“No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain,” Susan Sontag wrote, sounding a note of caution to artists who would seek to ally themselves with marginalized people. Can the artist stand with both her subjects and her audience? Which “we” is looking and which is being looked at?
With her new collection, hook, poet nancy viva davis halifax reports back from her experiences working in emergency shelters and on the streets of Toronto. She positions herself as an ally of her subjects, characterizing the work as “not a problem, not a resource, but an opening.” While their object is political, the poems are lyrical and rely on the particulars of the outer world to reveal the inner lives of their speakers. The poet finds startling images, interesting line breaks and innovative forms to keep the reader engaged with uncomfortable material, including drug abuse, chronic illness and sexual violence. Several poems use crocheting, knitting and sewing as an ordered counterpoint to the chaos of their subjects’ lives, including the title poem, which begins with the speaker winding the first few loops around a crochet hook and then continuing
Repeat: yarn over, duck the yarn.
Gaunt women With A, ch 5.
fat women, join with sl st
crippled women, chain 3 sts blind
women, 8 trc in ring dead women, join w sl st
look toward a bronze statue and its open mouth
waiting for her to sing 16 dc in ring
While the text is challenging, it lands (as many crocheting patterns do) on the instruction to repeat the pattern again from the beginning, indicating that these poems portray not simply a few particular lives, but the workings of an immense cycle.
Many poems evoke the dreadful vulnerability of a life lived on the margins. The speaker of “Medication Time – 6 pm – Maude” laments, “My medicines present an unflinching threat // if I do not swallow / under their hammers // the promise of recovery will be rescinded.” In “Three Strikes,” a woman kicked out of a shelter after her third infraction almost stutters:
No one ever told me that. No one
If they told me that that
it was three
well if they told me that
I would not have been shoved to this curb’s shoulder.
The intimacy is sometimes claustrophobic, and that’s the point. The poet wants to bring us closer to her subject than we want to be. Her own proximity to her speakers is a source of tension: is she giving them a voice or putting words in their mouths? But davis halifax seems aware of the delicate line she walks. “How am I part of this?” she asks in the very first line of the collection, and she closes the book with its strongest piece, “The Commons (A Chorus),” in which numerous voices ask together, “do you remember? / do you remember? / do you remember?” What we now call an ally, we once called a neighbour.
Abby Paige is a writer and performer currently living in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Her work has appeared in Canada and the U.S., recently including The Los Angeles Review of Books and Room Magazine.
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