Stephanie Bolster has staked out resonant thematic territory in her fourth book, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth: the zoo, the botanical garden, and the museum, all with their metaphorical weight and ability to conjure up significant binaries of nature versus the domestic, and signifiers disconnected from their referents. ‘Life of the Mind’ is used ten times in poem titles, always with slight variations, illustrating an obsession with capturing the mind’s work on a specified set of wonders. Bolster demonstrates her impressive technical chops with constant and meticulously deployed movement, often on facing pages, between short pieces and longer ones, or between short narrative poems like ‘Crystal Palace’ and ones that are densely metaphorical such as ‘What Art.’ When the poet appears at all, it’s often wryly, like a Hitchcock cameo, as in ‘Awake’: ‘From far off a name was/called, not mine.’
Many of the poems contain narrative material, which because of the rich surface and sound were only fully apparent to me on a second reading. Also striking, in narrative terms, is Bolster’s ability to jump-cut into different perspectives repeatedly, sometimes within the same poem. ‘The Garden of Augustus the Strong’ moves from what fiction readers would describe as third-person limited to sardonic multi-generational omniscience.
‘Life of the Mind (Dear)’ is beautifully constructed and makes elegant use of found material, a trademark of this book. The lines are controlled more than is typical in prose poems, with startling variation in length anchored by syntactic repetition. The poem starts with description of a deer mouse, jumps into puns (‘it costs’ punning on the title’s ‘dear’), and then threatens a wild metonymic discourse (‘thicker than… more sultry than…’) before returning to the mouse: ‘Certainly dun, possibly dappled.’
‘What Art’ plays with the expansion of the book’s primary themes into the realm of poem-making. The first part ends with ‘We make other things of things’ and the second ‘What use, use?’ The repetition suggests that poetic language has its own utility. But Bolster is not indulging in sniffy modernist claims for the artist as priest; in ‘Rainbow,’ another densely textured piece that’s really about the representation of nature, she concludes: ‘Can art/cancel ruin? Who am I/to gulp the world and live?’
For me the most moving poem in the book was “Three Zoos,” which on one page cuts in quick stanzas between zoos that have suffered natural or man-made disasters in Kabul, Baghdad, and Dhaka. The first zoo in Kabul is described like this:
This is no zoo. The spot a bomb fell.
And these children who file through,
shrieking at the shrieking monkeys,
are also bombed places.
Bolster’s reach here extends into new and more deeply felt connection with her material.