How Poetry Saved My Life
By Amber Dawn. Arsenal Pulp, 160 pp, softcover
On the opening page of How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir is a quote from the celebrated British writer Jeanette Winterson, which reads in part: “A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.”
The truth of these words echoes throughout Amber Dawn’s moving account of the years she spent as a sex worker in Vancouver. Presented in three segments—“Outside”, “Inside”, and “Inward”—which correspond to her phases in the trade and after, the verses and essays collage loves lost, wisdom gained, and her emerging identities as a lesbian and advocate.
Like 2010’s Sub Rosa, her Lambda Award–winning debut novel portraying a magical district that shelters prostitutes, this autobiography also explores private anguish and public apathy, the primacy of storytelling, and memory’s power. Documenting the author’s awareness of society and self, it offers glimpses of her adolescence in Fort Erie, Ontario, as well as the fierce resolve and kinship that later sustained her.
Transitioning from street hustling to the relative safety of indoor employment, Amber Dawn describes her first stint at a massage parlour, and the binary circumstance of being both a sex worker and student, in “But I’m in College”. “To All the Butches I Loved Between 1995 and 2005: An Open Letter About Selling Sex, Selling Out, and Soldiering On” surveys the ways in which “personal economics informed my femme identity” and the influence this exerted on the author’s romantic relationships.
Duality and transcendence are prevalent themes in this slender volume, a reminder that one’s personal history carries a multitude of experience. In the deeply affecting “How to Bury Our Dead”, Amber Dawn reflects on mourning and the queer community while commemorating her friend Shelby Tom, a transgender sex worker
who was murdered in North Vancouver in 2003.
Lit by compassion and courage, How Poetry Saved My Life is a tribute to the marginalized and maligned, the survivors and statistics. This book contains moments of unquestionable grace, and acknowledges, as the title poem does, that “the written word can be a faithful witness/if you’re willing to show yourself.”