Reviewed by Michelle Miller
Murder is horrifying. And the serial murders of a specific demographic of vulnerable people—like aboriginal women living in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood and making a living from dangerous and stigmatized work—is even more so. And when those murders happen in your community, it’s heart wrenching.
There are many things about the Robert Pickton murders and the police investigation and trial that followed them that add to its disturbing nature. That so many women on Vancouver’s infamous Downtown East Side went missing before getting police attention. That many more women in this neighbourhood are missing. That the wheels of justice turned so slowly—agonizingly slowly for the families of the missing women. That Pickton himself, a strange and reclusive pig farmer, could be so sick and cruel, like a character from a gothic horror novel.
Artists of all kinds in the Vancouver area have taken these murders as their subjects, whether in visual art depicting the missing women, like Betty Kovacic did, short fiction revolving around ordinary people’s experience of this tragedy from varying vantage points, like Nancy Lee’s excellent collection Dead Girls, or poetry aligning Pickton with historical serial killers and the media coverage with 19th-century murder magazines, as Shannon Stewart does in her 2008 collection Penny Dreadful (Signal Editions), named for those popular and sensationalist 18th- and 19th-century rags. Stewart’s poems take up all of the most disturbing aspects of the Pickton murders, from a number of perspectives and with a great deal of success.
The poems in this collection are sensitive, disturbing and sad, as anyone with a knowledge of the Pickton case would guess. But they’re also ribald, clever and funny. And beautiful. The wonder of Stewart’s skill is that from poem to poem, the reader has no idea what they’re in for. Reading the collection from start to finish is exhausting because the gamut of emotion Stewart runs is too large. Not to mention that her topics, characters, structures and settings are so varied and interesting, it is tempting to take research breaks to get grounded in the world she creates and reflects (for the record, at the back of the collection, Stewart explains who some of her more macabre characters are, but you don’t know it until you get there). The fact that this collection may be too heavy for an afternoon read-through shouldn’t discourage you from picking it up though—it is well worth the read, and although there are poems in here that sit with you in an uncomfortable way (like “Tete a Tete” and “Debutante” for me), Stewart breaks the tension she creates with some really funny moments, creating a collection of dark but sometimes comic tragedies. If you have so much free time, you might be interested in reading another Canadian poem by following this link.
Many of these poems are named after places marked by tragedy—fictional, historical or relevant to the Pickton murders. One of the earliest poems, entitled “Piggy Palace Society of Good Times: 2552 Burns Road,” ends
of things go missing every day:
keys, watches, teeth, sunglasses.
they’ll turn up eventually,
These words set the stage for later mentions of missing women, such as the following poem, “63 Missing from the Low Track,” in which the poem’s speaker comes home to a house full of unknown women doing laundry, cooking dinner, one “counting slowly to one hundred / her head buried in her arms” (16), as if playing a perverse game of hide and seek. These poems have been called “meditations,” which is so apt. The rest of the poems are imbued with this fact: lots of things go missing every day. And women, in the context of this world, are things. Of course, the women in this collection are not only passive objects; there is a lot of strength, anger, presence in these women. “A Rose by Any Other Name” features sections of common names for women: Cow, Slut, Cunt, Bitch and Whore. In Cunt, there is unquestionable power:
It made you
on your knees
and kiss it
In “Some of Us,” women are prostitutes, victims, bystanders, poor, disenfranchised, divorced, old and newly born. They all want something different and their experiences are different, particularly marked by class and circumstance. These diverse women are spoken for in the second person plural, as “us.”
layers of us marching through eternity,
harlot, courtesan, geisha, such pretty
names, credit cards, syringes.
This “us” causes the reader to consider the 63 missing women as members of the same massive group. Men only appear as pimps, but the rest of these women are connected through their “us”ness. The meditation the reader brings forward becomes that things go missing every day, and women are things, and women is an “us.” This adds a powerful dimension to the reading. In “Reveille,” we see a diva-prostitute hen, challenging “bring / on the night with its tight leather sky” (31). In “Gone,” Stewart speaks again about missing women, although here there is a distinct class difference from “63 Women Missing from the Low Track.” The wives of three golfers are misplaced, off “dipping their toes into pots / of heavy cream” (29). Well before the end of the poem we understand that there’s no need for alarm. The images here are reminiscent to tragedy, but ironic and humorous. In a classic turnaround, we are told,
A boy scout says he saw his mother step
into a black van which began to roll
down the street.
