Chantal Gibson’s genre-bending debut collection How She Read (Caitlin Press) is a poetic exploration and visual reflection of the representations of Black women in Canada that Lawrence Hill calls “a balm for our aching souls [that] sparks an inquiry and packs a wallop in every line and on every page.”
On a recent Saturday, I walked along the waterfront in downtown Victoria carrying a copy of How She Read, the hot-off-the-presses debut poetry collection by artist/educator Chantal Gibson. I marched along Wharf Street and up Fort until I came upon a sandwich board marking my destination: Open Space.Inside, the main space is warm and clean. In the centre of the gallery, displayed on white plinths, are deconstructed historical texts cut and braided through with thick black thread spilling out from the pages like living things. Across the room, large canvas prints of pages from old school readers are mounted along the wall, presenting redacted passaged from the Canadian Vocabulary Speller. One erasure poem reads:
This image is an extension of those that appear in Gibson’s poetry book, How She Read (below).From How She Read.Gibson’s book is powerful. It makes you work in a way that only makes you want to read more, to earn the words on the page. The poems are jarring; they take the grammar—the English—rules of language enforced upon us as school children and break them into new forms. The reader has to process this deconstruction and reconstruction on the page to complete the poems in the first section, titled “grammar of loss.” Fill in the blanks, missing vowels, run-ons, and sentence fragments visually illustrate the constraints of the English language.In the second part of How She Read, “icons,” Gibson reclaims the images of Black women, reclaiming the nude centerfold found in men’s magazines with the portraits of Delia an American slave and an unnamed Haitian slave living in Montreal. Both women, in various states of undress, stare out at the viewer, those who have objectified and exploited them. Throughout this long dialogue poem, Gibson plays with traditional forms of ekphrasis, giving voice to the women who whisper and talk about their representation. In “Don’t Call Me Minty: A Revisionist Heritage Minute,” Harriet Tubman challenges her romanticized narrative written by Historica Canada.Gibson’s family photos are merged with historical images; her mother as a young girl (1956) is on the cover and her grandfather appears to be the only Black man in a photo of a CPR ‘Mixed Bowling Team’ (1967).
Cover image of How She Read.
Sonnet from How She Read.In the afterword, the sonnet crown “Aubade,” Gibson plays with one of the most traditional and recognizable poetic forms. Using shorthand adapted from her hand writing, marks are layered, stanza by stanza, adding texture to indelible text. Reading is always an immersive experience; it pulls at our thoughts and spills into our other senses. In How She Read, we are tasked with engaging all of our senses. Gibson’s use of text and image, her graphic storytelling, illustrates a writer’s journey from passive receiver of racist ideology to active cultural critic in the process of decolonizing her mind.* * *Chantal Gibson is an artist/educator whose work has appeared across Canada, from the Vancouver Public Library to the Royal Ontario Museum and Les Musee des Beaux Arts. Her work has been published in Room magazine and Making Room: 40 years of Room Magazine (Caitlin Press, 2017), and she was shortlisted for PRISM magazine’s 2017 Poetry Prize. An award-winning educator, she teaches writing and visual communication in the School of Interactive Arts & Technology at Simon Fraser University. How She Read is Gibson’s debut book of poetry. * * * Thanks so much to Sarah Corsie at Caitlin Press for sharing this gorgeous new collection with us in time for Black History Month. How She Read is available now. For more Beautiful Books, click here.