“My silence is a sentence,” Chantal Gibson writes in her subversive new poetry collection, How She Read. Silence is imposed on the subjects of her poems, and enforced by slavery, rigid language, and the everyday injustice that accrues to Black womanhood.
The author renegotiates history by amplifying the voices of Black women, often those who were subjugated by the white, colonial male gaze. “Centrefolds: Delia & Marie-Thérèse on Opening Night” is a powerful imagined conversation between two pictorial representations of Black women. Delia, an enslaved woman whose topless image is captured in a daguerreotype, claims to be evidence. “Of what?” asks Marie-Thérèse, a Haitian woman rendered “poorly” in oil paint with one breast falling from her shirt, an offering of tropical fruit in her hands. Of “our place. Our inferiority,” Delia answers.
Readers may be surprised to discover that the historical Marie-Thérèse was the property of a Canadian slave owner: “I’m a / historic Sister, a fine Black woman in a / white Canadian landscape; a slave / where slaves ain’t supposed to exist.” The women discuss their cruel fates (“We’re invisible, yet draped in clichés”), but assert their humanity (“Somebody can see you, if they’re brave / enough to look”) and plot to rebel against the way their images are perceived.
There are moments in How She Read that are literally puzzling ( in “c words” blank spaces compel readers to fill in the vowels), and dizzying (“reciprocal pronouns,” named for grammatical terms that express mutual relationship or action – e.g. “each other” and “one another” – is framed in tightening loops that by the third page begin to feel like a summoning circle). Gibson offers a guide for readers in the endnotes, and segments of shorthand are scattered throughout the text. “This shorthand is derived from the process of deconstructing my own cursive handwriting,” the author informs readers. The script is intentionally esoteric, yet slowly begins to reveal itself. “If you can’t read it, you’re not meant to.”
Gibson turns the very act of reading into a form of resistance, and by the end of this potent collection, a means to liberation: “every book she crack parts oceans, / sends waves rushing back to their shores / every page she turn sets free a caged bird.”