Review: How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, by Amber Dawn

9781551525006_HowPoetrySaved>>Published: April 2013

The actress’s A-note sighs turned to dog-like whimpers. Her brow furrowed. I suspected that if she was going to get off, the moment had already passed, but still I kept fucking her. Roxanne eyed the time on her watch, and still I kept fucking. I heard the tiny bones in my wrist creaking. I kept fucking. A turn-out would have given up and handed the client a vibrator, but I kept on fucking.

The white robe trembled on the clacking headboard like an old ghost, still haunting me. I understood very clearly then that there would be no cumload of cash or fame. No Ricki Lake Show. No free condos. No Viva Las Vegas. I could fuck and fuck and still never satisfy the makeover dream. The bubblegum had already been removed, and I knew that this is what I am: a queer femme who often has misguided crushes, dances low-rent burlesque in sticky-floored dyke bars, and writes goddamn poetry.

And what, I asked myself as I pulled out of the famous actress’s pussy, is wrong with that?

***

Amber Dawn’s debut novel Sub Rosa stands neck and neck with Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros and Robert Wiersema’s Before I Wake as one of my favourite examples of contemporary Can Lit. As an exploration of memory and identity, Sub Rosa was a magical realism tale of “Glories”—prostitutes gifted with otherworldly abilities—and the “live ones”, those who would visit the Glories in Sub Rosa to find reprieve from the dark of their everyday city. The novel was richly drawn, playing on—and often subverting—the stereotypes of sex trade workers by positioning them as saviours of sorts, offering escape, salvation, and satiation.

How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir is Dawn’s follow-up to Sub Rosa—a no-stone-unturned combination of poetry and prose that is less of a biography and more of a conversation Dawn is having with the reader. The book is divided into three parts: “Outside”, “Inside”, and “Inward”.

The first section, “Outside”, is more poetry than prose. These are survival-based works, dealing with fear, drug use, depression, and isolation, with brief interludes related to Dawn’s introduction into the sex trade. The poems in this section are barbed and vitriolic—not as manicured as later works in the book, but punctuated, given a degree of immediacy and importance. Dawn shows us the origins of her voice, of embracing “ghetto feminism”; she makes clear the mental divide between the two sides of the river via clients like Paul, who gifts and provides for and shelters the still-fresh-to-the-trade Dawn, likely to make himself feel less like he’s conducting a transaction for sex and more as if he is entering into an exclusive relationship, minus any emotional requirements. She writes: “Is it easier for him, I wonder, to fuck a whore with a big-screen TV and 400-thread-count sheets than to fuck a whore in an apartment sparsely furnished with chairs found in an alley.

“Inside” offers a more balanced split between poetry and prose. In this section, Dawn details what it was like to move off the streets and away from the greater threat of violence and rape while simultaneously getting her post-secondary education. In this section the setting changes, and in fact she changes a great deal, but the work by and large remains the same—and the same threats are still present, if not as readily apparent. The more she learns in school, however, the greater her pull to the poetry of others, the more the cracks in her complacency begin to show. Disenfranchisement—not consistent, but in fits and starts—is visible as street survival is replaced, to some extent, by numbing self-critique. Dawn’s identity is more acutely defined in this section, and the book transitions from an education to a conversation: the author asks readers to address what it is that defines or is defined by the identities we construct for our selves and in our private lives, the identities we reveal openly to the world, and our acceptance of identities that might challenge what hard and fast perceptions we might have of the world beyond our safe social and familial microcosms—to become a part of a larger conversation and to not be so prone to strive for the high ground from which to look down and find reason to criticize.

The final section, “Inward”, offers fewer poems and more prose. This section is more a series of direct addresses: to past selves and lovers, to accomplishments and movements taken part in, and to finding love—and through love, a sense of satisfaction and contentment in the moment, and embracing happiness in not knowing what tomorrow will bring. If “Outside” represents first wounds, “Inward” is about healing—about finding closure and accepting the mistakes and successes of one’s past in equal measure.

