Chantal Gibson’s deconstruction of grammar and language in How She Read (Caitlin Press) is a delight. Not a passive read by any means, Gibson makes the reader work. Each piece in this collection deserves time to think and re-read, and think some more.
In a complex weave of art and history, stereotypes and tropes, she plays with the power of language and the harm it can do. What struck me, however, was the question of at what point language becomes meaningless. When does language actually lose its power?
Could it be when we go from studying the subtle messaging of words, to hateful words, to a point where there’s just too much talk and no actual change? I wondered whether it was like the shorthand in “Afterword: Aubade (Sonnet Crown)”, which Gibson layers artfully over and over itself on the page until the page is completely black – so many words that you can’t read them anymore.
I thought about the power of language when reading “Homographs,” exploring the meanings of “colour.” And I thought about its powerlessness in “c words:
“How do you c_nfr_nt the past
with a c_l_n_z_d tongue?
We saw the destructive legacy of language, both power and powerlessness, last week when Vancouver police handcuffed and detained a man on the Stanley Park seawall. The suspect they had been looking for was a “dark-skinned man” between 40 and 50 years of age. “Dark-skinned man.” Five white officers concluded that the 81 year old Black retired BC Supreme Court judge out for a walk fit the description.
Just when I think we must have made some progress, we haven’t, and I am left with the words of “split infinitive” echoing in my mind:
“as time shaves lead-filled notions down to the nub,
it leaves behind a splintered rainbow tinder-ready
for a spark, for a torch fueled with the-good-old-
days, for old-timey words to accidentally reignite.”