#508 Sex, speed, and moonshine
March 16th, 2019
A Violent Streak
by Stephanie Warner
Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2018
$15.00 / 9781554554461
Reviewed by Elee Kraljii Gardiner
The epigraph that opens Stephanie Warner’s debut collection of poetry, A Violent Streak, is a definition of the word “speed.” Given that the dominant themes and places of this group of poems have to do with gender, work, sex, birds, translocation, conceptualizing “home,” and brutalities of many diversities in the Yukon, Spain, China, and other locations, the epigraph posed a puzzle; this is not a book of travel.
Among its many roots, the word “speed” links to success, riches, leisure. How fitting then, that the book’s trifecta of sections begin with the title poem describing the hard living in “Fort McMoney,” “where all their best boys go. Return two years later// with a souped-up Chevy, stereo-surround and oxblood seats, missing a hand.” Written in triplets this poem sketches a life in the north of, “ex-Hutterite kids, out of their minds on moonshine,” and “A nephew mangled in a bailer; others dismantled more elegantly/ by drink and the Bashaw casino.” Some of the poems, such as “The Queen of Spades” track the speaker’s experience in Dawson City, home of the infamous Downtowner’s pickled toe drink, made with the actual frostbitten human digit, where the speaker has:
a job chamber maiding, and you try to muster up
the prospector’s zeal, as your hands crack, bleed
folding sheets straight out of the industrial dryers.
Already half-cut on the mickey left in your last
as a tip, as you pin more and more of your life
to the axis of a cool crease, on the snap of sheets
perfectly set, and the certainty that any odour
(jizz, stale wine, fags in the toilet bowl,
black-out sex) will be trumped by the chemical
spray making progress in your lungs.
The poem continues with several gut-punches:
Good teeth go a hell
of a ways to getting you in bed, but the one whose liver
can take some walloping yet is too squirrelly —
his friend looks like he could light a match in his mouth.
Something not right, too intimate, about being taken in a room
you’ve only just cleaned to Gould’s “Variations” in ear buds,
piss-take of tinny harpsichord — but those dominos! So cold,
peevish, tipped by god knows what great mover. Yes, you’re wish-boned
over the bathtub’s fatty lip, scrubbing, as a variation in the theme slips
its marble arrow between your heart’s right and left ventricle —
what goofball will ever make your stomach drop like that,
in this city, 100 clicks from the treeline
The town is tough, the people tougher, industry toughest: “you can smell the blood-musk of corrosion:/ seizing critical parts of the engine.” Oil, money, gas, lust, fire, long distances covered in kilometers: clicks, onomatopoeic vocab for ignition and switches, and speaking directly to, of course, the epigraph on speed. In “Fire Season,” we read these associative words: flicked cigarettes, good fires, lightning-struck, lava flows, carrier oil, fire, a superhero flick, electricity dosed, scorched earth, and ultimately, “the kinked garden hose/ of catastrophic thinking”.
We know fast cars do damage: to the environment, the parking lot, wildlife. “The Heart Land” is one of the best (meaning viscerally accurate) poems I’ve read about a collision with a deer, referred to as a “dowry of wasted meat; its blood purling, still hot/ through the sagging glass.”
Warner’s take, aside from the on-the-nose references, is a crack-up of speed and thought. Read this couplet from “Referents” aloud: “lexically dekeing: Lake Tullamene, tamarack,/ forty clicks til Grand Prairie. Douglas fir, golden larch,// Gasoline Alley.” She is whizzing through hard towns and hard sounds as fast as she can. The beautiful surprise in this work is how dangerously the author zags from image to image to meaning. In my first read I had to throw on the brakes to let danger cross me, as if it were running a light. Internally, I egged her on. A few times she went further and faster than I could have hoped.
The pleasure in A Violent Streak is knowing Warner will push the limit; just short of a game of literary chicken, she is never out of control. Warner’s thrill is the intensity of her images and settings. In “Surface” she describes a childhood dare from boys to let fire ants crawl up the speaker’s body: “the ants clotted// like pomegranate seeds, sequining my legs, until another slap/of God-water, like a sheet of tin, scraped them.”
Another masculine ask, “¿tienes fuego?” (do you have a light?) comes in “Flat Share” on the heels of “the hiss of pistons … petrol fuel and bitters.” Circumstances of reckless sex, hunger, and risk speak to danger of another sort and a speed familiar to any unfettered young ex-pat.
In “Shapes and Sizes,” “at thirty clicks an hour, immediate danger is understood/ abstractly.” The poem continues through to a startling image: “my hangover coiled in the buzz// like a scorpion in formaldehyde.” Toxins, carcinogens, poisons course and become smears in slides. Cancer cells reproduce with alarming speed, blood runs, “the one-off alleys of capillaries.”
Where have humans enjoyed speed without the payment of blood? The terrifying exuberance of the slogan “NOW WE’RE COOKING WITH GAS!” (The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands) is loaded. Relationships, while perhaps not explosive, are risk, harking to what Warner has taught us in earlier poems. Whether rushing towards a lover on a high-speed train, or as in “Domesticity,”
Already she is dreaming the tampon
he will pluck from her body that night,
like the pistil of a lily. Stuck in the hinterland
between synthetic and organic
She finds the bloodied condom
the next morning. Jewelled in a jacket of fire ants.
Some are dead, engorged, others still feasting
on spunk and the blood of a woman
whom modernity has promised a rich
and fulfilling life of the mind.
Warner’s Streak is cutthroat and clever, never pretentious and never hobbled by shame or preciousness, which makes me love it all the more.
Elee Kraljii Gardiner’s most recent book is Trauma Head, published by Anvil Press in Fall 2018. eleekg.com <http://eleekg.com/>
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