#916 An elixir of deceptive levity
What Hurts Going Down
by Nancy Lee
Toronto: Penguin Random House (McClelland & Stewart), 2020
$19.95 / 9780771049033
Reviewed by Grace Lau
Nancy Lee’s collection of poetry, What Hurts Going Down, unabashedly examines pain and power. Often, it is through the lens of images we’re familiar with, thanks to Hollywood. You’ve seen it on the big screen. You’ve seen it on your own television and laptop screens. The only thing is that Lee has stripped the glamour from her depictions of assault, manipulation, and consent.
It is uncomfortable because you recognize it. You remember watching this play out before, whether it’s on a screen or in real life. You remember not questioning it.
Through Lee’s words, this time the reader sees not only how wrong it really is when a filmmaker tells an aspiring actress, “Now take your thumb and put it in your mouth like a schoolgirl,” you also see the invisible threads connecting scenes like this to the one in the bedroom where the boy watches his best friend make out with his girlfriend — before advising him to tell her to take her top off next time.
Lee’s collection is rife with the animal (“Girl with Bear,” “Analysis,” “Alphas”), as if to show that deep down beneath the trappings of clothing, hair gel, and makeup, we humans are at our core driven by the primal. This is what lends her poems that keen sense of danger; there is so much about ourselves that we still do not yet understand.
There is a certain defiance in Lee’s poetry, but not in the sense that the speaker’s tone is haughty or arrogant. She records every violation — whether it is at the hands of husbands, fathers, or friends — unflinchingly and precisely. It is a fearless, steady gaze that pierces the pain instead of simply passing over it, as so many of us can only bear to do.
It is an honesty that refuses to be shamed or intimidated into submissiveness. And while bravery in the face of danger does take strength, one can argue that to face it again and reckon with the aftermath after it has already happened — that takes another kind of strength.
In “What It Was Like,” Lee examines what it’s like to have nothing, specifically to have no hope:
we were ascendant, effervescent, skinning
Only by abandoning hope can she reach the heavens. To rise above the ugliness of the world, you have to do the counterintuitive: let go of hope. There is a marked cynicism and a grim (defiant, even!) acceptance of the less appealing parts of the world that traces a path through not only this poem, but also many others. Lee ends on the haunting note of sirens — at first glance, of police cars since she is presumably downtown in the city, but in the context of this poem, they’re also a callback to the mythological female creatures who lured men to their doom.
This analysis of the power dynamics between women and men continues in “Scream Queens” where Lee’s girls, “reeking of Malibu and vomit,” horrify Catholic boys as they play-pretend (or are they?) with pagan rituals and general witchery in dark cemeteries. (And not surprisingly, in the poem “In Salem,” whose name would imply a supernatural reclamation of power by women, the vignettes of wives and daughters are rather, well, bleak.)
This power struggle comes to a climax in “Hen Night.” The poem is about, as the name implies, a ladies’ night out — probably a bachelorette party — where the band of women come upon a lone man on the street minding his own business:
we prowled the streets sweating Chablis,
spotted that guy and shouted, Hey Baby,
we want to ask you something. Trailed him
through a gravel parking lot. Hair gel,
Aftershave, Euro-fitted shirt — his primping
riled us. Hold up, Loverboy, don’t be that way.
Spoiler alert: the women do end up cornering him and roughing him up a little bit, collecting a few buttons from his shirt as souvenirs. But the deceptive levity with which Lee describes this encounter is truly brilliant and multilayered. While it might lull some readers into thinking it’s not that big of a deal (“Ha! A group of tipsy women drunkenly hitting on a well-dressed man”), it’s hard to ignore the fact that they “pushed fingers past lips, twisted buttons from a shirt.”
Which actually happens to women on a troublingly frequent basis — and that’s just the less-severe end of the spectrum.
Of course, doing this to anybody is indefensible, regardless of whether women or men are the perpetrators. But what does it say about the balance of power in our world when this scenario can be read as comical when the perpetrator is a woman — while being read as common to the point of mundane when it’s a man?
It’s noteworthy that in so many of the poems where women attempt to reclaim power and agency over their bodies, they do so by calling upon spells, rituals, and supernatural beings. It is almost as if there is a realization that there are few material things in this realm, our mortal world, that are up to the task.
For example, in “Covenant, Junior High,” the razor in a patchwork pencil case is the instrument that blurs the line between pain and control, oath and magic. The girls carve Xs into their wrists to cast:
A spell against Jiffy Marker scrawls
that swore we were hot fucks, a hex for the boys
who barred gym doors unless we flashed our bras,
a pox on the cologned teacher who rubbed our backs
while checking homework.
But against the ever-present threat of boys and teachers in school, there is no escape.
Kept our hair
short, nails bare, wore the same bossy Oxfords,
and tried not to panic when we caught Philippa
laughing at Jimmy B’s jokes in the cafeteria. Or Elaine
kissing Dan F. in the band room, clarinet in pieces
at her feet.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. In “Wife at the End of the World” (hopefully we won’t have to wait until the apocalypse comes for this moment to come), one of the few poems where a woman actually succeeds in claiming power, the titular wife is living in a dystopian world. Her husband succumbs to an entanglement in the dry goods aisle of the supermarket, and in response, she takes a lover (a stranger whose name she doesn’t ask) and rebels:
Too busy tracking
diseased dogs with my night scope and rifle,
too busy brewing carboys of anti-toxin,
wielding my flamethrower against mutant
spiders, too busy calculating orbit-altering
supernovas to settle for repopulating the earth.
It’s a Mad Max-like vision, and one of the rare moments of relief in the collection, where we’re (finally) allowed to celebrate a woman’s victory. These moments are few and far between, but placed strategically throughout. Lee never allows the reader to wander too far in the desert of horrors without sparing us a few drops of elixir (however brief) to restore us and keep us going. As we must do in the real world.
Grace Lau is a Hong-Kong-born, Chinese-Canadian writer living in Toronto. Her debut collection of poetry is forthcoming from Guernica Editions in 2021. Find her here and on Twitter here. Editor’s note: previously Grace Lau reviewed Pineapple Express, by Evelyn Lau, for The Ormsby Review.
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