Butcher’s Block

March 4, 2010

Deanna Fong

PistolPress, 2008

Deanna Fong’s Butcher’s Block is a slim but gripping collection of poetry by an emerging author with a gift for the one-two punch.

Part One, “From Skin to Bones,” opens strongly with the witty “Five Foods for Sexual Deviants”, with such sonorous kickers as “Whether one grunts and snuffles/ through soil and foliage, or/ snouts and nuzzles/ in the ruffles of undergarments”. A current of quiet violence runs through the section,  Such mundane details as the action of chopping beets (“A beet,/ shocked from blood loss,/ lies truncated on/ the wooden cutting board”) and the angle at which seed pods hang (“gesturing obscenely”) take on sinister undertones. Fong’s ability for poignant characterization comes in sketches here—the portrait of Croation boxer Mirko Filipović, whose farm work is contrasted with his later boxing career (“Crocop”), and the run-down of a Phoenician wife’s dinner preparations (“Europa”). Overall, “From Skin to Bones” maintains an almost surgical distance that befits its subject matter.

The second section, “The Exploration,” is a road trip in vignettes from a “Brief History of Canadian Punk Houses” through various locales across the country in which a fairly consistent first-person speaking voice emerges. Eclectic and spare, the “Punk Houses” and “Courtenay” are narrated through carefully chosen details. In one of the punk houses of the speaker’s youth, “Decadent Squalor (Montreal, 2004-2005)”, readers witness a contract typical of this poem between idealism and stark materiality: “We’re all led by the/ Spirit of Revolution./ Dishes go unwashed.” “Courtney” offers a tour through a single residence: “The living room:/ A symphony of water droplets fall from wet, black laundry”. Paradoxically, these poems are closer to the speaker while further from the bone. While the tone is not as uniformly punchy as it is in Part One and leans towards nostalgia on occasion, there are some deft sensual and linguistic moments, such as “Montreal”’s simultaneous hyperbolic inventiveness and commentary on the city and its weather: “It’s snowing sodium bicarbonate and it’s snowing cocaine./ …It’s snowing en Christ, en calisse, and en p’tit tabernacle.

Of all the sections, “Hearts” bears the flattest title and the greatest emotional depth. The precisely metered sonnet “Letter from Robodad-02/05/97” is followed by “Letter to Robodad-March 14th, 1997,” in which a mother’s grieving process—sewing and saving thimbles of blood collected from needle pricks—is described in spare lyric form by her son; the tonal shift is affecting. “Hearts” is filled with encounters between distant figures and family members, with the violence of “From Skin to Bones” recurring in the final poem, “To Bilyana,” a wide-ranging and unusual tribute to “platonic love [which] is the greatest of all loves”. The narrator’s youthful energy, where it emerges, propels us. Bilyana Ilievska’s black and white illustrations complement the tone of the poems. From them one gets the overall sense of a fragmented family, of people inhabiting the same spaces but evidently not touching. In some cases, the isolation is that of landscape, the fragmentation that of self.

Butcher’s Block is smooth but not comforting reading. While there is definite distance between its three sections, a verve persists throughout. Read it for its ability to distil moments of violence in mundane acts. Read it for its quirkiness and wit. Then lend your copy to your friends. Reviewed by Melanie Bell, 2010.

Fish Bones

February 23, 2010

Gillian Sze

DC Books, 2009

Gillian Sze’s debut collection, Fish Bones, is an eclectic salon of modern ekphrastic poems, ranging from pastoral elegies to the vivid erotic encounter. This collection has garnered a slew of critical praise (it was shortlisted for the QWF McAuslan First Book Prize), yet it remains a rather uneven arrangement of poems, containing those that startle with their aphoristic beauty, along with some cringe-worthy love poems one wishes had been left under a bed in a fuzzy pink diary.

As readers, we take each of Sze’s poems, each moment, and either refuse or accept. Heedless of the outcome, we are grateful for the ride, for the glimpses into the lives she imagines, for the occasional divined flash of brilliance.

