Look at Her. Vanessa Shields. Black Moss Press. 2016.
In Canada, selling 500 copies of a poetry book is considered remarkable. The fact that Vanessa Shields did this between the September 2016 launch of Look at Her and December 2016 is highly unusual. Yet, when you look at the ardor this energetic woman put into her book tour, you know she (not the press) pushed the sale of her book until it reached that goal. This is a reward for her efforts, but is it good news for readers?
Vanessa Shields is an astute woman who understands her market. Last Fall, she organised a series of ‘launches’, scheduling them in various places she contacted by phone. She then invited authors local to those places to present their work at her book launch in their city or town. She packed her car with a microphone, its stand, and amplifier and then drove all over Southern Ontario. She stayed in the homes of local authors to save on the cost of her tour. She hit both smaller and larger centers and spent several months ‘launching’ her book. Along the way, her open and lively personality made her new friends and her easy-going manner helped to renew old acquaintances. She possesses a magnetic quality, easily attracting attention from most of the people in a room. She enticed those curious to see her, and shared the attention with local authors and the audience attracted by several local names as well as hers. This brought a broader reception for her work, suggesting one reason for the high number of sales that she garnered. It is certainly a much easier way to boost the sale of one’s books than many poets have tried in the past – though standing on a street corner in Vancouver, Toronto, or Halifax and offering them to passers by has worked for some.
Vanessa Shields second poetry book, Look at Her, was recently put into its second printing. I’m sure that result was worth her labour on her book tour. Indeed, her sales might rival those of Al Purdy, Irving Layton or Leonard Cohen for a single title in Canada (certainly within a four-month span). This is especially true because we’re talking about poetry. Poetry books in Canada usually gather so little attention the popular CBC internet page “Best Selling Books in Canada” doesn’t mention poetry. Indeed, in Canada, selling 500 books of poetry, or going into a second printing within the first year, makes you a best seller. Yet, can we expect all Canadian poets to do such an exhaustive tour to sell their books, one-to-one, to the audience at poetry readings? Should they be expected to do it for all of their books? This would assume an author has months to devote to their book tour, which begs the question, when will they find the time to write their next book, let alone nurture their family and other interests in their life.
Then there is the question of quality. The poetic voice introduced to readers of Shields’ first poetry book, I am ‘That Woman’, is raw and promising. It has an energy that is compelling at times but loose and flabby at several points in the book. Hers is a brave and fearless female voice that dares to tackle subject matter most authors will not. Yet, it is the kind of voice that calls to traffic from the porch step like a brash teenager. She is a hard nut, and street-wise. One can delight in her energy and her use of straight-forward straight-talking.
However, the reader feels both a strong empathy and a touch of shame on her behalf. She can be crude. It is easy to see why a press would notice her work, and yet, there were times in reading I am ‘That Woman’ when I questioned if she was published too soon. The book would be improved through revision of the poems, paring down to the promise of the meat within the nut. After all, one should remember her first poetry book was actually her third book publication, following a memoir and an Anthology of poetry that she edited. She also served as a book editor for Black Moss Press. So, it seems fair to ask whether her lines should fall so loosely to the page?
I went to Vanessa Shield’s book launch in Sarnia and was entranced by her delivery of the poems. There is no mistaking her drive or the animation she delivers to her poetry. There are some truly lovely, intimate poems among the pieces in this book (Morning Ritual, Avoidance, The Fight). For instance:
spreading cream on her
arms legs belly breasts
we didn’t know that cancer would take one
a steady strong passionate fighter
upholding a morning ritual
I would find myself copying
Yet, sitting alone with the book, I found the author’s energy largely untamed. She voices everything you’d expect a woman to confide to her closest friends but not to rave about in public (My Vagina is not a Haystack, Doing Kegels at Starbucks). She writes in a confessional mode, but her focus always goes to the limits of what can be said in polite company – and she often insists on putting her toe over the mark. This is not to say that we should all live by polite society’s rules but many pieces should simply be a journal entry (Don’t look Down, Including but not limited to). It is not simply that she talks about sex, but a question of the values she communicates when she talks about her desire to “be a slut” (In My Next Life), or the sexual effects of her ‘clothing’ (Birthday Sex, New Bra). She talks about sex so much you wonder: Where are her children? What else does she focus on? What concerns her about the global environment? How does she connect with people politically? Is feminism simply the right to talk frankly about your own sexual experiences?
Shield leads off in the book with a poem that lists a series of questions. A sampling suggests that, except for mention of her clit, it is unremarkable writing for someone new to writing – but she is not new to writing.
when does your skin feel different than mine?
how many words are dancing in your blood?
how many vampires will we fight?
how does my clit rise differently than yours?
aren’t we supposed to rise up?
or are we to be still?