Artistically, “Outside” was, for me, the strongest section in the book. As Dawn writes in the book’s introduction, “Crisis and creativity can be a potent combination.” The poetry in this first section is sharpened to a point; the confusion and instability on display is densely constructed, tangible, and highly visual. The transition in Dawn’s writing from the beginning to the end of this book is more about refinement than voice; there is a clear through-line to her personality and the changes she experiences, and it is her writing that becomes, simply, more elegant and precise.

How Poetry Saved My Life has an essential quality to it—not just for the realities of the sex trade it presents, but for the personal struggles regarding self and sexuality addressed, both separate from and affected by her career in the sex trade and her development as a writer and public figure. If Sub Rosa is the statement, How Poetry Saved My Life is its definition—together the two works feel as if they embody a greater sense of being removed from one’s past while respectfully acknowledging the impact, importance, and in a sense, the magic of what was experienced, and the worlds, eyes, and minds opened as a result of it all.

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Review: Born Weird, by Andrew Kaufman

born-weird>>Published: December 2012

>>Finally got around to it: April 2013

“All of you got one, you know. All five of you got one.”

“You gave Kent the power to be an asshole?”

“Yes. In a way I did. Kent is slightly stronger than anyone he fights. Physical fights, I mean. He came out so small and I knew he’d need to defend himself, somehow. That he’s emotionally stunted is not my fault.”

“He’s not stunted. He’s just angry all the time.”

“Lucy is never lost. Abba never loses hope. Richard keeps himself safe. I never thought they’d all become curses. They were supposed to be blessings. I didn’t know that they’d end up ruining your lives.”

“Our lives are ruined?”

“And it’s not just you kids. It’s the family. The family name! I will not go to the grave responsible for taking down the good name of the Weirds.”

“Oh yes. Well, then, that makes more sense.”

“That’s why you’re here, Angie. You must go and find them. Round all of them up and bring them here. All five of you must be in this room at 7:39 p.m. on April 20 precisely. At the moment of my death I will lift the curses.”

***

The Weird siblings, from oldest to youngest: Richard, Lucy, Abba, Angie, and Kent. Each of them has been gifted a “blursing”—a blessing and a curse rolled into one: Richard has an almost psychic capacity for self-preservation, which keeps his heart at an arm’s length of genuine love; Lucy is gifted with an unnaturally well-tuned sense of direction that makes it impossible for her to ever fully abandon the life she has (which spawns a tragic need for her to spread her legs at far too many opportunities); Abba never loses hope, no matter how misguided it may be; Angie has a heart too big for its own good, which allows her to forgive her siblings’ many (and varied) transgressions; and Kent, the runt of the litter, is blursed with a fucking short fucking fuse that gets him into more than a few tight situations along the way.

Life for the Weird siblings is, to put it mildly, a little less than straightforward. Their father Besnard died eight and a half years prior to the start of the tale. Their mother Nicola, following their father’s death, checked out from reality and is confined now to a nursing home where she operates a makeshift hair salon for the visiting children she no longer recognizes. And last but not least is the Shark—Grandma Weird, who mistakenly blursed the five siblings early in life, and now, on her deathbed, seeks to undo the very real (or convincingly imagined) damage she’s done.

Each blursing has, over time, become a prison of sorts for the affected sibling. Following Besnard’s death, the Weird siblings went along their separate paths, each one struggling to make sense of life in their own special, messed up sort of way. Our story begins as Grandma Weird summons the very pregnant Angie to her side with a mission: to reunite the wayward Weirds in time for Grandma to break their blursings upon her untimely (though very much expected) death. What follows is a quick gathering of bickering souls in time for a chaotic road trip from one end of Canada to the other.

Like Kaufman’s All My Friends Are Superheroes, Born Weird is magical realism-lite: a story that treads the line between literary and genre work, with a healthy smattering of surrealism for flavour, for oomph.

The Theory of Snakes and Sharks at the spine of Born Weird is a sort of CliffsNotes for family fuck-uppery: “The sharks are the people who are naturally evil. They just cruise around the world doing evil things. But that’s what they do. It’s in their nature. Snakes are different. They don’t actually commit evil themselves, they convince other people to do it.” Between Besnard’s spectacular lack of parenting and Grandma’s unwanted life lessons-style magical intervention, the Weird siblings’ very natures have been, against their better desires, dictated by what was lost and never truly known, and what was given—and possibly needed—but never wanted in the first place.