Sze’s shortcomings are evident in the several hackneyed poems dotted throughout Fish Bones which, when encountered, leave the reader a bit discouraged. One such example is the very stale I’ll Make the Drinks Tonight:

We were born together a thousand times

when the music from your antique gramophone

crackled over our limbs

Additionally, Sze could benefit from reconsidering her method of titling poems. The Last Time I Saw You; She Has a Lovely Face; Alone on the Other Side of the World. Really? Consider how  a poem like The Kiss, with its succinct and violent imagery, is made altogether commonplace by this uninventive title.

Thankfully, there are enough gems tucked in these pages to keep the reader’s attention. These include the whimsical The Jailer’s Daughter, the pensive and melancholy Forget-Me-Not, and an inventive reinterpretation of a classic Wallace Stevens number.

It is difficult to comment on Fish Bones as a whole; there is no unifying thread carrying  from one poem to the next. Imagine a museum curator assembling  the Botticellis, the Constables, and the Nan Goldin photographs in a single room. As is true of a stroll through an art gallery, some pieces will arrest us for their boldness or honesty, while others we pass by without much of a second thought. If anything, Fish Bones is about forcing ourselves to recognize the imperative of imaginative and careful observation, regardless of whether or not these insights are altogether unique. The final lines of the title poem, Playing Fish Bones, are quite apt here:

The span between refusal and acceptance

shrinks in an instant,

differs only by a fraction.

Certainly, Sze has acuity for describing visual details, and it is this skill which holds the otherwise disparate poems together. Fish Bones is at its best when most attuned to the pictorial nature of ekphrasis, keeping in the realm of the visual. The moments of emotional intimacy too often feel contrived, veering towards melodrama. A poem like The Jailer’s Daughter, a sophisticated, whimsical, yet simple portrait of a woman’s shape and movement (inspired by, one might guess, something along the lines of a Miro painting), has much more impact than the TV-movie feel of Animal Tracks, a meditation on siblings bonding over illness. Ultimately, the best poems in the collection are those which imbue the visual experience with the same curiosity as something felt, those poems which are sensuous before they are sentimental. Reviewed by Michael Lake.


live in the lost

February 22, 2010

Six Minute Vanitas, Emily Shanahan

Emily Shanahan & Corina Kennedy

Liminal, fragmented, disconnected. Live in the lost sandwiches existence between the past and the present, alluding to a cultivated nostalgia that is made intelligent by distance. As a whole, the exhibition questions what it is to be present, complete, missing.

From the classical references in Shanahan’s study, to the avant-garde perdu in Kennedy’s 77 Yoko Ono Hair Pieces, the work moves through a non-linear timeline and carries into each era a notion of the fractured; many of the pieces fail to be complete in the traditional sense, and although selected pieces appear to form clusters in time, there is no overarching progression to define the experience. What then begins to appear is a hint of time – more specifically the “past” – as both here and gone, minus the measurement of how far gone, and how exactly here. The paradoxical imperative, live in the lost, becomes increasingly attainable; as the live (adjective) locates itself within that which has slipped away, it pulls the whole brouhaha within mind’s reach. And yet, the lost here is not exclusively temporal.

As one examines individual pieces, the pattern becomes prominent. Things are missing here. Limbs, faces, life – even Yoko Ono. The art, then, becomes a study of what constitutes a whole; and the question of whether life is carried on in the severed appendages teases the viewer.

Shanahan especially investigates this theme. Many of her classical inspired paintings feature statuesque figures and sculptural renditions from which key parts have been removed. Crumbled and eroded by time; or broken off by the artist? Both possibilities are entertained as one moves through the analogous representation of representation. Within this dialogue, an exploration of horror and darkness begins to emerge. The duo Head of Alexander and Head of Athena flatten and wash out once corporeal sculptures. The result: eerie and vacant glimpses into celebrated mythology. The disembodiment, then, becomes symbolic rather than incidental.