(Look at Me)
There are several times when she presents pieces that fail to develop into poetry. The book presents them in a way that makes the reader question if she believes everything she’s written has succeeded. For instance, here is a whole poem:
I must get bigger
Don’t be afraid to have an opinion
My eyelashes have opinions
The fingernails I bite off
Slather in spit
Toss out the car window
My body parts have opinions
Don’t be afraid
To say it like the sun
The sun knows its heat
Be the sun
(My Eyelashes Have Opinions)
This is the writing of an ingénue. Who is she talking to? She switches audiences from line to line. She switches styles in her phrasing. She doesn’t give a reason to believe the sun knows its heat. This is the writing of someone who may develop into an important writer but has certainly not done so yet.
I realise a younger generation of poets may appreciate her phrasing more than someone with greying hair, but the truth is this is not the writing of someone who parallels Cohen or Layton or Purdy… whatever may be implied by her book sales. Neither is this the only poem that falls short of making poetry:
I do love you, vagina. I do.
But I miss your elasticity.
I miss your pre-children, red-heated horny abundance and the
Way we used to be best friends.
Will we ever be best friends again?
(A Letter of Request)
Being the mother of two and wishing you still had your 16-year-old vagina is not taking a step toward mature thinking. Rather the opposite. Again, this belongs in a journal. It is not poetry. I have seen reviews lauding Shield’s feminism and I am still looking for that element in her work. Calling ‘A Letter of Request’ poetry is like calling the raw batter in the bowl cupcakes
This brings up the question: What is poetry? In my mind, poetry aims to delineate a clear and mature approach toward the bigger questions in life. It uses condensed language, but not gobble-de-goop. This does not mean younger, avant-gard artists can’t achieve poetry, but it requires focused thinking even when the writing is abstracted. Poetry paints a portrait of a memorable person, or a moment in time, or an aspect of something worth contemplating – while rendering it in a specific voice. Too often, Shields depends upon shock value as her pathway for connection with the reader’s experience, as a stimulator – like the brash teenager calling out profanities to her lover during sex. If you take away the crudeness, what makes it special?
Several times in this book she comes close to achieving the poetry promised to develop through the first book (It Has Happened, I Turned to Paper). She can be gentle, confessional, and even revealing:
She is not afraid to come home
There is no man here who will hit her with his hands
There is no woman here who will hit her with her words
I have a daughter
I watch her playing with the dog in the yard
She is the movie I dreamed for myself each night
In my childhood beds
(I have a Daughter)
Yet, too often, her control slips, her audience seems ill-defined, and many of her lines need editing.
I live by the moto you should never pull down a castle without offering some suggestion on how to rebuild. Shields writes:
I want to tell you I’m a mother
And you not look at me like I’m a child
With dirty innocence on my skin
The love of this planet spinning on the tip of my tired nipple
(The Ruby Between My Thighs).
One way it might be improved – just one way – would be to tighten the language, making it more direct.
I am a mother
You look at me as a child
Dirty innocence on my skin
Love for the planet spinning on my tired nipple
Yet, even then, there are problems with the last line. Does the child suckle? How does love of the planet spin? And what does that mean?
The book contains several poems that deftly portray people who pressure others to try-on identities they are merely curious about:
i’m pretty sure you’re gay she says
I throw my head back and laugh
i’m pretty sure i’m not
trust me i’ve tried
i kissed a girl because I was attracted to her
she stares at my lips
and i wanted to feel something
anything – but i just… didn’t
plus… i can’t imagine going down on a girl
now its her turn to throw her head back and laugh
you think that’s all we do?
(A Straight Girl and A Gay Girl Talk in a Car)
Then she writes a beautiful, loving poem to her child that hints at the mystical essence within us all:
I dreamed you like the earth
Dreams greens blues rainbows
My womb bears the shape of our love
We were both born on a Sunday
Our stories connected forever
And the aboriginal elder
Smiles at the stars we’ve aligned.
There is no denying the power of Shield’s art in several of these poems but she seems to have a difficult time defining important statements. Is every thought rich? Is every sexual act important? Is every inclination worth exploring? In this book, the fine is mixed with the coarse, the astute is blended with the mundane, and the poet expects her audience to travel with her on a journey of discovery.
Poems like Canoe illustrate what she is capable of:
She tells me there’s Metis in my blood
I can feel it trundle in my deep like a canoe
When it first slides into a perfect black lake
I was born to portage
I am in need of remembering
This poem slides into the reader like a canoe slides over the mirror surface of a smooth black Ontario lake.
Here is my wish – that Shields learns patience and hones her skills, waiting to collect only powerful poems like this one in her third collection.