Reprinted with permission from the League of Canadian Poets’ Feminist Caucus leader, Anne Burke, please feast your eyes on a review of Look At Her by Ottawa writer Ronnie R. Brown. This review was printed in the November Report for the Feminist Caucus.
Review of Look At Her: A Book of Poetry by Vanessa Shields (Windsor, ON.: Black Moss Press, 2016) 106pp. paper.
In this, Shields’ second collection of poetry (she has also written a memoir and edited an anthology), the focus is solidly on women. It is Shields’ aim to examine, explain and investigate the female of the species both inside and out. Divided into four sections (Body; Motherhood; Family; and Power ) Shields uses the devices of the modern world–from twitter hashtags (“If Hashtag Was An Honour System”) to pornography that can be accessed via a cell phone (“When She Showed Me Porn On Her Cell Phone”) all the while tossing in pop culture names (including Lady GaGa, Ani DiFranco, Adam Levine and Channing Tatum–he of the astounding abs).
By describing the experiences of her own body–be it having sex for the first time (“August 26, 1996”) to the process of consuming “a massive gyro” before delivering a child and, with her newborn on her breasts, waiting as “The doctor stitched and stitched and stitched…” and noting “My vagina was never the same/ Nothing was” (“Birth Story”)–she tells it like it was.
While other women rhapsodize or romanticize about the “joys of being a girl, Shields’ poems give it to you straight. Be it “Doing Kegels at Starbucks” or experiencing an orgasm (“In The Dying Part”) the reader gets her unexpurgated take on things. As well, Shields is merciless when dealing with a woman assessing herself–whether her body or her life. In “Don’t Look Down,” she despairs of looking down at her stomach and “Throw[ing] hate at it,” of Longing to “Reach for a dull knife to cut it off in two big fat chunks/ Throw it on the barbeque/ Burn it.” And in “Tell Me” she begs someone to “Tell me I’m a good mother.”
Look At Her, confronts the kind of inner fears that can wake you in the middle of the night and lets the reader know that there are others out there with similar thoughts. This collection may even be one way to actually let the male portion of the reading public get a peek into what women think (and want and so on).
Living as we are in a time when a U.S. Presidential candidate can rebuke an accusation of sexual assault by pointing to a women and implying that by just “looking at her” you can tell he would not take the time or trouble to have anything to do with her, Shields’ Look At Her offers a most prescient take on how women are seen.
But the collection offers more than just a superficial take by adding suggestions as to how women should be seen as in “Kitchen Dancing,” a truly wonderful piece in which, after a big Italian meal, the women are doing the washing up, while dancing to “sexy latin beats” when her grandfather “steps onto the linoleum dance floor” and “without words” her grandmother “brings her body and attention from the dishes to my grandfather’s arms” and it is clear that this dance is “one of the few ways he tells her he loves her.” Would that we could all be looked on and loved in such a way.
Ronnie R. Brown