On another level, Nyx, Seer, Cupid #4 and Cupid #5 introduce a philosophical exploration of the void. Rich with dark, glossy strokes, this group of paintings pushes meaning forward from obscurity. Seer mirrors the disfiguring fear of Munch’s The Scream with blurred intentionality. Put into context by the surrounding theme of time, it gains a sickening sense of anxiety in the face of death. Paired together on a single wall, Cupid #4 and Cupid #5 enter into a charged exchange: the limbless #4 appears to emerge from a swirl of black, the headless #5 to retract into one.

Independently of these pieces, the video installation Six Minute Vanitas invites spectators to strap on headphones, turn their backs to the gallery, and meditate on death and the nature of transience. Contrary to the traditional stasis of the genre, Shanahan’s version employs technology, light play, sound and, delightfully, the human breath, to engage with the symbolism of the featured objects. A cow skull is framed by flickering candles – which are later extinguished – and adorned with plastic flowers. The limited life of the candles, imitated life of the flowers, and intimated life of the skull posits a modern eloquence in the execution of the vanitas, which is furthered by the chosen medium. And while the six minute clip suggests brevity and constraints, its cycling ad infinitum captures transience perhaps more accurately than the original model.

If Shanahan is concerned with enabling discourse between the classical and contemporary, Kennedy reconfigures the iconic. An interest in the fragmented is present alongside an investment in the effects of repetition, both acutely addressed in the aforementioned 77 Yoko Ono Hair Pieces. The sprawling arrangement is comprised of 77 black and white paintings on identical blocks of wood, forming a seemingly random pattern, the result of which is a rather arresting checkerboard portrait of that very famous hair. Individually, the pieces vary in texture, ratio, and complexity. Some are simple – nearly entirely black or white, unintriguing in their monotony. Others are complex to the point of creating optical illusions, poetic in their rendition. Together they challenge identity and the absolute, playing with the multiplicity that constitutes the individual and, cleverly, hair.

On a distant wall, AHair APart teases the memory of the hair pieces. Separate from the others, yet similar in style, this one stands a hair apart, so to speak, and yet, without the reference suggested by the previous work, entirely different, unidentifiable, mysterious. Barely resembling hair, upon closer inspection, the painting yields a humorous clue: the sweeping black is separated by what, in the hair world, is known universally as a part.

Kennedy’s paintings often take on a haunting quality that remains like an imprint upon the eye. From the first work encountered – a soft, wallpaper inspired vase whose flowers blur and bleed into the background – to the bizarre The Ambassador Inn – the exhibition literature offers another clue, and the answer it seems, is also in the wallpaper – color is muted, shaded, and layered, often having an otherworldly effect. Often the allusions in her work must be deciphered, at othertimes they seem private.

Glazed Girl is set apart from the other pieces by its ethereal eeriness and penetrating skill. At once zombie and flower child, the subject is rendered in wispy and hazy colors: across her belly stretches a gauziness that is suggestive of a womb into which we may peer, and flowers imprint a halo behind flowing hair that frames a hauntingly vacant face. In a collection of work that shows Kennedy’s skilled hand, Glazed Girl is exciting because it clearly pierces an entirely other level. This is the kind of coveted early work that will one day appear in a retrospective and garner marvel at its concentrated innocence and sophistication. Marianne Perron, 2010.


Warren G. Flowers Art Gallery, Dawson College, 4001 de Maisonneuve Ouest, through February 27.

Glazed Girl, Corina Kennedy


The Only Thing I Have

January 20, 2010

Rhonda Waterfall

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009

The Only Thing I Have is a collection of stories that open and shut as chapters in their character’s lives, with little in the way of resolutions or introductions. Told predominantly through third person narrative, the stories are crafted with a dry, factual tone that accentuates the bleak and understated quirkiness that infect their unraveling. At first glance this technique is appealing in that it is punchy, jarring, hip. As the procession continues with the same beat, however, it becomes decreasingly effective.

