A History of Touch by Erin Emily Ann Vance
Guernica Editions (May 1, 2022)
101 pages; $17.95 paperback
Reviewed by Joshua Gage
Erin Emily Ann Vance is the author of the novel Advice for Taxidermists and Amateur Beekeepers (Stonehouse Publishing 2019) as well as six chapbooks of poetry. She was a recipient of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts Young Artist Prize in 2017 (nominated by Aritha van Herk) and a finalist for the 2018 Alberta Magazine Awards for her short story “All the Pretty Bones.” Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in magazines and journals all over the world. Her newest poetry collection is A History of Touch, which is a profound collection of poetry about women who were ill, disabled, mad, or simply too rebellious, and the fates they faced.
Vance’s collection pulls no punches. The first poem “All the Women You’ve Ever Touched” begins
You want to leave me to rot?
Let my hair burn into copper moss
in the forest saw off chunks of my flesh.
I am not far from the window, so
lick me fat like a silkworm.
The poems only get darker from there, and the readers are all the better for the journey.
Vance is not afraid to look history directly in the eye and retell it for what it is. A major selection of these poems are dedicated or about historical figures, real women who have lived, whether they’re famous, infamous, or otherwise. For example, the poem “Crow Theory” is dedicated to Bella Wright of the infamous “Green Bicycle Case” of 1919 England. It’s a short, direct poem, but one that holds the entire legal system accountable for its actions or inactions:
The will say a crow gorged itself to death
on my blood
stumbled into a field and died from its gluttony
before they will say
that a man could have bled me dry
The themes in this poem and others like it resonate outward, calling into question the justice that women are dealt in courts up to this day. Vance uses the horror and the mythic in her poems to not just document history, but to expose how relevant it is to modern society and its ills.
Elsewhere, Vance taps into the mythic and folkloric aspects of feminist history. For example, “Flickers” deals with images of witchcraft with lines like:
The witches are mourning
this trunk. Its tumors
tremor, a century of use.
The staunch, severed leaves
black as charred meat.
Here Vance taps into ecohorror, using the folkloric as a vehicle to explore ecological concerns and how the abuse of women, well documented by this point in the book, is similar to the ecological abuse perpetrated against the earth. The depth of Vance’s poems, and the multi-layered aspects of her poetry, cannot be overstated. There is a lot happening between these covers, and readers will learn as much as they will be terrified.
A History of Touch is a tour-de-force. It’s certainly not the first collection to document women’s history in poetry or the abuse that historical women have suffered, and it’s certainly not going to be the last. However, Vance takes these well-worn themes and pushes them in new directions, shining a light where perhaps once were only shadows and cobwebs, which is what readers should expect any poet to do. These poems tackle famous subjects, to be sure, but also relatively unknown subjects as well, or subjects known only to specialized historians. Vance has delved deep into these areas and written some magnificent poems that will horrify readers with the actions people, past and present, are capable of committing against one another. Vance then steeps the collection in a heavy dose of myth and folklore, creating a web of imagery that is tight and haunting. This is an incredible collection of poetry, and horror readers will thoroughly enjoy it.