Book Review: hook (Nancy Viva Davis Halifax)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Though poetry aimed at social criticism has been around in English since at least the time of Chaucer, in contemporary times it finds itself increasingly open to challenge. Where poetry was once expected to perform a public function, it is now often seen as the province of private individuals as artists. This is a particular problem in areas like disability poetry where writers speaking from the margins are arguing for their own voices and even more of one in the work of advocates who take up the gauntlet for those not speaking for themselves. A recent instance was Nancy Scott's Running Down Broken Cement where the individual poems at times lost the struggle in the balance between artistry and advocacy. Nancy Viva Davis Halifax's' new book of poetry, hook, is similar to Scott's in its efforts to present a look at those often passed over in the world of poetry, but Halifax's approach uses somewhat different tactics —and with a rather different result.

Halifax tells the reader in a note on acknowledgements, "these poems are written along-side my experience of witnessing homelessness, poverty, disability, and chronic illness on the streets and within women's emergency shelters in Canada." She adds that the work "is not rational, logical" but "fragments found in chance passings." Nevertheless, the first few poems of the book clue the readers in that the books organizational structure, loose as it may seem, is more than chance.

The opening poem, "Index" situates the history of Canada as a palimpsest upon which the lives of the women Halifax observes on the street and in shelters is written. The names are listed of those who will be encountered later in the book, and in answer, to her more existential question "how am a I a part of this," she replies, "the recording secretary." While the poem sets up to toggle between two columns and use space in a way that appears almost casual on the surface, there is not a wasted word — a realization may not come until a reader finishes the book. The poem is, in fact, an index.

It should not be a surprise, then, to discover that the next three poems bear the name "Chain". Beyond pointing out that these poems are linked in what they have to say, the immediate effect is to dismiss the concept of randomness in favor of cause-effect and further to imply moral responsibility. "Chain 1" in its entirety is:

The sky startles over the intersection.
Pigeons wheel from birds of prey.
Ninety-one women in shared rooms,
as if they were curs —
wetted with the inclemency of mid-day mid-November—

In both style and tone, this is reminiscent of Stephen Crane's early, naturalistic poetry, but just as with Crane by asking us to consider just who these birds of prey are, it is in truth far from objective.

The subsequent poems serve to situate the reader in the Toronto homeless shelters of the present. Then, with "The Uses of the Dead," Halifax thrusts us back into a series of specific chronological events leading to the situation of destitute Canadian women in the present day. As someone who loves the use of the kinds of historical allusions in poetry that force me to get out of the poem and learn something new, I enjoy the opportunity to expand my knowledge that these poems provide. At the same time, as an American reader who is embarrassingly ignorant of Canadian history, I wish that Halifax had provided a notes section at the back of the book (as MaryAnn L. Miller did in her book La Belle Indifference also reviewed in this issue of the journal). Without it, I feel there must be a great deal going on that I am not able connected to.

At the same time, however, Halifax does use these historical poems effectively. For example, in "The Army Marches Across Canada, c. 1882" one learns why the name William Booth was included in "Index." Furthermore, between the poems "Toronto, c. 1882" and "Toronto c. 2013" the author places the poem "Lotte." This placement of the latter poem functions in two ways. It creates a chainlike transition between the historical poem sequence and the body of poems describing the lives of the women who are the main subject of the book. It is also the first poem in which the hitherto nameless women she has been referencing is given a name. The book has moved from the historical forces that created the current circumstances to fragmentary snapshots of the specific women who now have to live in them.

The poems that follow include not only the women listed in "Index" as human beings who "are often poorly and find/ the evidence of our true/ existence easily denied" but also those who work in the shelter like Margrit, Maude and the chaplain. Halifax experiments with form trying to imbue each with a sense of individuality that might reflect some aspect of the poem's subject. The beginning of the poem "Kandi" is typical.

too sweet, shallow, the sweat of sugar lines
      her thoughts

      she steadies the needle

her hands

shake      you know she's not

can't speak     can't answer

The lack of punctuation here, functions to allow variation of interpretation. For example, the word "stone" could either be bracketed as "you know she's not stone" or separated to yield "you know she's know" and "stone can't speak cant answer." The use of the needle imagery continues the piling on of metaphors of connection — chains, stitches, sewing — that themselves serve to tie various elements of the book together.

Scattered among the poems that depict the named women in this book are various other poems related to their circumstances. A cluster of these poems center around the imagery of dwelling places including "Old Hotel," "The House Imagined," "Homes" and "Curbside."

In her acknowledgements sections, Halifax thanks a number of others for their help with the manuscript, particularly the a cluster of workshop poets in the Toronto New School of Writing. Indeed, to the extent that so many different styles are experimented with, there is a residual workshop feel to the book. For the most part, Halifax's play with style is effective as in "Kandi" or "Curbside" where the stream of prose devoid of punctuation, capitalization or even the use of white space re-creates the piled up feeling of the curbside life itself, but there are occasional poems where it does not work. "Homes", a list poem, would not make it as a stand alone poem devoid of the context of the book and the book's final poem "The Commons (A Chorus)" loses something as a strictly visual poem and really does need a auditory choral component to make it totally effective.

Unlike most books of poetry that relate to disability, hook takes the broad view. It is a view one would be more likely to find in a poet from a country in sub-Saharan African or India where social forces such as poverty are inseparable from physical and mental disability. Given the modern view of disability as a social construction widely accepted by North American and British disability scholars, Halifax's book is right on target. While most books of poetry that accept a constructionist view tend to pit those with disabilities against the medical establishment's individualist approach to problem solving — one where the problem resides in the individual body — Halifax's historically embedded approach explores deeper forces that are even less amenable to easy solution. It is this combination of Halifax's ability to look beyond simple individual circumstance while equally maintaining the position that poetry is an art that makes hook a satisfying book. She proves that increasing the focus on physical embodiment is not the only way to approach disability poetry.


Title: hook
Author: Nancy Viva Davis Halifax
Publisher: McGill-Queen's University Press
Publication Date: 2015


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the upcoming anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).