The first story sets the tone for a jaunt into the lives of those dissatisfied, well, losers, who cling to what they already have instead of seeking change, one can only assume, out of fear. The majority of the stories that follow are shards from broken relationships, delusions and disillusions about love, and cold, hard sex. Sex with strangers, forceful sex, glassy-eyed duty sex, and, on one surprising occasion, sex with a pixie. This all sounds much more exciting than it really is.

The truth is that for all her attempts at a cutting, cool detachment, Waterfall trips and delivers little more than anecdotal jolts of discomfort. If the “unsettling evocative” is the calling card of au courant writers, then it goes without saying that its attainment has been pushed to newer, riskier limits. The Only Thing I Have falls on the safe side of this line, somewhere between oddball and trendy.

There is novelty to be found here somewhere, unfortunately it’s a quality that exists mostly inside the first half dozen stories; by the time In the Very Near Future arrives, whatever spunk we found is lost to the monotonous tone that carries the entire collection. Shake it up! Drop some wordplay, rhythm, imagery – anything – but for god’s sake don’t continue this love letter to the catastrophes of failed intimacy!

At her best, Waterfall taps into a creative verve that conjures up surprises that, in order to preserve the collection’s strengths intact, are best left discovered by the reader. In Aurelia Art dissatisfaction finds poignancy in obsessive imitation. It is here that the open ending reaches a peak – the bottom drops, and what remains is a taste of intrigue, the promise of possibility. The title story, The Only Thing I Have, on the other hand, reveals an infantile and pathetic protagonist who oscillates between desperately clinging to and rejecting his partner, as his underdeveloped thought process swings from hot to cold. With such a spineless jellyfish, how can any reader react with anything less than glee when the story drops him alone into a snowy ditch, miles from civilization, and takes his cell phone away?

One thing that is interesting, if not innovative, is Waterfall’s use of sex as an analgesic. This thread is followed throughout the book as characters drop in and out of hotel rooms with a glossy, urban chic that, for all its allure, leaves them as empty and discarded as the illusions they once maintained.

These are characters connected by their recurrent inability to overcome stagnation and defeat. Waterfall is clearly interested in exploring the human tendency towards fear induced paralysis, but how much is this exploration caught up in truth? The universality of this theme seems to want to make statements that feel too contrived given such a small space. These stories might have enough kick to stand up individually, but together they lose themselves in a collection about as diverse and palatable as a bowl of smarties. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2010.

The Montreal Fiores

November 7, 2009

plan-metroDavid Fiore

Montrealfiores.wordpress.com

We’re not usually in the habit of reviewing unpublished works, but David Fiore’s online short story collection is a veritable diamond in the rough that might not make its way to you soon enough. Besides, after publishing a flippant review of his novella Chimera Lucida, we owe him one. But that’s not the only reason to check out his WordPress site.

The Montreal Fiores is a collection of charmingly skewed recollections that take the reader everywhere from the sordid depths of Verdun to the West Island. They lovingly recreate the down-and-out, shoestring adventures of our quiet hero, a snarky intellectual with a penchant for the unexpected and at times ridiculous. Make no mistake, the Montreal Fiores are not about David Fiore, nor are they memoires proper. These are stories about Montreal, with its beautiful losers, and the threat of genius slipping through the cracks alongside the riffraff. Fiore is not an I but an eye, and a damned good one at that.

Anyone who’s visited the Faubourg will laugh at Le Fuckedbourg’s dry account of the wasteland that spans between Guy-Concordia and Atwater’s mecca for the pathetic and forlorn, and perhaps even shed a tear, depending on the sharpness of their nostalgia. Le charme discret de Madame Bourgeois is a bitter ode to slumlords everywhere, with its tenant wars and Régie du logement ending. Ever wonder about the kind of louts who read pornography in public? Red Planet Funnies has got a tale for you. Something for everyone indeed – this is the real underbelly of our claustrophobic little island. And I for one appreciate the gift of sampling it from a safe distance. We’re talking track marks, hell-holes, clowns, and hookers. Fiore has seen it all.