Kaufman’s strengths are his abilities to play with rhythm and dialogue. Each of the five Weird siblings feels authentic and accessible—and so incredibly flawed. More than that, when they come together their voices sync up in very natural ways. The casual back biting and sibling rivalry-style language paints an effective scene with plenty of implied history between them. While the dialogue is never laugh-out-loud funny, it has a sarcastic charm to it, a playfulness that gnaws at the bone without ever breaking skin. Like All My Friends Are Superheroes, which employed a similar tone and playfulness of voice, the metaphors surrounding each siblings’ blurse are never rich enough to mine for extended depths, and neither are they shallow enough to merely coat the surface.

The qualities of Kaufman’s writing do most of Born Weird’s heavy lifting. The family values-style narrative offers little more than your typical redemption-and-forgiveness tale wherein a neglectful parent is taught the error of their ways and the siblings all learn what matters most. And as the narrative stumbles in its final few steps across the finish line with a pat (but mostly earned) conclusion, a little of its bite—bite that gave the novel its life and strongest sense of identity—is lost.

In spite of that, Born Weird is a delightful, highly engaging read, and a successful marriage of magical realism with more conventional literary tendencies. Kaufman has a quick wit; the sharpness of his dialogue and how well it informs each of his characters gives Born Weird its unique comic timing and sensibility. This book is a lot of fun.

Review: By Blood, by Ellen Ullman

by+blood>>Published: February 2012

>>Finally got around to it: April 2013

Then all at once I was frightened. How quickly I could come to hate her—she who was moments ago my icon of self-creation. I must be careful, I thought. I have traveled this path before. I must not go there. I therefore forced down my anger; sat still as my annoyance ebbed. It took all my self-control, but I succeeded, congratulating myself that I had changed, that I could be otherwise than I’d been. I turned my ear to the lovely pitch of the patient’s voice, her beautiful whiskey alto, and once again let it play above me as music, staccato now, legato then, piano and forte. My dear patient, I thought, forgive me! And how my heart contracted when she suddenly sobbed and cried out:

I don’t understand! How could they get me from a place they hate? How could they? I know it sounds crazy, but I feel I’m tainted. That Father looks at me and sees this mark: Catholic.

But you are not changed, said the therapist. Your being, your self, is the same, whether you came from a reed basket, a Protestant church, or a Catholic agency.

This has nothing to do with who I am! shouted the patient. It’s a mark on me before I was anyone. No matter what I am!

She was breathing forcefully, and I thought she would finally cry. But she contained herself and fell silent.

***

By Blood, Ellen Ullman’s second novel and third book, is a strange, often unsettling bit of literary voyeurism. The protagonist of this sordid tale is an unnamed fifty-year-old disgraced university professor awaiting the judgement of the Professional Ethics Committee. It’s never directly spelled out what his disgrace was, only that it was sexual in nature and involved a young male student—the details of their encounter are, to the novel’s benefit, kept decidedly vague. In an effort to keep his career from falling apart entirely, and to better occupy his mind, he leases an office space in a building shared by a therapist in San Francisco in the late summer of 1974 to prepare a series of lectures on The Eumenides.

However, in place of his work the narrator instead finds himself captivated, almost immediately, by the therapy sessions of a young lesbian attempting to unravel her past and track down her birth parents. The young unnamed woman’s sessions travel with almost perfect audio clarity between the walls separating her therapist’s walls from the Spartan office of our unbalanced and progressively more disturbing narrator. As the professor becomes more interested—and more involved in the patient’s story, he gradually inserts himself into the tale. At first his interest is merely a curiosity, but curiosity quickly leads to almost telegraphed obsession, then to an unnatural sort of fatherly protection and mistrust of Dr. Dora Schussler, the therapist, as he turns the patient’s search for self-identification into an academic project, in the end assuming only he knows what is best for the young wayward.

