Friday, September 6, 2019

A Violent Streak - Stephanie Warner (Fitzhenry & Whiteside)

Today's book of poetry:
A Violent Streak.  Stephanie Warner.  Fitzhenry & Whiteside.  Markham, Ontario. 2018.

Get in, put on your seat belt and find something to hang onto because this speedy ride might have a bump or two.  Stephanie Warner's A Violent Streak starts off as though you were dropped out of the sky and into the middle of the Olympic 100 metre final, mid race.  You can't even imagine anyone moving that fast or slick or easy.  You can't imagine anyone moving like that.  It's disorienting, but Warner turns it into splendid fun.

Or think of it this way, Stephanie Warner is a machine-gunning poet, and she hits her mark with every bullet.  Today's book of poetry says wow.

Okay, Stephanie Warner explodes out of the gate with serious and humorous intent, she doesn't slow down, does not coast.  A Violent Streak is high beauty running at full speed, foot to the floor.  Warner is a second, third, fourth thought impresario.  We are talking full burn here.  A Violent Streak is such a poetry pleasure to roll your tongue over, you simply don't want the ride to end.

Today's book of poetry doesn't know how Stephanie Warner seems to know everything about everything but we don't doubt her wisdom for one second.  We're now willing disciples.

A Violent Streak

Or is it a seam? Ragged with dropped stitches, a disregard for function
or aesthetics. The way the coulees look hewn from the prairies with a hatchet.
Cows slumbered in their own frozen shit, neon pulsing ALL U CAN EAT,

and a grid of country roads bisecting the landscape like dogma. Not theirs:
Fort McMoney's, where all the best boys go.  Return two years later
with a souped-up Chevy, stereo-surround and oxblood seats, missing a hand.

The flarestacks never leave their minds; the prayer-like rise and fall
of oil wells, or the sunsets, the colours all wrong, through a shimmered film
of pollution. Happy hour (it's always happy hour) and nightly wet t-shirt contests

in bars plucked from Felix the Cat's carpet bag. Formica and movie prop furnishings
heaped like kindling. Perhaps the Coors Light, and casseroles on heirloom cut-glass platters
are small measure against the thirty hectares of drifted snow, crumpled silos, ice-sealed sloughs—

and the oil rigs, like a flock of condors, closing in from the West, so a millionaire
hockey-player, on his last concussion, can wake up to heated tiles. If the whole thing
is a charade, nobody lets on. The men out to buy the annual Christmas gun, and gas

for ATV doughnuts on Lake Gull, which has nothing to do with lakes or gulls.
The women pinch the scalloped edges of pies, doilies draped on every conceivable surface;
Precious Moments angels, 1000-piece puzzles shellacked on the walls.

More babies than anybody knows what to do with. Should've rented a goddamned hall!
Something sinister in the blood, your mother would say. A cousin's bar fight
in Cremona gone pear shaped with blow, Ms. Sam Steele '76, the broken neck

of a bottle of Bud. A nephew mangled in a bailer; others dismantled more elegantly
by drink and the Bashaw casino. But never grandpa, who built this house with his hands,
along with a couple of ex-Hutterite kids, out of their minds on moonshine.

Perhaps he always hankered over a death, quick and clean-like, before another strike
could bend his handsome angles, pry him from the farm, to the home
in Leduc: the petite-morts of bingo nights, shuffle boards, and plastic champagne flutes.

Certain things can't be helped. Are expected, even. The stillborn calves in their mandalas
of slime. A cold-snap and the coyotes plucking kittens from the barn like truffles.
Even the children know not to name them. And, grampa, alone in his Pontiac

the turquoise of a Spanish sea, engine idling in the barn. Folks gone to church,
lingered over coffee, devilled eggs and the week's gossip. Hank on the tape deck,
pining for Chicken Jambalya, and the June bugs thudding against the window glass.

Exhaust strolled into the cornfield maze of his mind, lungs. A two-six of whiskey,
the funny pages and the job done. His rakish smile someplace between charms and spite
flickers on the lips of your cousin, a tom-boyish thing of five-years-old

with a perpetually broken arm. There and gone, like a radio signal. The aunts
try not to see it, or to pick that wayward stitch, as she colours the pantheon of Disney princesses:
black and violet auras grackled around their dresses. Slits where the crayon

was rubbed too hard. She would rather explode cities of Lego with her brother
on the living room floor. The ocean bed that it all once was: Red Deer, Grand Forks,
Gasoline Alley, Black Diamond. The Rocky Mountains a jagged coast. And the oil wells

slumbered, of no monetary value, though beautiful. Oil was always
beautiful. As well, the paramecium, waxing, splitting; the waters seamed
with the gold of their endless couplings. Nothing exchanged, or passed on.


Reading Stephanie Warner is like shooting adrenalin into your weary eyeballs.  Reading A Violent Streak reminded Today's book of poetry of the very first time we read Hunter S. Thompson.  Today's book of poetry doesn't mean to compare Warner to Thompson in any way.  The comparison is in the feeling generated by the astonishment at the machine-gun quick mind behind this trigger.  A Violent Streak fulfills all of your quotas for excitement.

To tell the honest truth (what other kind is there?), Today's book of poetry is simply not intellectually prepared to follow Stephanie Warner down every path she paves in A Violent Streak.  But we sure enjoyed the tumble.

The Same River Twice

It's not the prospect of impact, per se,
which is individual, not general, as you hem and haw
at the edge of this river of rust, and chrome and gasoline.

