in “Sex Worker’s Feet,” as one poem is called). You feel as if you are being spoken to, that the ‘you’ might really mean ‘you’; indeed, in a later, consciously disruptive essay “Lying is the Work,” Amber Dawn challenges and speaks to the reader directly, breaking the author/reader divide:
Locate yourself within the bigger, puzzling, and sometimes hazardous world around you. You are invited to do this work. You are already doing this work. What combination of facts and lies represent you? What spectrum of identities do you hold dear while the larger world tells you that these identities don’t even exist? What personal and public rituals do you perform to be seen? What truths must you create to fill the gaps? And what will you (you and I both) do with the knowledge we have (or haven’t) been given?
For me, these questions are the same as poetry. They save me.
When this paragraph ends, this story is all yours.
As for the life-saving power of poetry that the title proclaims, Amber Dawn’s writing is a testament to this very fact, not only for her but for readers as well:
And, yes, poetry must be thanked too.
The written word can be a faithful witness
if you’re willing to show yourself.
Moreover, poetry reunited me with the girl
who didn’t mind the endless backwoods tree line
and was thrilled by the sound of coyotes screaming at night.
Someday I’ll write about her.
I’m glad to see evidence in this last line that we’ll continue to hear a lot more from Amber Dawn. If you want to hear her in person soon, check out her website for a book launch near you! The Vancouver launch is happening at 7pm this Friday, April 12th, at Pat’s Pub (403 E Hastings). See you there!