A Witnessing

Reviewed by Angela Kruger

At once a memoir, an archive, and a debut poetry collection, Cassandra Blanchard’s Fresh Pack of Smokes demands a witnessing. Across three sections of startlingly raw prose poetry, an autobiographical “I” recounts tales of surviving sex work, abusive relationships, drug addiction, police violence, psychosis, jail, racism, trauma, and all the places you can be disappeared in Vancouver, predominantly in the city’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood. Blanchard’s poetry is utterly genuine, precious in its hovering at the midpoint between careful intimacy and absolute candour. Poems are not long, but they are commitments. Each is a solid block of text which unfolds in seemingly cathartic release, accumulating by the end of the collection in a difficult mass—and this mass reflects the political thrust of Blanchard’s work: it takes up space. On the page and beyond, these poems are a powerful testament to the resilience of people (particularly women) living in the DTES, and are revealing of the injustice that calls for such resilience.

The reader is pulled swiftly into relation with the speaker, who addresses “you” directly—“you have no idea how many men see / working girls . . . probably your boyfriend or husband”—and who maintains a colloquial tone throughout the collection, as if always in conversation with “you.” Following a legacy of poets writing from the DTES, such as Bud Osborn, the Thursdays Writing Collective, and countless others published on building walls, in hearts, newsletters, zines, and chapbooks, Blanchard’s poetry is positively layered in the residue of the everyday. The “I” draws “you” in. The DTES and the community dwelling in it exert a force, impelling “you” to engage more deeply with questions of place, knowledge, and morality.

Of course, these are political questions. While no poem identifies itself or the collection as a work deployed explicitly for the political, Fresh Pack of Smokes nevertheless does political work. By inviting the reader into conversation and then asserting space to recount certain experiences, Fresh Pack of Smokes works, politically, in at least three ways. First, it recognizes many people in Vancouver who have endured waves of attempted erasure and are at this moment fighting for their right to remain, despite rapid gentrification of their home. Second, it implicates the reader in these configurations of power, asking “you” on multiple registers: what—or, indeed, who—is the matter? Third, it complicates preconceived notions of the DTES. For a neighbourhood that is so often simplistically reduced to moral badness in descriptions such as “Canada’s poorest postal code” or “Skid Row,” Fresh Pack of Smokes represents an opportunity, perhaps, for a kind of cultural intervention, should we, as readers, grapple with the stakes of this witnessing.

As a whole, Fresh Pack of Smokes exceeds itself. The commonplace yet visceral content and the uninhibited, casual tone across the collection foster a unique relationship between speaker and reader which, in my experience, underlines the importance and the responsibility of bearing witness.

This review “A Witnessing” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 132-133.

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