A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, by Stephanie Bolster
Reviewed by Jim Johnstone
In “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the final poem published in W. B. Yeats’ Last Poems, derelict circus animals are used as an analogy for the poet’s inability to create. The poem is notable as a critique of Yeats’ career, and serves as a public declaration of a private struggle that besets nearly all writers. Stephanie Bolster’s first book in 9 years, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, summons a host of species to mark her return to the spotlight. She conjures Yeats’ circus animals while inviting her readers to leave the world they know and enter one that evokes a sense of the unknown: among the many wonders are trees pruned to take the shape of animals, a giraffe that resembles the Eiffel Tower, and Walter Benjamin’s flanneur taking to the street. The result is an environment that is simultaneously familiar and mysterious, straddling a historical time span that shifts from the Victorian era to present day.
The collection is held together by a sequence of poems titled “Life of the Mind” that function as meditations on specific concepts (wonders, wanders, tapestry, night). These poems overlap and breed familiarity through the repetition of locales such as gardens, parks, zoos and arcades. Bolster also references zoological texts that are sourced in an extensive series of notes following the poems; this intertextuality is in keeping with the historical leanings of the book, however it often disturbs Bolster’s rhythmic instincts. Take the sentence “The pines date from 1908, / one of the most spectacular plantings / outside of Japan” from “Tanyosho Pines”. The italicized text has been modified from signage in the New York Botanical Garden and reads like material from a tourist guidebook. Bolster regularly interrupts the poems in A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth with this kind of stagy language to enact the book’s central theme: captivity.
Bolster’s musings on captivity are accompanied by a marked shift in form in relation to her earlier work. Her poems are fragmented, and seem literally caged within the book. The title itself evokes this, presenting wonders in a two-dimensional context — one can’t help but think of a scrapbook with disparate images paired as if they’ve been cut out and glued beside one another. Take the clipped sentences of “Domesticity Revisited,” reprinted here in full:
When they first put a cow in a zoo in Dublin.
When the common cat. When a slick giraffe
dropped from a stooped giraffe
and breathed in a suburb that was home.
The Dog Star.
Birds we do not know the names of.
Kids point to the moo-cow’s non-stop jaw
and ask. Kids from flats.
Yesterday they came, finches or warblers,
their breasts purplish as new growth then gone.
The poem is so compact that it appears to be missing information. Consider “When the common cat,” a sentence fragment that leads directly to the evolution of the giraffe without giving the cat a reason to be. While this is jarring, it confines the cat within the poem, domesticating it before moving on to describe a variety of other beasts. These others are caged too, most notably finches and warblers who come and go despite being unable to escape human paradigms.
While “Domesticity Revisited” makes effective use of restraint, Bolster too often relies on fragmentation to create tension between images. As such, many of her poems come off as unfinished, or worse, vague depictions of historical events that are more researched than alive. While it’s true that history evolves very much like animals that have been confined in zoos, too much has been forgotten to keep some of these poems interesting. Take, for example, “Eden or Ark” where Bolster writes:
The child is taken there to see the world.
Look, there is this and this.
A giant gerbil by a stream!
A cat that could eat a man?
A flightless bird with eyelashes.
A corner where it goes.
This poem is similar to “Domesticity Revisited” in that it catalogues natural curiosities; in this case presenting a gerbil, cat and bird from a child-like vantage. The effect is numbing when taken in context with the rest of A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth — animals are listed so often that they become a common trope in a book that attempts to present many of them as peculiarities. Even the title of “Eden or Ark” is predictable, evoking biblical tragedies by playing with common motifs.
Bolster is better when she mixes personal detail with historical references, as in “A Brief History of the Bear Pit in the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes”. Here we’re introduced to her daughter:
Last time, a vacant pit
and a sign promising next time
a red panda, compact of face and almost
ursine in its lope. Last time I didn’t know
that next time I’d hold in my arms a girl,
who’d hold to her chest a bear in a dress,
made in China I’ll bet, a bee stung to its back,
the better to gather honey, though it’s
straight to her mouth with the bee
for she who’s never seen
a being larger than me
unless you count trees.
By personalizing her trip to the Menagerie, Bolster avoids the detachment that plagues poems that appear earlier in the collection like “Crystal Palace” and “Palm House, Kew”, and gives her inquiry into the Victorian age a newfound vitality. In “A Brief History of the Bear Pit in the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes” this allows her to add anthropomorphism to her exploration of intraspecial relations by using her daughter’s stuffed bear to demonstrate how children are desensitized to animals that have been re-contextualized in urban environments.
While A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth is careful and well crafted, the wonders contained within rarely leap from the page, and when they do, Bolster pulls back to tame them. Where Yeats presented his readers with a fleeting image of circus animals among old kettles, old bottles and broken cans, Bolster takes the opposite approach by highlighting superficialities to bring new life to her surroundings. Even when discussing her surroundings themselves, as she does in “Topiary”, Bolster doesn’t rise much beyond definition: “[o]ne wild thing / pruned to another’s shape.” Thus A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth suffers from its own proclivity towards mystery, leaving the reader to imagine much of what must have fascinated witnesses to some of history’s greatest spectacles.