Reviewed by Kevin Shaw
A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth. Brick Books, 2011.
In Stephanie Bolster’s excellent fourth collection, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, the poet views the natural world through its containers: zoos, museums, homes, art, and (natural) history. Bolster uses found texts as a tourist collects souvenirs. She often alludes to sources as varied as The New Yorker, children’s books, public signs, and Walter Benjamin’s philosophy. Through her accumulation of found text and creation of a wandering speaker who travels across the world, Bolster explores the relationship between the found object (whether an animal or a piece of art) and its keeper, between the various collections humans make and their tourists, viewers, and readers.
Although they include much globetrotting, these poems are not merely the notes of a tourist. Calling to mind the documentary mode in Canadian poetry, Bolster’s speakers investigate and witness. In “Three Zoos,” the speaker describes how in Baghdad, “Lions snack on military rations / U.S. soldiers toss. The lynx last seen / roaming an overpass.” In the subsequent stanza Bolster writes, “Coalition soldiers are securing the area.” The lines present a disjunction between the human and animal subjects: do the soldiers “secure” the people or the lynx? The next line provides an answer: “If you are caught, you will be detained or shot” (52). The rhyme of “caught” and “shot” provides an ironic assurance amid chaos, as the presence of soldiers (or cages) provide a false sense of security.
Bolster conflates human and animal subjects throughout the collection. In “Versailles,” one of the best examples of this conceit, the grand salon contains “sixty pictures of animals” that recall those kept by Marie Antoinette in her fake village. The speaker then passes through “the long hall of mirrors,” so that the gaze moves from the framed animals to the framed human faces of the tourists. The poem ends in “the room where the queen / gave birth, watched by whomever came to watch” (14). The poem itself becomes the hall of mirrors that reflects images of caged animals and caged people. It also becomes a site where we observe the observers.
Although some of the collection’s strongest poems encourage us to question our complicity as passive viewers, the human-as-caged-animal metaphor sometimes falters. After the complex interplay between the observer and the observed in “Versailles,” a poem like “Red Light District” in which the speaker watches a prostitute in a window and concludes, “If I / say Shame, the sentiment is mine. If she weren’t here, / what would not become of her?” appears too simplistic, the complexity sacrificed to moralizing. “Red Light District” is positioned in the collection alongside poems about animals in zoos, clearly asking for comparison, but I am not convinced the correspondence is always so easy. Yet this is just one poem in a collection that is otherwise very strong, mainly because Bolster complicates the binary of human captor and animal captive in exciting ways.
In several poems, Bolster uses the detached language of observation to imitate the confinement of her subjects. In “Palm House, Kew,” short, enjambed lines set the scene: “A boat built for nowhere. // That cycad here / since 1775.” Though the imitative language seamlessly bridges form and content, there is a risk of the lines of clipped observation or imperative phrases becoming monotonous. Fortunately, Bolster has varied both lineation and stanza forms frequently enough throughout her collection; she moves between the lyric mode and the prose poem to mirror the tension between containment and freedom that she explores.
Bolster’s prose poems (including the dazzling “Life of the Mind” sequence) are the most inventive in the collection, particularly in their use of found material. For example, in “An Education,” Bolster assembles quotations from scholarly literature, informational signage from zoos, snippets of overheard conversation, and catalogues of places in a continuous paragraph. The quotations from zoo signs leave open spaces in the text like a student’s fill-in-the-blank activity sheet: “Secretive by nature, nocturnal in activity, the _______ _____ and ______ ________ live shrouded in mystery” (27). These Mad Lib-like quotations invite the reader into the poem’s enclosure, overturning the passive consumption practiced by some zoo patrons, tourists, and, Bolster suggests, readers. She sustains these inquiries into readership, enclosure, exposure, tourism, and so on throughout the collection while deploying an array of subjects, forms, and speakers: if this collection is yet another container, Bolster allows us to look inside from every angle.
At press time: Kevin Shaw is an MA student in English at the University of Windsor. His poetry has appeared in The Malahat Review, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, and on London, ON city buses as part of Poetry in Motion.
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