Have you ever heard of something called a glosa poem? If you haven’t, you’re like me when I picked up Amber Dawn’s debut poetry collection Where the Words End and My Body Begins, which is comprised of these things called glosa poems. I admit, I was intrigued and surprised: I mean, you don’t read a lot of contemporary poets who are using strict forms, let alone archaic forms that even a former English major like me hasn’t heard of! This book of poems is a welcome change from the sea of free verse that you usually find written by today’s poets.
So what are glosas? It’s a pretty cool concept, an explicit acknowledgement of the intertextuality of all writing and poetry in particular. A glosa (or sometimes called gloss or glose) starts with a four-line quotation from another poem. The poet, then, incorporates these four lines into their own poem, but not all at once: the borrowed lines are used as the final line in ten-line stanzas of the new poem the poet is writing, losing their original context and becoming part of their new poem home. The idea is that the new poem is a ‘gloss on’ the content and theme of the original quotation. Apparently this form was popular in Spain in the 14th and 15th century, but has never enjoyed a lot of popularity with English-language poets, with Canada’s P.K. Page being a notable exception. In fact, as she writes in the introduction, Amber Dawn’s inspiration was P.K. Page’s book Hologram: A Book of Glosas.
If you’re at all familiar with 20th century queer, lesbian, feminist, and survivorship poetry (especially from Canada), you’ll recognize a lot of the poets Amber Dawn has chosen for her glosas: Trish Salah, Gertrude Stein, Rachel Rose, Lucille Clifton, Adrienne Rich, Leah Horlick, Sina Queyras, Jillian Christmas, Lydia Kwa, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarashinha, and more! I love the idea that Where the Words End and My Body Begins is an ode to being a reader and writer, and a conversation between women poets. Despite the fact that writing can be about as isolating as work can get, these glosa poems create a kind of community on the page.
Mood and theme-wise, these poems are all over the map: some are funny, some are sexy, some are sad, some are playing with words, some are about grief, some are about queer identity, some are about being a survivor, some are about sex work. All of them are stunning, playing with the form and breaking the rules sometimes, when it fits the poem.
I especially loved how the poem “Story Book” reverses the original trajectory of the source material by Lucille Clifton: “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” The new poem, instead of moving from deceptively happy to dark as Clifton’s does, begins bleak and ends hopefully with “Good brightens the room, beaming blank page. / New story. New street. Enough new stars to share, may we all / come celebrate.”
Amber Dawn’s prowess in the form also really shines in “Chicken Dance,” which is glossing Gertrude Stein: “CHICKEN / Pheasant and chicken, chicken is a peculiar bird. / CHICKEN / Alas a dirty word, alas a dirty third alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird.” Transforming Stein’s nonsensical play with language, Amber Dawn’s new poem spells out the word chicken over the four stanzas, playing with the sounds, punning and integrating the single letters into a poem about going into sex work.
Another powerful poem, one that is easy to love, is “Queer Infinity.” It’s a queerifesto of sorts and a testament to the power of queer art:
Queer grief is a blueprint. We got this shit wired tight.
Maybe we’ve become too good at losing? Are we trauma
bonded? I can’t speak for the whole, only myself
I’d sooner howl at a wounded moon, yes, I might
swoon at a questionable light
but at least I still swoon—my scabby kneecaps
may always weep pink, I’m so often floored.
I’ll never be a two-feet-on-the-ground girl. Let me guess
age didn’t temper your passion either? Your passion, like mine,
only became more strategic.
A totally different kind of poem called “A Group of Sluts Is Called What?” was another one of my favourites. It’s a perfect combination of fun language play, grammar nerdiness, and third-wave feminism:
a ‘recall’ of memories is what
remains do you remember when we all got bent?
a peep of chickens a clutch of chicks
A what? a ‘fluff’ of aging sluts
A what? a ‘muff’ of ex-lovers
all gathered on the same coast
the same city the same black-lit leather bar
the last homocile standing I’ll hold the ceiling up
with my spare hand my creampie is still grandiose
What I have stumbled upon has pleased me the most
Probably the most seamlessly and gracefully integrated glosa in the collection is “Queer Grace,” inspired by an excerpt from Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-one Love Poems.” With a tongue-in-cheek attitude, the poem addresses young queer people, schooling them on their queer history and what has come before them:
Quiet, you whippersnappers. You were born in the eighties
And I must school you. Our foremamas and papas
didn’t have the luxury of safe assembly, much less
Facebook. Think Stonewall had a hashtag?
Allen Ginsberg just yelled, ‘Defend the fairies.’
#fuckingriot #dragbomb. Boom, queer speech
had to boom to be heard in real time.
Queer gait was a march. Queer hearth was our rage.
We shared the meager feast or starved. Potluck.
No one imagined us. We wanted to live like trees
or at least weeds. We wanted to take root
Well, what are you waiting for? Sit down a while, be quiet, and listen to Amber Dawn’s queer femme survivor poems, and all the woman poets before her, and let them take root in you. If you’re anything like me, they’ll make you want to write some poems of your own and participate in the conversation, which is probably one of the best things poetry can do.