Stephanie Bolster’s fourth book of poetry, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, ensures that she is no stranger to the world of letters, yet in this collection the Governor General Award winner assigns herself the task of being a stranger, travelling around the world from zoo to garden to apiary to menagerie. As an onlooker of zoo animals, and often humans too, Bolster’s gaze reaches beyond conventional “zoo” or “animal” poems and tracks an unnatural evolution of the animal from “outside of the pages” of children’s books, to zoo exhibits, to the plastic replica of an animal in a zoo gift shop. Shapes evolve into words as the name of an animal is used for a building, or a person’s last name becomes a street location. Bolster’s evolutionary vision is layered and nuanced; it notices the subtle folds and layers not always visible to the human eye, like the matryoshka dolls that “rest inside themselves, unshelled” or the arcades that sell postcards of old photographs of the arcades.
The collection opens with an epigram from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, a source text that has more in common with the collection than one might initially glean. Bolster’s speaker, like Benjamin’s flâneur, tours cosmopolitan jungles, architectural enclosures much like the iron and glass covered arcades of Paris, and while gazing through gallery windows her speaker is often made to look, unexpectedly and uncomfortably, at their own reflection.
The topography charted out poem by poem includes a variety of locations ranging from prominent landmarks, such as the palace of Versailles in France, to the everyday often unnoticed places like the seat of a metro car in Spain. Within each of these locations, unconventional frames – halls of mirrors, iron-enclosed metro cars, railings, cages, and fences – set the occasion for each poem, frames that not only present something to be looked at but also refract the looking back upon itself. Tourists who travel to appreciate grand museum exhibits find themselves on display in the poem “Versailles” where “After a long hall of mirrors, less impressive / than expected, tourists move into the room where the queen / gave birth, watched by whomever came to watch.”
Bolster questions what it means to be a human and what it means to be an animal in a decidedly unsentimental way. Her juxtapositions are not juxtapositions at all, but instead she observes incongruent things that are already beside each other, such as a homeless man putting “his face to the chimpanzee’s glass” while visiting a zoo. She gestures not with a pointed finger, but rather with a penetrating gaze that looks long and steadily enough at something that you become interested in it and long to also see what is being seen. “To be in there,” follows the speaker with words stripped so bare of emotion that she exposes the inhumaneness of humanity.
A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth is a tour de force that reveals the profound oddity of the familiar zoo in all of its awkward urbanity.