Set amidst the Zodiac killings of the mid-seventies, By Blood is a highly crafted literary mystery. The professor narrating the novel’s events is at first presented as an arrogant, entitled man. Through practiced attentiveness and an overeager imagination, he is able to construct a fully three-dimensional image of the patient’s therapy sessions—using details such as the smell of a particular brand of cigarette smoked by Dr. Schussler, or the sound she makes when she rubs her nylons together as the paint he applies to the setting built in his mind. The professor’s incredible ability to take individual details and run with them affords him a distraction from his own life and problems; periodic memories and half-crystalized thoughts reveal only what’s needed from a man whose family life was marked by “long bloodlines of mad people stretching back in time, suicides running in our veins the way blue eyes were passed down in saner clans.” It isn’t long before his many-layered neurosis overwhelms his manicured, erudite self, and the personality the reader is forced to hold hands with for the novel’s duration is one unhinged and ignorant to such ideas as “privacy” and “professional conduct.”

Opposite to the professor is the object of his fascination: the patient. Her life, as we learn through the professor’s aural voyeurism, is uncertain; she does not know entirely what she wants in a lover, how best to navigate the waters of her lesbianism with less than supportive parents, or the truth of her origins. Her adoptive mother is an emotional black hole, speaks often in the future imperative (a fantastically passive aggressive approach to parenting), and refuses to accept her daughter’s sexuality; her adoptive father is a man disowned by his own cult leader of a father and harbours a deep and at first glance irrational hatred of Catholics. We learn that, through the professor’s unknown-to-others intervention, the patient was abandoned during World War II by a Jewish mother who had married an Aryan man. She did so to attempt to protect herself from Hitler’s concentration camps. The patient was at first adopted by her adoptive father’s father, Grandfather Avery, who in turn rejected her (he’d been under the impression, vicious as despicable as he was, that he’d adopted a pure-blooded Aryan child and not some Jewish girl who’d simply been baptized Catholic). The patient’s story is so attractive to the professor as he sees, forced or not, fragments of his own self in her: “How like me she was, I thought: never properly loved, not trusting therefore, believing only in the picture of the world constructed by her analyzing mind.

Set firmly (and unknowingly) between the professor and the patient is the therapist: Dr. Dora Schussler. Dr. Schussler is the only named character of the three main; she is the story’s fulcrum and, eventually, its final curtain. Dr. Schussler, without knowing it, is the professor’s primary antagonist—a therapist he assumes at times to be less than competent, unworthy of the patient’s attention and respect. He listens carefully to supposedly private conversations shared between Dr. Schussler and an always outside-of-the-scene therapist named Dr. Gurevitch, a contemporary of Dr. Schussler’s who assists the good doctor with feelings of her own unearthed during her sessions with the patient—feelings of guilt regarding her own German heritage and her Nazi father.

By Blood is divided into four sections, each with its own identifiable focus: Part One is backstory and setting, wherein the professor’s educated façade is quickly stripped to its psychologically disturbed underwire; Part Two is the scheme, the research that will unearth the patient’s previously unknown life story; Part Three is the history lesson, detailing in tremendous detail the patient’s search for truth as she tracks down her birth mother Michal and pulls from her the sordid details of her birth and subsequent abandonment; and Part Four is a trim collection of pages set aside for final revelations and unfortunately timed reveals. For the first two parts, the professor is most certainly the novel’s focus—much to his own dismay. In Part Three, the story shifts and the professor becomes a full-time observer to the patient’s long and difficult history. While this is in large part due to leg work accomplished in secret by the professor, he mostly recedes into the background in this part, content to sit back and munch his metaphorical popcorn while the patient pours out so much of her life as to entirely shield us from inquiring about his. In this sense, the narrative—and how it is written—conforms to his ever-present need to hide from reality and the ramifications and full acknowledgement of his unfortunate past actions.

