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Author Amber Dawn's latest book is titled My Art Is Killing Me.

Sarah Race

  • Title: My Art is Killing Me
  • Author: Amber Dawn
  • Genre: Poetry
  • Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press
  • Pages: 142

Every time I hear that all will be changed now, I think back to the days after September 11, 2001, when Lower Manhattan was enveloped in inches of toxic dust and I was told that never again would audiences stomach an action movie depicting the destruction of New York.

Handout

I admit I was tempted for a while to see the world marked before and after coronavirus. Maybe I was more susceptible to the idea because I got sick, though there’s also that feeling in the air that all possibilities are up for grabs. Now I see the pandemic less as a harbinger of the world changed than as an expression of what came before. COVID-19 didn’t invent the conditions at the long-term care home where my blood relative died – a series of Liberal and Conservative governments did. If the world changed on its own, protest wouldn’t be necessary. The world only changes if you change it.

Why does this matter? Because, dear reader, I feel the weight of expectation to explain how a book is still relevant in our new world, even though I have yet to see that world take shape. Pertinent to the book at hand: Among all the brands that have recently rushed to claim not-racist, where is the mass movement for sex workers? And where is the new world for survivors of sexual assault?

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Well, if we are being serious that Black lives matter, that Indigenous lives matter, that the lives of people of colour matter, then that estimation of worth has to include a profession of mostly poor, racialized people whose lives are endangered by the Canadian state. And in that regard, Amber Dawn’s fifth book (her eighth, including those she edited), about how violence is inscribed on the bodies of sex workers, then reinscribed on the sex-worker-turned-poet, are, if anything, only more relevant now.

Amber Dawn gently assumes that any reader of this “queer and desperate poetry” has, like her, never lived an uncomplicated story. How to summarize these poems’ many modes and registers, which can go from deeply personal to providing a more distanced overview? A poem can be pointed in its use of repetition, examining a phrase from many angles. But then repetition can also form a mantra, which is a way of returning to the body when we are too much in our mind. I felt safe here even though, underneath it all, there is an adrenalized hum.

It starts with story. In Hollywood Ending, about the actresses who benefit from portraying sex workers but also want to erase them, a series of questions ends: “How does story, and our interpretation of it, determine who we blame and who we protect? How does story decide what we subjugate and what we celebrate?”

Later in the book, Amber Dawn writes, “Lately I’ve been reexamining what it means to write poetry. The thing is I / grew suspicious of the page after I published my memoir.” Consider the title of that memoir, 2013′s How Poetry Saved My Life against this newest book: My Art is Killing Me. She captures that tension, between how art can save but also invite further harm, in these lines from Touch ≠ Touch Screen:

Did your abuse fever teach you to solder belonging and harm?

Were you seen and were you shamed in the same

original place?

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Amber Dawn is white and the “I” in her poems is a literary construct representing herself, not anyone else. Still, I think there is something widely applicable about how the writer who makes art from her pain becomes a kind of “paradoxical body,” to use her phrase. It is right to read voices that have been marginalized for so long, but our self-criticism of our reading habits cannot end there. When we read trauma, what are we asking of the artist? And who and what are being consumed?

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