Fresh Pack of Smokes. Cassandra Blanchard. Nightwood Editions. Gibsons, British Columbia. 2019.
Today's book of poetry's first thought, when we stepped back to catch our breath, say about 30 pages in, was that I was back with Billy Hays in a Turkish prison ala Midnight Express. Fresh Pack of Smokes feels so vividly harrowing and morbidly exciting that you can almost smell the decay and feel the defeat. Cassandra Blanchard's poems sound more real and honest than Charles Bukowski's sad songs. And make no mistake, Today's book of poetry still worships Sir Charles the B.
Blanchard isn't so much down and dirty as she is candidly and explicitly blunt, with a burnt sense of humour somewhere near that darkest of blacks, the one that reflects zero light. Other than Nigerian poets fighting in the rebellion, Today's book of poetry has rarely encountered this kind of literary slap in the face wake-up call.
I must have turned a thousand tricks over those six years, you name
it I've done it, the perfect whore, young-looking so the men buzzed
around me like bees on honey, you have no idea how many men see
working girls for a quick blow job in the car after work before going
home or taxi drivers or stockbrokers, all kinds like the author of
children's books or the man who was a politician in Native self-
government or probably your boyfriend or husband, there are the
real cold mean ones and the okay ones who were not that bad and I
mostly had middle-aged married white men and I guarantee that you
know someone who has paid for sex; once I did a blow job where he
blew his load in exactly three seconds or the vampire-looking dude
with a foot-long boner that made me almost piss myself, but it's
always been strictly business, I've been around the block for sure.
At a Quebecois rehab centre, there was the gender rule, no breaking
gender, as in no fucking with either gender and of course I broke that
rule multiple times, at night when everyone was asleep I would slide
into bed with my woman and quietly make her cum, I couldn't not
do it and it didn't help when a chick would get a crush on me, I guess
I had to break the rules, it felt so good to be bad — I've never even
been on a date before, it has always been straight to screwing, I guess
it would be nice to go out for dinner rather than sleeping with some-
one in secret, for two years we were together, the violent psycho and
me, the pushover, but damn we clicked in the sack and everywhere
too like in a semi or on the bus or outside, the only time we got
along was when we were fucking, this bitch was a sociopath, I swear
her eyes had nothing behind them but even though I was in danger
around her, she made me feel safe and made me feel like I was losing
the hamster wheel race, seriously though, I've had enough to last me
three thousand years and that's nothing to be happy about, being for
sale ain't nothing to be proud of.
Fresh Pack of Smokes has velocity, like it is being shot out of a gun. Every one of these compact prose poems carries the full weight of crack exploding. Every one of these poems sees predators and police while looking for a safe place to sleep.
Fresh Pack of Smokes assaults the reader's level of comfort in our comfortable world. All those woman we pretend are invisible when we see them on a street corner, all those women we pretend we don't see as they fall through the crack. Blanchard gives them a voice. As Maryse Holder so bravely wrote "Give Sorrow Words".
It may sound very stupid but there's something about the streets that
always appealed to me, there was a type of freedom where I could do
what I wanted when I wanted whenever I wanted and never be tied
down to one place, the only rules being those of the street, never
staying in one place for long, on an endless journey for more and
more drugs until it became the most important task at hand and I
could not plan anything because I didn't know where I would be in
any foreseeable future and I had no address, however the flip side to
all this was that I was tied up — I was a prisoner and everything that
came with it, I was a coin, each side a cell with thick bars.
It's a cold, grey morning here at Today's book of poetry. It's raining "hammers and nails" as Tom Waits once suggested, it's raining as though we were waiting for an ark. Sunday is always a quiet day in the Today's book of poetry offices. We're pretty soft about actual attendance as all of our staff are volunteers.
One dear friend and contributor, Otis, flashed by earlier this week. It was great to see him, he'd been living in Mexico, Belgium and Italy this past year. No grass growing on that cat. Today's book of poetry sent him off with an armful of chapbooks (which he paid for, bless his cotton socks), and a big Today's book of poetry hug. We are always happy to see old friends.
Cassandra Blanchard's Fresh Pack of Smokes is gripping and frightening. We can't help thinking that there, for the grace, luck, whatever, goes my sister, my mother, my love, and so on. Blanchard's poems leave no room for doubt. Any false glamour we might have imagined is sanded down to the ugly survival bone. Spectacularly squalid stuff, it gets behind your eyes, under your fingernails, these poems make you feel dirty, used. Blanchard has revealed a dark talent, a beautiful mind that tours hell.
Instead of calling the ambulance they dumped his body on some-
one's lawn, my father had overdosed on heroin and his so-called
friends were too afraid of the police to try and save his life and so
the cops came to our house and because we were children they
gave teddy bears to us, however I was asleep when the officers came
so I woke up to my sister crying and she said he passed away and I
thought he fell in a ditch, passing away like falling, and so I went to
my mother who was in the shower crying and she told me he was
dead and I understood; my memories are there but there are not so
many of them and some of them I would rather not remember like
the alcohol he was dependent on and the violence that came with it;
he was troubled but he loved us, I look up at the sky and to me he is
a lone star in the ever darkening cosmos.
Today's book of poetry loved Cassandra Blanchard's Fresh Pack of Smokes and will be on notice for Blanchard's next book. It's going to be a killer. This kind of talent and honesty is going to burst the seams somewhere. Kudo's to Nightwood for putting their ass on the line.
Blanchard burns like she came up with the expression all on her own. Today's book of poetry is an instant fan.
ABOUT THE POET
Cassandra Blanchard was born in Whitehorse, YT, but called Vancouver home for many years. She holds a BA from the University of British Columbia with a major in gender, race, sexuality and social justice. Her poetry has been published in a handful of literary journals. Fresh Pack of Smokes is her first book of poetry. She lives in Duncan, British Columbia.
There's tremendous pressure on underrepresented artists to diffuse complex stories so they may be made more easily understood and consumed by the mainstream. Debut author Cassandra Blanchard's unapologetic, immersive and veracious voice cannot be diffused! Her prose poems stand bold and true on the page, with barely a stanza break to mitigate their power. I am honoured to stand with her poems — I've been a big admirer of Blanchard for years. Read Fresh Pack of Smokes and become an admirer too.
— Amber Dawn
This is a book, ultimately, about dignity. These poems spill over like a sentence as long and relentless as a lifetime. Grasping for what feels fleetingly like a normal life, the narrator instead wrings words from blood. This is a book of a city that is everywhere, of policing, of using, of survival that is all-consuming, of fear and pleasure and hallucination that are three sides of a coin. This is a book about the wisdom of not caring and yet the pain of still doing so.
— Ray Hsu
Truly distinctive in vision and voice, Blanchard's Fresh Pack of Smokes probes the pain and elation, the silence and clamour, the confinement and the freedom of life on the street. The power of Blanchard's poetry arises from its rare combination of raw honesty, remarkable detail and spiralling accumulation, producing a collection that is as difficult and unrelenting as it is exceptional, necessary and wise.
— Daniel Scott Tysdal
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