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Creamsicle Stick Shivs

by John Stiles

The notes in the back of John Stiles’s second poetry collection tell us that “the poems in this book have been performed in clubs and bars and cafés in Toronto and London, England.” This emphasis on performance may help to explain why so many of these pieces feel like snippets torn at random from a standup routine. Funny, yes, but on the page they suffer from the absence of a human voice to deliver them with just the right timing and inflection.

Stiles, a transplanted Maritimer (or “Meritmer,” as the idiom of his poems would have it), now lives in London, and much of his work riffs amusingly on awkward encounters between cultures. From the discomfited sexual target of “Bus Ride with Ecuadorian Fellow” to the helpless anglophone of “Les Sondages” to the exoticized Canuck of “Can’t Get My Head Around Canada,” Stiles’s personae delight in presenting themselves as outsiders, misunderstanding and misunderstood, stranded in worlds of confusion.

This can produce some intriguing effects, as in “Distance, Please, Sir,” where the speaker’s anxiousness to avoid an irritating acquaintance comes across beautifully in the poem’s frantic stretch of syntax, a single 14-line sentence. In “Sorry State of the Conqueror,” impressionistic shifts of sound and imagery build to a menacing Audenesque satire.

Usually, though, Stiles’s poetics of disorientation yields fewer rewards. Like inside jokes that only the author gets, too many of these poems rely on bizarre titles (“These Men Are Not Pimps, After All!”) or quippy non sequiturs to compensate for their lack of narrative cohesion. This would be fine if the language were really firing; countless fine writers have dabbled in incoherence with beautiful results. But Stiles’s attention to the figurative and musical aspects of poetry is intermittent at best, resulting in many flat endings like that of “Rice from the Iceland”: “Don’t worry, I will be/thinking about you while I read my book.” Striving for slice-of-life inconclusiveness, Creamsicle Stick Shivs is too often simply banal.