Anti-intellectuals and those overwhelmed by the cryptic verbosity of Chimera Lucida will be relieved to learn that The Montreal Fiores takes on a much more natural, candid voice. Fans of word-play and Fiore’s wit will be relieved to find healthy doses of it punctuating the oft acerbic tone. When it comes to sharp, punchy dialogue Fiore succeeds – “This is a conversation with balls!” – and the never boring witticisms hit the mark and reel you in for more.

Still, Fiore does at times lose sight of the uninitiated: Le Marquee du stade could be about the mating habits of the Yuktun for all I know, and every so often an establishment creeps in whose nature I can’t quite decipher. In an unusual way however, the flaws add to the charm, and make these stories all the more genuine and heart-felt. What better way to examine the undulations of weirdos and dead-beats than through the yarns of a tender critic? Get thee to the internet O- philiac, this is an endeavour with balls. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2009.

Unisex Love Poems

July 21, 2009

1897190395Angela Szczepaniak
DC Books, 2008

“Hit Me With More of Your Sour, Puss”

Angela Szczepaniak’s Unisex Love Poems files alphabetical suit against a whole host of typographical errors that sentence us to symptomatic reading, through typecast eyes. By hailing their audience from a number of sites that are just around the bend of contemporary cultural plausibility, Szczepaniak’s narratroopers get the drop on some of the most deeply entrenched fonts of folly on the phoneme farm we’re all so damned committed to.

This series of riposte cards from the edge re-cooks the cookbooks, restores manual control over the dating conventions and puts the [sic] in the forensics that govern our daily lives. Of course, Szczepaniak knows better than to waste her imagination on a world completely free of these (and other, itchier, twitchier) irritants. For better or worse, the dietary, romantic and juridical models that we’ve inherited are here to stay.

The situation, the author appears to be saying, calls for rash action–and that’s exactly what we get, when Slug of apartment 5d begins running a diagnostic check on the brailled blemishes (each one a perfect letter h) that have torsaded his torso. Assuming that something within the building is responsible for this calligraphic callousness, he leaves no dust mote unturned–and no door un-knocked. The neighbors prove singularly unsympathetic to his quest, but he does make one ally of sorts: Butterfingers–the woman in apt. 4f–whose gossamered glossolalia provides an interesting verbal analog for his dermatological condition.

Together, these two chart a possibly-unnavigable course across a sea of experiences composed of equal parts affliction and affection. The author salts their tale with an extraordinary array of textual urchins–shuffling in excerpts from his-and-hers Victorian advice tomes (suitable to any occasion–from a tea party to the End of Days), affable spiders (and their less charming bites), character-acted cartoons, carnal recipes (for the likes of “Stomach Butterflies,” “Honeycombed Heart” and “Tied Tongue”–each one handsomely illustrated) and a lively team of 3-inch tall lawyers (Spitz and Spatz), whose petal-to-your-mettle talk will absolutely floor you. This last pair actually brings a whole raft of other concerns in their wake–including a memorably absurd take on (or take-down of) Lockean possessive individualism. Their dynamic relationship also generates a welter of–what?–wisdom?–that might answer to the worst of the distress caused by the welts (upon Slug’s person and Butterfingers’ versin’) in question.

In fact, by the time you reach the end of Unisex Love Poems, your guess will be as good as mine as to whose story has been interpolated into whose. This inventive study of life in the imperfect tense and the beatifics of bickering will chuff that kind of guff right out of your mush. You’ll be too busy preparing for that big date in court. Bring flowers. You never know whom they might impress. Guest review by David Fiore, 2009.

The Mechanical Bird

June 25, 2009

420Asa Boxer
Signal Editions, 2007

Asa Boxer’s award winning The Mechanical Bird plays with the inconsistency of appearance and reality, poking beneath the surface of the world to get to where truth bends, and imagination starts. His poems rely heavily on imagery as well as imagination, and their success is in the writer’s ability to transform ordinary objects and words into enchanted ones.

