With a background in mental health work, Dorothy Spencer has surely seen her share of life plot twists, and how some people evolve past disappointment, while others remain stuck. Much of Spencer’s poetry collection, See What Life is Like, is dark and brutal, unsparing in ugly detail. But during a first aid course last week, I couldn’t stop thinking about how smart and accurate her writing is.

Addiction, for example, is an insidious part of life. In after laughter, Spencer writes:

“i remember laughing with you

about your dad’s teeth falling out 

over dinner

because he was taking smack again…”

On this first aid course, when I wasn’t outside in the snow learning splints or practicing CPR, I was sitting on a cabin floor, learning to inject naloxone into an orange: inject at a ninety-degree angle, then wait five minutes to see whether you’ll need to do it again. Addiction is everywhere – urban and wilderness settings – and takes so many forms. In crackpot fantasy, a doctor leaves a patient who is in labour to buy music by Bartok, with tragic consequences. In a single compulsive shopping spree, he spends eight thousand dollars on compact disks :

“I told my patients

they are addicts;

junkies, speed freaks, crackheads, meth-heads

and drunks

they’re the popular imagining

of what an addict is…

and my patients they tell me;

doc, you’re just like the rest of us!

I’m sucking on some kind of bag

and they know it…”

Spencer’s social commentary is both succinct and unflinching. In club classics, she points to the stark contrast between the promise of a good night out, and the wreckage that follows:

“the main drag

throbbing with queues to nightclubs

and expectant dicks

come the early hours

the streets will be

covered in broken bottles, vomit

blood and urine

but for now the 

lipstick is red

and the heels have yet to blister.”

She shows us that in our world, the “deformed horsemen of the apocalypse” are more likely to ride televisions instead of horses. What she is doing is setting out the human condition – the difference between our expectations of life and reality. She describes the inevitable feelings of dismay in ever/after:

“the things we planned to be

hurt more than the things that

we ever were”

Here, hopes for a relationship can bear no resemblance to the reality. To read it is to feel it – the surprise at where we find ourselves in life, and even in death. In if life has to be boring at least let death be glorious, Spencer notes:

“you died in the same way

most of us do at the end

no big exit,

life just ran out

when really you ought to have

burst out in flames

fireworks like 

southall at diwali…

you should have melted like the witch 

in oz, screaming

o my world, my world…”

So what left such an impression on me is how Spencer captures the unpredictability of life. Just like one of my classmates on the first aid course, who fell through the melting Spring snow and found himself standing precariously atop a picnic table, we don’t know where we’ll find ourselves.


  1. trinidad c atalan says:

    Hi, i was reding your review in Dorothy Spenser,”See what life is like”. I loved your article and the book. I was wondering if there is anyway I could contact the poet? I truly loved her book, such a revolutionary poet. I hardly cn bare sometimes poetry because can be so pretentious and empty. Thank you

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