Thoughts on: with/holding by Chantal Gibson

So now February is almost over. I started this month with the intention to read books for Black History Month, and I did. It has been an odyssey–like a voyage of learning–and it hasn’t left me unscathed. In some ways, I want this to be a journey that clarifies, and that teaches a straightforward lesson to me. I find that it is anything but. I have indeed learned facts, most notably from reading The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper. But I have also learned: feelings, impressions, anger, messiness.

Perhaps it is good to end the month with Chantal Gibson’s most recent book of poetry, with/holding, published in 2021, because it left me feeling…I’m not even sure. Overwhelmed? It makes me feel like there is so much mess left to sort out. There is no punctuation mark offered by these poems (or any of this February reading) except for a series of endless ellipses. There is much complexity here, and I’m no literary critic, just a person who is trying to read more deeply and thoughtfully, and trying to learn. I was quite affected by this book, and I’ll try to gather my tangled thoughts in a semi-coherent way.

This collection is steeped in our online world, social media click culture, and current events. It has Covid overtones and lots of mask imagery. It has Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. It felt close to home. The themes are focused by the author’s lens of Blackness, bringing into sharp focus how our consumer culture commodifies Black lives. I liked that Gibson looks backwards in history in order to look forwards. She references Franz Fanon, a French West Indian psychiatrist and political philosopher who has obviously had a big impact on her life. He died in 1961. One impactful poem is Fanon’s Couch, which narrates her musings to Fanon, as if she were in session with him:

                                                            "...I know
i’m not responsible for my race or my ancestors,
but some part of me is dying, a slow Black death
i’m widowing from the Diaspora spirit-punctured
bit by bit from the daily bulletins, more shrapnel
than descendent, my coffled data, linked and lined-
up on ships, naked, kneeling, lynched and hanging
from trees, archival images, stolen, digitized and up-
loaded to some DIY merch site by some nostalgic
Black Americana enthusiast”

In another poem, Anchors, she compares the nightly news from her childhood to how our current 24-hour news cycle amplifies Black tragedy:

“Now the news is always breaking, always watching, pinging
my pockets, hungry for Blackfolkwhitecops, hourly bullet-
ins, weighted with hashtags and Getty images, my grand-
father’s news reincarnated on my tiny screen, same head-

lines, same stories, same songs, same nightsticks, same #Fear
Of Missing Out–this is not nostalgia. At night, i watch those
three-letter-men on YouTube, thing about how we took it all
in, shitty graphics, crappy sound, static, blur, how fogged the

lens, how we believed we were seeing everything so clearly,
how quickly we convinced ourselves we were watching the
truth. “

I read the book in one sitting, which I recommend, because much of the writing is interconnected. An example: Gibson starts the book with a full-page graphic of washing instructions from a clothing tag, followed by the opening poem Terms and Conditions. Half way through the book, she writes a poem called Forensic Report, about the online New York Times archive she’s been studying detailing images from the murder of Breonna Taylor. We learn that the washing instruction graphic is actually taken from a picture of Taylor’s beige bra tag, an image found in the archive. And so the reader thumbs back to the poem Terms and Conditions. It takes on a more ominous tone. Is it the author’s terms and conditions for reading this book? Or the terms and conditions of how our digital lives are killing our real lives? Or a lament that we can no longer tell the difference? It begins:

“I come to you withholding. Let’s
not loiter in the truth. The evil is
already written, our files forever

Perhaps it ends with a glimmer of hope?

“I come to you with holding. These
are the last days of history–swipe
left for Nostalgia–your Compliance
will only result in our Termination.

Let’s AGREE the end begins now.
Let us Consent to our own undoing.”

Because the collection was so rooted in the now for me, with current events and Canadian history references, I felt I could relate to the writing. The tone is varied, and there is much genuine anger and outrage that we are where we are, that progress has wrought just a different brand of suffering. But there is also some hope, and even a glimpse or two of whimsy.

I read in an interview in Quill and Quire where Gibson notes that when she uses a lowercase “i” in her writing, this refers to the decolonized self: “For me, the small letter i is not the colonized I, it’s the i of the ancestor, it’s the i of the person who’s aware of themselves. The capital letter I, for me, is always like that first I, the I of grammar and the I of the colonizer.” (Chantal Gibson examines the politics of “add to cart” culture and activism. Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Quill&Quire, November 2021.)

This makes me wonder about my relationship to her poems. I cannot claim the “i” here. Certainly not Gibson’s “i”. Perhaps we all have our own “i”, or can move from “I” to “i” in our own way.

I’m trying to understand my role as a reader of this art. I imagine a small conference room, with seats at a table where people tell, say, and suppose about race, decolonization and trauma. I might take a seat at the main table for another issue; we all have our own legacies, issues and traumas. But for this issue, I visualize myself taking a chair against the wall, observing the discussion, learning from others’ lived experience and wisdom. Afterwards, I can try to write down what I saw, what I learned. I can share it with other people. I can use the lessons to make changes in my own life. I can try not to be a bystander.

In a poem near the end of the book, In Lieu of Flowers, Gibson perhaps points at a message of collaboration and action:

In lieu of flowers clear your history

In lieu of flowers disable your comments

In lieu of flowers turn off your notifications

In lieu of flowers switch to silent

In lieu of flowers





Addendum June 7, 2022: 

Sometimes I just love how my reading life leads to wonderful connections when I'm out and about in the world.  Alan and I decided on a visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see an exhibition about digital art: The Imitation Game.  Another exhibition was Kids Take Over, that displays artworks from the VAG collection and pairs them with text and drawings by kids ages five to eighteen that interpret the art.  

As my eyes wandered over the art, I was excited to see three works by Chantal Gibson.  She alters books, and makes "visual poetry" accordingly.  
Untitled (Redacted Text) (2019)

I loved how the kids interpreted her work: 

From Gibson's website

If you took away the white space, what would the black text do? What would it say?
Are there Other ways of reading a text? Of reading and writing history?
What does erasure look like?


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