And that the golfer’s wives will return “when they are more beautiful / than swans” (29). The reader understands that it is possible to go missing without being in danger, for some women. The kind with husbands who are worried after only four hours.
In addition to marking people and places, Stewart writes grotesque romances, full of shit and blood and death. Many of these romances are between people and animals or insects, and pigs are a frequent mention. The world she describes is high contrast and disturbing. In “Tete a Tete,” she describes a hog and lady date in the first person, where a discussion of cannibalism leads to suicide and “the blood fell at my feet / like roses” (22). Desire is constantly twinned to death, as in “Witness”:
These are the twin flat lands
of death and desire.
you undress in both.
in both you expire.
Newspaper headlines are also tied to sex, as death and sex sell equally well. In “Witness,” one looks at the headlines “as silky stockings / slide over thighs” (27). The news is a major aspect of this collection, both in its “respected” and “rag” forms. In “Keeping Informed,” Stewart directly speaks of the daily news:
Open the great
of the world
and out fall
the day’s catastrophes.
Anyone with an experience of reading the morning paper knows just how true this is.
In the middle of the collection she breaks the tension by moving away from reality and into the sensationalist world of the tabloid news. With poems like “My Best Tenant is a Demon from Hades, Says Landlord,” “Man Jailed for Sucking the Toes of Three Unsuspecting Women” and “Gay Disaster Dooms Dinosaurs,” the reader laughs, not forgetting about the tragedies of the rest of the collection, but despite them. Some still have a macabre touch, but most are light and fun. She includes a section called “Horoscope: Your Weekly Style Guide,” and although she doesn’t have a poem for each sign of the zodiac (Sagittarius, my sign, is missing), they are wonderful. My favourite is Virgo, whose advice is to “wear red” and which features Red Riding Hood as both victim and thief. She is engaged to the “office wolf” and she eats her hospitalized grandmother’s “untouched jello-o” (41). In “Page 5 – Girl Next Door,” she juxtaposes the tabloid girl next door with her own neighbour, who is “squeezing her pimples / in a mirror” (55).
In this tabloid section there are moments of tenderness. In “Roofers Find Bucket Full of Teeth,” a man thinks back to the silver light of the Tooth Fairy, who has lost her teeth perhaps to “a sudden storm, a predatory cat / or a fairy’s old age.” To help her, he “sprinkles teeth into the hot asphalt. / Stars in a black sky, they will guide her home” (35). This kind of tenderness from a man is needed to balance the fact that most men in Penny Dreadful are killers.
The tenderness soon passes and Stewart ends the collection by going back to our 63 missing women. In “Jane,” the common name represents rogue women—rule breakers , dipping into history and Hastings Street, ending on a Jane Doe with a toe tag. The reader knows by the first line in this poem: “Have you been a good girl?” (57) that we are back from tabloid fluff to horrifying reality. In “Sawney Beane,” she connects a fictional Scottish cannibal with Pickton in the earlier poem “Pickton Pig Farm: 953 Dominion Avenue.” Sawney Beane and his men have a cave filled with “ladies’ things [he] like[s] to touch” (67). Pickton had “Trailers filled with purses, / i.d.‘s, girlie bric-a-brac” (14). The unsettling feeling brought on by the early poems returns.
The collection ends, as it should, with a poem called “Memorial,” and a memorial is really what Penny Dreadful seems to be. Shannon Stewart brings her considerable skill and sensitivity to missing and murdered women, and while I believe these poems to be too upsetting for an afternoon spent curled up with some poetry, it is a fantastic book and well worth the time spent reading it.
Michelle Miller is a queer-feminist writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Born and raised in Ontario, Michelle is trying to get used to life on the west coast, which is easy in the sun and impossible in the rain.