Nancy Lee’s debut poetry collection covers familiar territory for the B.C. writer. Her book of stories, 2002’s Dead Girls, won accolades for its unflinching depictions of eroticism, violence against women, and the nature of innocence; What Hurts Going Down seems to pick up where that earlier book left off.
In What Hurts Going Down, the scripts and vagaries of power between men (often portrayed as metaphorical animals) and women (prey, when not predatory animals themselves) struggle through a constant, fricative, imagistically delightful, and often upsetting verse that keeps violence very near the surface.
While power relations between women, as well as a variety of loaded connections and disputes between family members, are explored, the book’s prime focus seems to be on a timely examination of how sex and power interact between women and men and, sadly, boys and girls. The women and girls in these poems range from passive, expectation-driven supporters of the patriarchy to active players in their own stories with agency and will. Girls practise spells, cut their flesh, tattoo their skin, inhabit familiar and unfamiliar forms, grant sex, and grow through adversity and challenge.
Detail is Lee’s main tool – the speaker’s constant obsession with describing clothes and surroundings reflects what we often see in the reporting of abuse narratives. What is novel here is how this is applied to across genders, and how this attention creates very visceral images of the players, eras, and settings in each poem. This time, men do not escape close examination of their dress, actions, and pasts.
What Hurts Going Down is part history, part plea, and part implied manifesto. Its messages are focused and unrelenting: women and girls face lifetimes of abuse. It’s not an easy read – it really does hurt going down – but it is an important one for both our moment and the way history will record it.