The book opens with one of the most vivid poems in the collection, The Map. Here Boxer explores beauty and whimsy in the folding pages of a map, teasing our desire to situate our surroundings, and explore unknown paths simultaneously. The language and imagery is playful, and coaxes the reader into the traveler’s imagination – “Each turn and fold makes an origami creature of the world” – we see each delicate shape unfold as the lyrical arrangement and shuffling of words create a film-like progression in the mind’s eye. The endless possibilities of the world are captured gracefully here through the permutations of the map. And the reader, along with the traveler, retrains his eyes and prepares himself for the journey that is to come.

In the following poems animals and inanimate objects are stirred into a dreamy, enchanted existence where their interactions and nuances bring charm to the poetic voice. Boxer dedicates pages to drawing out the dream world of a polar bear and cat, attaching philosophical pondering to things like the slowness of a turtles gait, and using the language of love to describe a lamb being swallowed by a snake. In Maledicta, he curses animals, people, nature, and, finally, the universe for the misery and destruction brought upon the earth, interesting, as the curses only serve to sentence the world to more harm. In one good line he humorously curses the lovers, that they may “have more children than they can afford”.

Less whimsical and more serious poems, such as Terror in Jerusalem, and In Hitler’s Holy Land, prove that Boxer can move away from lighter material and offer something profound in his turn. This, however, is not always a strength. Take for example, Amad. A piece that comments on class and injustice, it builds on the idea of stardom in the cinematic sense – an unreachable universe for a man of low rank. The poet sympathizes with Amad, destined to a life of menial labor, despite his movie star looks. Unfortunately, the tone of this poem veers into the zone dominated by televised UNICEF adverts and Sunday school teachers. We know the effect he’s going for quite well, and even the least jaded readers are likely to feel their strings being manipulated. To top it off, the poem culminates in a series of rhetorical questions, including a very big one about love. I’d like to say it’s an interesting concept, but mostly it just reminds me of the pseudo-humanitarian lot I went to CEGEP with. Such subject matter must be handled with utmost care!

In short, Boxer’s writing is strongest when it sheds its sobriety and dips into the enchanted world so many of his characters dwell in. When the playful and the free-spirited come out, the poet loosens his tongue, straps on his thinking cap, and takes the reader for a ride. At such moments one discovers delight in the darndest of corners: the clockwork heart of a chugging train, a supermarket lobster in his tank, a little white lie. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2009.

Kaspar

April 16, 2009

a4947e7616aeb8Diane Obomsawin
Drawn & Quarterly, 2009

Kaspar tells the tale of Kasper Hauser, the 19th century wonder who baffled society when he mysteriously appeared in the streets of Nuremberg without language or identity. A sealed letter reveals what little there is to know about the young man, who is taken in and enters the world as a curio to be analyzed and pondered.

In this version, graphic artist Obomsawin bases her interpretation on the actual writings of Kaspar Hauser, and from there creates a story of innocence lost, despite the skepticism and controversy that continue to surround his life and death. The novel takes a childlike and simple tone, most probably influenced by the way Hauser portrayed his own story. What results is a character subject to the whims and wills of the people around him, to whom he owes both his painful fall and the bittersweet pleasures it brings.

Reading Kaspar one is charmed by his appreciation of nature and his tendency towards poetic thought. The appeal of such a foundling, and the philosophical and humanistic implications of his unique condition, are presented here anew for a world unfazed by tall tales. Unaware of contrary accounts of the story of Kaspar Hauser, the reader is amused and intrigued. How can what he claims possibly be true? And yet, the pure and at times infantile way that Hauser views the world coaxes one into believing.

Obomsawin does a terrific job of ignoring public opinion and recreating the fable as Hauser would have had the world believe. Whatever her reasons, she proves that such a story, real or ruse, has the ability to charm and if nothing else, entertain. Kaspar tells of the suffering and joy of a man coming into the world for the first time: earnest and unadorned, it captures the novelty and wonder that such an unusual experience brings, and hovers delightfully over the rim of “what if”. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2009.