Masks are the theme of the day. The patient’s story is the professor’s mask, so that he may hide from the world (and live somewhat happily in another’s as an imagined silent partner). By a similar token, Jewishness and lesbianism are the masks of mothers. Michal did not want religion to be a burden for her daughter as it was for her, claiming it is not blood but choice that defines someone as Jewish. This is comparable, in a sense, to the patient’s adoptive mother and her views on lesbianism—as something her daughter has chosen to inflict upon their totally happy, well balanced, and not at all cultish or borderline alcoholic family. Stories and choices—or what are perceived as choices—are preferred over blood by those most fearful of what is represented by what’s in their DNA. The book’s title, in the end, holds to what the professor, Dr. Schussler, and Michal most desperately want to ignore, and what the patient seeks so ardently to confirm: that the failures and successes of their minds and hearts are tethered to who they are, who they were, and they always would be, and the choices made along the way are worth only so much.

All that being said, the ending of By Blood is frustratingly abrupt—not so much because the patient’s history and happiness remain unresolved, but because the professor, whose life has as previously mentioned taken a back seat in the novel’s second half, has been shut out of the life he’d been obsessing over, but with little in the way of ramifications to his own already damaged psyche. This is at odds with how troubled he seemed previously over the mere possibility of losing that connection when the landlord threatened to move his office to another floor. Additionally, the professor’s own story is left unceremoniously unresolved, with his academic and professional future still up in the air at the end of the novel. It feels a little as if the author lost interest in both halves of the story at once, and the professor is left at the end with having to once more live with and examine his own life. However, the fear we’d been led to expect from him in such a situation is not present in the novel’s final pages, leading the reader to suspect that by accomplishing what he had with the patient—whatever the end result to his ethics or moral grounding—he’d found some sort of self-satisfaction that would in turn carry him through to the better, more emotionally well developed self that is shown in the novel’s opening pages, as he addresses the reader from a point after the narrative’s end.

And like life, nothing is ever truly over, and no one’s life is ever so honest and clear. Despite a few minor and not-so-minor unresolved thoughts regarding the novel’s final few pages, Ullman’s By Blood remains captivating ’til the very last.

Review: A Murder of Crows, by David Rotenberg

cvr9781439170144_9781439170144_hr>>Published: March 2013

A smile crept over his face. Yeah, time to get back at every one of them who put him in shadow, who rejected his brilliance. Who refused him admission to their damned club. Well, I’ll grant you all admission—admission to hell.

And as he watched the third act he thought of how simple it was to make an explosive device—kid’s stuff really. But where to put it? That was the question: where to put it?

Then he saw the mob gathering onstage to hear Anthony’s speech over Caesar’s dead body—and he knew. A mob gathered to listen. Oh, yes. Universities have such gatherings once a year. We surely do.

He ran the three necessities for a crime in his head:

Motive: in spades.

Means: you bet.

Opportunity: he’d have to work on that. Bombs need to be planted. And what would a professor be doing digging in the ground or lifting platforms. No, he’d need an assist with that.

Then he remembers the janitor who’d given “unwarranted attention” to bouncy Marcia and smiled… and to his surprise he felt comfortable in his theatre seat. He had lots of room; it fit just fine.

***

Decker Roberts, acting instructor, truth-sensing synaesthete, and valued NSA asset is back in A Murder of Crows, the second of David Rotenberg’s Junction Chronicles trilogy. Fourteen months have passed since the incident with Yolles Pharmaceuticals in The Placebo Effect. Decker continues to seek information about his estranged son, Seth, who is suffering from a rather aggressive cancer of the bladder. This time Decker is called upon by the NSA to help solve the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11—the bombing of an Ancaster College graduating class (and by association, the decimation of America’s scientific elite).

A Murder of Crows wastes no time tossing readers back into the mix, immediately re-introducing Decker, his sometimes duplicitous best friend Crazy Eddie, and NSA hard-ass Yslan Hicks as the book’s protagonists. The story begins with Decker on a job in Las Vegas. Crazy Eddie is still trying to win back his daughter, Marina, and to do so he’s got to make a play against a particular bastard of a lawyer named Ira Charendoff. Charendoff and Decker have a history, so in order to clear the playing field and keep the NSA off Decker’s back at the same time, Crazy Eddie sends Decker off to South Africa. Following the attack at Ancaster, the NSA tracks down Decker in South Africa and “encourages” him to return to the United States, using his son’s whereabouts as a fantastically manipulative bargaining chip. The novel also introduces a number of new characters via quick, sometimes half-page chapters—characters such as: Ancaster student and scientist Grover Cleveland Rabinowitz, who is preternaturally obsessed with the mysterious lumps of microwaved faecal matter that appear on campus from time to time; Walter Jones, Esq., an Ancaster janitor whose rather simple behaviour becomes creepy and stalkerish with little pushing; and Viola Tripping, a psychic medium who is presented, troublingly so, as simultaneously a woman and a little girl in both appearance and mannerisms.

