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.