For Your Own Good by Leah Horlick is full of the kind of writing that inspires superlatives. It’s one of the best books of poetry I’ve ever read, a genuinely important, incredibly powerful book that has stirred awe in a lot of readers, me included. This is not because For Your Own Good is in itself prone to any grandiose gestures or excess, but for the reason that it is truly a near-perfect, devastating collection of poetry.
I do not say devastating lightly. These poems are about an abusive lesbian relationship, violence in a supposedly safe queer space. There is plenty of triggering material: racism, colonialism, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. But there’s a lot more than that, too.
The poems follow a kind of trajectory, moving from misunderstanding to healing, sometimes back and forth. What I loved was how Horlick speaks from a calm, present moment to her past self. She is gentle, kind, while possessed by a quiet strength, honesty, and poise. As if she’s tenderly whispering, it’s okay.
The collection starts with a circus-themed poem, a brilliant, dark motif of a (queer) outsider hoping to find community with the other freaks:
All those nights camped out in the field, squinting
for a light, a flicker, calliope in the grass.
Grease and fire, they’d understand
and tuck you into their silken fold. They’d fawn
and dress you, glitter and eventually parade…
…and the year came
when you knew you would die on the highway,
in a truck bed, in a grain silo, tied to a fence, in a slough
at your own hand. You left to find them.
When I talk about devastating, though, I mean this:
The Yellow Scarf
makes you look like a brown person, she tells you,
since when have you been brown? And in the dress you’re straight
and the hat makes you look like an immigrant but your breasts are
coined with raisins, your skin is the colour of cinnamon. You are food.
…how is this any
different? You and your grandmothers will be gone before anyone
notices, faster than you can say
Now that I know what to call
what you did, this time I’ll tell you
to stop…Now that I know
what to call what you did, get back here
because nothing I ever do will be enough
to prove it.
But there’s coming back into herself, into trusting new people, into magic:
All of a sudden I know it’s not
going to happen. And panic, silent
until I remember—you’re not her, I could just
ask you to stop. Except that you already
have, and wait, and listen while my body
tells me a very old story.
You don’t ask questions, unless
I want them, and I want anything
but these red eyes that look out
from mine like the forest, anything but
this silence. When you tell me that this
looks like strength to you, how you love this
about me, I almost hate you. Why do you
have to be so good? This has to be magic, how
you hold me while I turn into a snake and fire
and grief itself beneath you. Good magic,
you tell me, and don’t ask questions
until I want them.
The collection ends with the most gorgeous, hopeful poem. She has healed but not forgotten:
It has taken five years and fifteen hundred
kilometres to get away, and closer
to the mountains. I can see them—
every day, like I always wanted. Near,
and distant. Every day I can ask people
not to touch me—
on the bus, on the beach, or in my new kitchen.
Or, I could ask them to—
which, lately, is harder. How can it still
feel so soon? She has never been
near this new body of mine—
short-haired, tattooed, very strong
and very, very fast, now. I carry a chunk of rose
quartz the size of my thumb for safety.
I have sworn to myself a life of people
who know when to stop. I promised—
and spent my first night in the new apartment drawing
circles in salt and rain, whispering
to my old self, come here. I built this
for you. I promised.
Thanks for trusting us with your story Leah. Thanks for sending these poems out into the world.