Exit Wounds

April 9, 2009

a451165f22c05bRutu Modan (translation by Noah Stollman)
Drawn & Quarterly, 2008

Exit Wounds is the first full-length graphic novel by Rutu Modan, and it’s received lots of attention. Set in modern-day Tel Aviv, it tells the story of Koby, a young taxi driver contacted by a woman concerning the disappearance of his father. Faced with the possibility of his father’s death during a recent suicide bombing, Koby is moved to confront years of anger and disappointment while reluctantly assisting Numi in a search for answers to the mystery.

What at first seems like an open-and-shut case grows into a scavenger hunt for clues, as Koby and Numi follow the trail of the man they thought they knew (or, in Koby’s case, thought he didn’t know). What they discover leads to more disappointment, and unexpectedly brings them closer together. Both are haunted, however, by their inability to offer forgiveness for the pain they’ve suffered.

Artistically, Modan’s work finds the perfect balance between simplicity and complexity, creating depth without resorting to sentimentality, and depicting the horrors of life in Israel without emotional manipulation. Reading praise for Exit Wounds, one is repeatedly primed to encounter subtlety and nuance, and those are indeed Modan’s strengths. There are no fireworks or symphonies in this work. Instead Modan quietly works towards a picture of deterioration and sadness, and tells a story of deep-rooted anger and stubbornness in the face of forgiveness. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2009.

Penny Dreadful

March 14, 2009

438Shannon Stewart
Signal Editions, 2008

In Penny Dreadful Shannon Stewart dives head-first into the world of the lurid and dark. We’re talking the real grime and grit: pig-farms, prostitution, sex, and violence are the fabric of inspiration in this horror show. Stewart takes the story of serial killer Robert Pickton and his victims, women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and spins it into a collection of poems that captivate just as much as they disturb. Using the story of the missing women and gaining inspiration from our fascination with all things sensational, Stewart pumps out poems that are at once perceptive and vulgar, tough as nails, yet heart-breakingly vulnerable.

Tabloid fodder fuels the book’s headline-influenced titles, and the freaky and bizarre seep into even the most innocent lines. Much of the book’s punch comes from Stewart’s ironic rendering of the gruesome as mundane, and her daringness to package the disappearance of so many women as quotidian. What results is a commentary on our ability to absorb the abnormal, how quick we are to dismiss.

Lots of things go missing every day:
keys, watches, teeth, sunglasses.

The women in Penny Dreadful turn up everywhere: on pig farms, in the speaker’s house, the ice cream shop, far away cities, exotic spas. They taunt the reader with their sexuality, rearrange households, hold relay races, form communities. And always they are strutting, putting themselves on display, selling themselves. The women in this book are not delicate creatures, they are tough and independent, yet they turn up dead, victims of animalistic violence. In one poem entrails, bones, and blood are transformed into perfume, lipstick, and shampoo. There’s something eerie about the way that Stewart plays with femininity and death in these poems, and how close we feel the speaker is to these women, like they have invaded more than her house. Equally unsettling is the interaction between female, male, and animal, continuing the age-old struggle between power, sex, and violence.

Where a man
meets a woman,
bone and blood
will out themselves –

Aside from the Robert Pickton case, Penny Dreadful uses the surreal, and even the grotesque, to comment on the contemporary world, and hold up a fragment of what ails us. Although it is the poems’ crude subjects that make them humorous and smart, these very same ideas, when pushed to extremes, make the writing difficult to sit through. Stewart’s cleverness is lost at moments when her message becomes too forceful. Her tone sometimes teeters over into the register of voices we’ve all heard before: a five-part exploration of pejoratives comes off as more than slightly Riot Grrrl, and in Bête Noire the speaker sprouts a tail and slowly metamorphoses into a furry rodent. If Stewart tends, at times, to tread the beaten path, she more than makes up for it with her darkly humorous scenarios, and wild imagination. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2009. Purchase

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