Title: Creamsicle Stick Shivs
Author: John Stiles
Publisher: Insomniac Press
Review by Greg Santos
John Stiles’ second collection of poetry, Creamsicle Stick Shivs, is an enjoyable read particularly due to Stiles’ delight in language, humour, and unique observations. Split up into three sections, the book chronicles the poet’s movements from Canada’s east coast to Toronto and finally England.
The first section is the most linguistically interesting of the book. Stiles uses colloquial dialect from Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley to great effect, bringing characters to life in brief pieces that sparkle with energy. Take for instance these lines from “Halifax Snowstorm”:
Well, it’s true: I do stand like a soldier in the parking lot
with yer grocery bags. But Jesus girl, wouldja take off
yer goddamned top en let that stunning church of a tit
fall out your blouse, so we can turn our heads en waltz
like two goddamned lovestruck swans cross the rooftop
in this glorious Halifax Snowstorm?
Also included is “New Pile for Road” which includes this strong opening stanza:
Down the dykes the Caterpillar and Mac truck
are in union: sand and muck slung down
a wave from a bored man in cab to a quarry.
Dig. Dug. Done.
The words “sand”, “muck”, “slung”, “dig”, “dug”, and so on, are terse and mimic the rhythms of digging. The musicality and theatrical nature of these poems make it is easy to see why many of them have been performed by Stiles in clubs, bars, and cafés; one can imagine them being instant crowd pleasers.
Taken out of Nova Scotia and into the urban core of Toronto, the middle section however, is not as linguistically daring or playful as the first. This is not to say that the poems are not interesting; there are some quality pieces, such as “Poplars”:
Even when I was young I was caught staring at the girls.
I used to show off on the teeder-todder in the schoolyard
near the wood of poplars. Love hearts etched into the
black ridges of smoke, skinny trees that crowned the
soccer pitch like wild hair…
In this piece, the speaker is reminiscing about the past while trying to gain footing in a new environment. It feels as if he is struggling to find himself in Toronto’s vast urban landscape but is unable to do so and this uncertainty is reflected in these poems. There weren’t many that stuck with me this time around.
The last section, “Meritimer in England,” may not have the same linguistic sparkle as the first but it is still mature and satisfying.
About the money, things are tense,
so the dishes are done very slowly,
so beautiful and savage in a vest.
My dark-haired wife, tears in the sink,
someone is waiting to crack,
which one might that be?
I can tell you I feel like I’m sandwiched
between a miserable person
and a happy-go-lucky layabout.
(“Oh, About the money” 43)
In poems like “Oh, About the Money” and “Happy Till Your Wife Gets a Job in a Bar,” the speaker is dealing with a new marriage in a foreign country and it is here where Stiles shines with his quirky observations on people, places, and relationships.
Now that I’ve read Creamsicle Stick Shivs, I hope to one day get a chance to fly to England so I can catch one of his spirited readings at a pub and wish him a boisterous, “how yah doon?”
Greg Santos is a Montreal based poet/writer/artist.