Like the first book in the series, A Murder of Crows plays fast and loose with the concept of synaesthesia. In some cases, it flat-out makes up its own definitions. The synaesthesia presented in this book is less the phenomenon we know it as (a crossing of the senses wherein some people can smell words or see colours and shapes with music or taste certain letters and syllables, etc.) and something far more… supernatural. In fact, it’s entirely supernatural—the character of Viola Tripping is in fact a medium for speaking to the dead, which has absolutely nothing to do with synaesthesia, or for that matter, reality. When Harrison says at one point, “We really don’t know sweet fuck all, do we?” he’s right—the rules of what is and what isn’t synaesthesia in Rotenberg’s world are still not clear.

As problematic as The Placebo Effect was, A Murder of Crows has an even greater number of issues. Most of them are continuations of problems that existed in the previous title: the film- and pop culture-based asides are just as prevalent and still add little if anything to the characters, only now they are matched by political asides (commentating on the position of “the whites” in South Africa, Julian Assange’s guilt or innocence, and the timely idiocy of Sarah Palin’s “death panels”) that feel less tied to the characters and more as if they are a product of the author breaking the fourth wall to tell us how he feels about the world. Many of the side plots introduced in the first book are finally resolved here, such as why Garreth Senior has such a hate-on for Decker, and why Seth wants nothing to do with his father—though in the case of the latter, it’s an answer that comes too little too late, as what could have been used in the first book to better frame their troubled relationship lands with more of a “it’s about bloody time” than an “oh, I get it now.”

Building further on the problems from the first book is the strange and out of place racial insensitivity on display when describing the almost magical connection most Africans seem to have to the planet, or the very free-flowing anti-Muslim language used in sections describing suspects in the attack. None of it meshes with the otherwise popcorn vibe of the book. Rather it feels at odds with what’s been provided, as if deliberately used to exoticize the “other” (further exemplified through Decker’s relationship with Inshakha, who appears to know a great deal more about the world than she lets on).

There is also insensitivity displayed towards women and size and sexual attraction. For example, the one character openly referred to as a bitch is also repeatedly referenced for her ample size, as if that is condemnation of her personality. To go even further, the novel makes special note to point out that the twisted, borderline insane killer has a thing for bigger women, as if that were another point of perversion on a character who has already been revealed as a murderous stalker with a scatological obsession.

And what is it with this book’s preoccupation with piss and shit? Every time it managed to pull me out of the narrative—especially when it is used in moments to exclusively de-age or dehumanize characters, such as when Viola is introduced via the immortal words, “I’ve made a poopoo.” It rang entirely false.

From the unrealistic and all-too-simple decision (made with Dr. Claw-like aplomb) to murder dozens of innocent professors and young adults made by two childish villains who feel short-shafted by life, to side narratives that are never given enough room to breathe or feel essential to the story or characters, and an overwhelmingly childish tone that can be at time politically patronizing and frustratingly obtuse as it vacillates between fear of the other and “fuck the rich and entitled, they all deserve to die,” the second book in Rotenberg’s trilogy is more coherent from point A to point B than the first, but shares all the same problems and then some.

Perhaps, though, the single greatest problem so far is that after two books in this series, I still don’t feel I know who Decker is—what he feels, what he thinks, or for that matter what any of the characters are feeling or thinking. The closest we as readers come to gaining a greater understanding of Decker is through his all-too brief relationship with Tinnery in South Africa. She is able to cut beneath the surface of Decker, if only for a moment. That brief encounter aside, Rotenberg’s characters are still frustratingly thin—a problem that stems in large part from the breakneck pace of each very short chapter. The basic structure of A Murder of Crows is restrictive—offering brevity of time, place, and thought that does not allow for any one personality to grow or shine in an organic way.