In a striking moment in How Poetry Saved My Life, Amber Dawn describes how, while caring for a drunk co-worker at the massage parlour where she works, she composes a line of a poem in her head: “Maybe this is the precise moment when poetry becomes my primary way to cope. Something lifts inside my body—that buoyancy that comes when I observe my life as art.” This tension between despair and hope is palpable throughout the narrative. The book is, at times, difficult to read, as Dawn navigates a world of sex work, violence, drug use, and “the isolation of queer youth.” Yet there is also profound resilience, love, community, and creativity in these pages.
From the title, one might expect a story of how literary success or post-secondary education helped Dawn escape life as a sex worker. The reality is much more complex, and being “saved” here is not as simple as being saved from the poverty or addiction that we tend to associate with a life of prostitution. As she writes in the title poem:
There wasn’t a voice
no tunnel of light
I didn’t awaken in a hospital room to doctors cheering,
you’re a lucky young lady
you almost didn’t make it
Instead Dawn writes of the alienation and ambivalence that accompanies the “class ladder,” of the relationship between literature and advocacy, and of the complexities of speaking out. Poetry becomes a means of coping, reflection, and activism.
Dawn’s story is told as much in its form as in its content. Weaving between memoir and verse, the book embodies the way that poetry has influenced her life. Many of the poems play with repetition and lines plucked from epigraphs, techniques that highlight the imposition of poetic form, without undermining an inherent accessibility and narrative power in the lines.
Her writing style impedes any temptation to sensationalize her story. Dawn interrupts an account of a violent date with metanarrative: “My dear reader, if only I could talk to you in more than a narrative direct address and break the fourth-wall monologue. I wish this were a two-way conversation. I’d like to ask if you are worried about the female protagonist (me) in this nonfiction story.” With such passages Dawn refuses to allow her readers to be passive voyeurs in the seedy underbelly of Vancouver. “I’d like to know why you are worried,” she continues. “How big is this worry? Do I (the protagonist) represent something larger than the 3,000-odd words of this story, the 150-odd pages of this book?” This passage becomes a kind of challenge to readers; we are asked not to simply consume these pages but also to reflect on our own assumptions, political beliefs, and experiences.
Indeed Dawn ends the introduction with an invitation to her reader to “explore your own story of survival, speaking out, finding community, and treasuring your own experiences.” While she cannot quite create that “two-way conversation” she craves, in this way she includes her readers in her own literary community, fostering understanding, empathy, and insight.
Jennifer Delisle is a writer, editor and academic in Edmonton. She has published widely in magazines and journals, and is a member of Room Magazine’s editorial collective. She is also the author of The Newfoundland Diaspora: Mapping the Literature of Out-migration. www.jenniferdelisle.ca.