The Nature of Things
Reviewed by Abby Paige (Montreal Review of Books, Spring 2012)
Wildlife inhabits much of Stephanie Bolster’s A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, which meanders through gardens, orchards, museums, and other landscapes to explore how nature is interpreted and transformed through the human gaze. From topiaries to taxidermy, we frame our experiences with nature in order to exert control, impose distance, or make our awe feel somehow more manageable.
Bolster, who co-edited a 2010 anthology of zoo poems entitled Penned, seems to have taken inspiration from that volume. Many of the poems focus on zoos and contemplate how we keep animals in order to keep our own animal nature at arm’s length. “Not me not me not me,” says the zoo-goer in “Hello, You.” And since many of the poems are also about the decline of such places – derelict zoos, neglected urban gardens, a collapsing Crystal Palace – we are often led to wonder what the distance is between a meadow and a lawn? A lion and a house cat? Life and still life?
Although there is an implicit suggestion here that we are nature’s most destructive force, this is not a polemic on our treatment of animals or the environment. Rather, the poems capture and sometimes lament our fascination with the wild and our paradoxical, insatiable desire to tame it. Bolster’s real moments of brilliance are when she seems to suggest that the poem itself is such a process, with the poet ordering the chaos of experience in order to make it seem more meaningful than it really is. Her spare diction and carefully wrought lines are the poetic equivalent of an English garden, with not a blossom out of place. At times the meaning of words is transformed, but methodically, not playfully, as an insect is pinned to a board with its wings unfurled.