Half expecting Hermes to approach: babe, I got this—
and open his trench-coat of paring knives,
astrolabs and taxidermy bats.

On the other side the Temple of Literature, calm eye—
with its beatific statues of turtles, cranes: heads rubbed to mirrors,
lawns clipped to suede, a boy selling baggies of cubed mango

crusted in salt and chilli. How it behaves like water, but isn't.
Bored women draped side-saddle, checking their phones, and tuk-tuks
in an arm's race of Georgian tassel, drapes, and plastic flowers.

Chickens yoked to the back of one, like soap on a rope, shrieking,
and insectal platelets of metal changing hands, shifting claims
and counter-claims, around endless eight-cylinder war lords. A good engine

in Hanoi will cost a month's wages. The rest is incidentals
held together, in some consensus, by the charisma
of oil and velocity. Impossible to step in the same river twice.

Choose your moment, and go. Love your choice.
Self-consciousness means you hesitate, waver. Which means splat.
But how do you forget yourself, ever?  Like the old woman

with her shopping bag of coriander, rickety shoulders, sling-backs,
slipped into the aural equivalent of one million biblical cicadas,
as if into a bath. In Africa, tiny birds forage for morsels of plaque

around an alligator's teeth, but the symbolic is still personal.
Filament of platinum? Better: the poem as a heated block of ice
riding its own melting, and a theory about being subconsciously drawn

to things like your name. The dead and the living poets. But especially
the dead, hovered as a lucky net of coital midges, as your body steps blandly
into the fray. Like being held and loved, but not looked at.

Supposing that a certain level of complexity permits cubist cheats.
Your elbow melts into a hubcap. Mirror-balled and scattered,
your foot, dainty, in a basket of shaved ice and fish.

How it is easy, in the end, to lily-pad the lacuna of non-collisions.
In the Temple of Literature the women in sling-backs
bowed before Confucius, her cupped hands nodding joss-sticks.

The she rises, and steps lightly back into the city's endlessly shuffled
deck of scrap, and you remember how in Spain an olive tree is pruned
to precise colonnades a bird can dart through—and only then does it fruit.


Our morning read was a quieter affair than usual.  Last night Today's book of poetry said goodbye to the painter Blair Sharpe at a celebration of life ceremony at the Ottawa Art Gallery.  Very bittersweet ground.  Today's book of poetry is a big Blair Sharpe fan and awfully sad to see him go.

The staff in our office could see that Today's book of poetry was blue and driving in low gear, so Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, took over the reins on this morning's read.  The consensus was clear, we were all impressed by Stephanie Warner's scope, range and beauty.


When he was inside her
she had no organs. His hand
in her belly, the clapper of a bell,
hauling chains of sound
from a tarn of sour water.
She lowed and huffed
and later squeaked and squelched
with the blissful subservience
of a glove.

He washed her after with the tenderness
of a man hosing down his dog,
for she was a straggled and matted
and burr-studded old thing;
despite the buffing with sugar
and olive oil; bra and knickers
that looked spun by spiders—
the raw smack of her incandescent skin.

When he left, she drank straight
from the hotel tap, until her belly cracked
open its sail. Fuck vessels,
she thought, fuck the middle man.
She would drink until she was sluices
and locks; the gold would float to the top.

But for his returning, nightly,
in the stingray's latex cape, inside her
again, his barbed and intractable sex:
bone-comb, fletching of porcupine quills,
stoppering her like his finest vintage.
Bamboozled and bodegoed!
dying for a slash—

She took to watching snarky
food programs, nights she couldn't sleep.
In Japan, a dish of entrails arranged
with tweezers, like tiny bolts of lace—
under a cloud of truffle foam
and a scrimmage of edible flowers,
finished with a shard of crackling:

The intestines are yanked
through the anus of a live duck.
She has been doted on and coddled,
fed figs and chestnuts, has slept
in the crook of the chef's arms,
our little ducky dauphine. The tripe's
pan fried, plated, then paired
with a good sake. Yes, she has to be
alive, folks: dread will spoil the meat—
but that lost bolt from the blue,
the tenderizing of adrenaline,
that's the stuff right there. And the umami,
dear listeners, this is what
you came for.


Stephanie Warner is one of the few disciples of the more is more school.  Most poets work hard to trim the fat, Warner burns that shit.  These poems are the proverbial brass ring.

Warner burns, these poems are poetry feasts.

Image result for stephanie warner poet photo

Stephanie Warner

Stephanie Warner was born in Kamloops, and grew up in British Columbia, Alberta and the Yukon. Her poetry has appeared in numerous Canadian literary journals, including the Montreal Poetry Prize Global Anthology, and was awarded second place in the 2015 Prism international poetry contest. She was awarded a faculty studentship at the University of Manchester in 2016, and is working toward a PhD in poetry.

"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. . . Warner's Streak is cutthroat and clever, never pretentious and never hobbled by shame or preciousness, which makes me love it all the more."
     — BC BookLook (See the entire review at                 moonshine/)

"A verbal maximalist, Stephanie Warner explores ideas of reality and escapism, happiness and hurt in poems that unspool with off-balance sentences and mind-bending acts of observation (where the Mars Rover becomes "the world's fanciest / Swiss army knife, trawling a crater / the size of Texas" and lichen is "plashed on the stones like the mother-boards / of steam-punk computers"). A Violent Streak is a fantastic debut: unabashed, virtuosic; a gifted poet 'keening in many tongues.'"
     — Carmine Starnino



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