Reviewed by Ben Toner
In her debut collection Depression & Other Magic Tricks, Sabrina Benaim gives physical form to her popular spoken word and slam poetry performances, and expands upon their themes in poems just as vibrant. This collection includes her poem “explaining my depression to my mother a conversation,” which has been viewed nearly six million times on YouTube, and other pieces familiar to fans of the Toronto artist, but as part of a collection these poems take on greater significance.
As Benaim explains in the prefatory note, this collection is meant to make a connection with those who read it, and serve as “a friend, a reminder, a testament.” The collection opens with “first date,” a cascade of brief anecdotes steeped in emotion and dizzyingly expressed in a whirlwind of metaphor, which acts as a fascinating yet bewildering introduction to how Benaim conjures up emotion through her imagery. Readers who are stymied by this elusive figurative language can rest assured that it is only one aspect of her deft exploration of the emotional dimensions of depression. Benaim depicts not only depression’s psychological and social toll, but also the way it changes the way sufferers interact with inanimate objects, time, and their own bodies.
A number of the poems discuss how the ties of romance and family influence and are influenced by our emotional states. These include “nature vs. nurture,” “a story // my father moves to another country,” “there’s no way to say i’m sorry if you aren’t” and “explaining my depression to my mother.” In them, Benaim deals with depression in relation to family dynamics, focussing on formative moments in these relationships and their effects. Heartbreak features heavily in the depiction of depression in the collection’s first half, and is alternately attributed to a distant father figure or failed romantic relationships.
Poems like “single” and “the loneliest sweet potato” link depression to loneliness, and present the ways that this loneliness manifests itself in various social settings. “single” makes the familiar connection between depression and the private space of the bed, while “the loneliest sweet potato” focuses on the isolating effects of depression in impersonal public spaces like the grocery store. Further on in the collection, “girl beside you” and “girl behind you” flesh out the minor interactions that take place in these spaces further and break them down to their constituent assumptions and observations. However, “on the last gesture between us” contrasts the pain of an impersonal end to a relationship with a momentary connection with a kindly Uber driver, in a way that subverts the distinction between public and private noted above.
The collection is most interesting when Benaim moves into strange territory in order to convey the experience of living with depression to her reader. “the slow now” infuses the struggle to emerge from bed with dramatic significance through snatches of conversation with everyday objects and times of day, such as the mirror or the morning. This is built upon in “a plain truth,” as the inanimate objects in the speaker’s apartment give voice to her anxieties.
As a whole, the collection traces the gradual emergence of an individual out of the depths of a period of depression. The turning point comes midway through the collection in “on releasing light,” when the speaker asserts that she can perform the “magic” of living with her depression. The collection’s trajectory can also be noticed in the five “magic tricks” scattered throughout, and the shifting perspective on love presented in them. Whereas the first two describe falling in love in more sinister terms, the final two regard it as a source of hope. This sense of hope carries through a number of the concluding poems, such as “seven small ways in which i loved myself this week,’ “it starts,” and “follow-up a prayer / a spell,” and signals the speaker coming to terms with her depression.
Sabrina Benaim’s poetry is perfect for readers put off by the restrictive style and typical subject matter of more traditional poetry. Her debut collection stays true to the style and subject matter of her performances, and offers hope to those readers struggling with depression themselves through the genuine emotional connection it establishes from the very beginning.
Depression & Other Magic Tricks is published by Button Poetry.