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Bearing Witness:
Cassandra Blanchard's Fresh Pack of Smokes

Cassandra Blanchard's Fresh Pack of Smokes
Cassandra Blanchard, Fresh Pack of Smokes
Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2019.

Cassandra Blanchard’s debut collection of poetry, Fresh Pack of Smokes, opens up the world of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for the reader. Deftly using the prose poem to illuminate the inner-workings of the complex emotional and psychological experiences of addiction, Blanchard depicts life in the DTES with detail and care.

Divided into three sections, the collection paints the broad strokes of initiation, descent, and struggle toward recovery. All the while, however, the collection keenly tends to the places and people encountered by the speaker. Day-to-day existence is placed front and centre through the opening poem where sex work is a means to an end: “you have no idea how many men see working girls for a quick blow job in the car after work […] I guarantee that you know someone who has paid for sex” (“XXX”).

But sex work as a tool for acquiring the relief drugs provide from psychological, emotional and physical trauma—individual and collective—is only one piece of the puzzle. Through its intimate portrayal of life’s blend of pain, pleasure, despair and temporary respite, Blanchard’s book foregrounds the human will for connection. Women are drawn together through their addictions, but also through their desires and attempts at love: “Candy’s hair was her resumé, she was my street mom and she taught me how to behave in jail, taught me where the good places are on the street and who to avoid” (“Biographies”). In the Carl Rooms where intergenerational patterns of addiction play out, a mother asks her adult son “to turn around so he wouldn’t see her smoke rock”; another woman and her daughter “regularly smoked crack together, both dealt together, both fought each other and both looked out for one another” (“Love III”).

This impulse toward human connection is reinforced by the structure of the book. Part Two, for instance, presents multiple interrogations of the concept of love in a series of poems: “Love I” through “Love VII.” Intertwined with other works bearing stripped-down titles like “Bunk,” “Dial-a-Dope,” “Pills, Booze and Weed,” and “Hallucinate,” the series of eight poems circles round the abstract concept, trying to hone in on some concrete, identifiable truth about the nature of our attachments. This mode of inquiry is employed throughout the entire collection as various incidents are told and retold from different angles, producing a kaleidoscopic effect. Indeed, it is here that the collection is at its strongest, the kaleidoscopic effect gaining momentum and power from the prose poem itself, a genre that facilitates holding opposites in delicate tension and balance.

At a time when structural inequities fuelled by sexism, racism, and on-going colonial practices are coming into clear view, it is also important to note how these inequities are implicated in addiction. This is also part of what Blanchard’s collection broaches, both when she addresses her Aboriginal identity (in “Native”) and when the reader is asked to see relationships up close, understanding individuals as people, not addicts.

Blanchard’s first collection bears faithful witness to “this thing called life, this sadness carried through time” (“People”) as it plays out specifically in Vancouver’s DTES; equally, it demonstrates her strong future poetic promise.

 

Lisa Pike was born in Windsor, Ontario. She studied in France, worked in Italy, and completed her PhD at the University of Toronto. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including CV2, The New Quarterly, Exile, Riddle Fence, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, and Re: Generations: Canadian Women Poets in Conversation. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, Policeman’s Alley; and a novel, My Grandmother’s Pill (Guernica Editions). Her collection of short fiction His Little Douchebag & Other Stories is forthcoming with Urban Farmhouse Press.

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