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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