Tourism is a state of being.
It’s a state in which one observes the world with self-imposed mystique and ambivalence. This is the impression Stephanie Bolster gives in A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth. The collection is the Governor General Award winner’s fourth in her oeuvre. And quite simply, it’s charming.
Bolster’s tourists don’t seem awed by the microcosms of contained experience set up in museums, zoos, ruins, and all places unique and foreign. Notions of authenticity and adventure are, well, behind glass. This is not to say that Bolster is pessimistic in her descriptions of the world abroad; in fact, beauty and strangeness are discovered in the zoo keeper’s cages, the taxidermist’s displays, the viewers, the tourists.
Hallowed places held within velvet ropes and beside gift shops resonate in the people who preserve them and those who line up to see them. These resonations ironically parallel the histories and wild things these locations represent. A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth takes us on a tour of tourism.
Speaking from the perspective of a backpacker and amateur travel writer, I feel almost embarrassed thinking how hip I felt on having a “real” French experience in places like Versailles. Bolster’s poem “Versailles” underscores how faux the place really is. Its falsities are underscored by the infamous Marie Antoinette and her desire to be a pretend milkmaid in the ornate castle while the lower class starved outside the walls:
[…] where Marie Antoinette housed her fake villagers –
a few goats, some sheep. The rest,
some long since extinct, left centuries ago for Paris
where after several generations they were eaten.
Such bizarre histories reveal how far we’re willing to go to preserve some sense of ruggedness in a world smoothed over by urbanism. As a mirror to “Versailles”, “Domesticity Revisited” opens with “a cow in a zoo in Dublin”–a city where at one time the smell of cattle could be called a home-coming. Now, however, “Kids point to the moo-cow’s non-stop jaw/ and ask. Kids from flats.”
Bolster constructs such paradoxes using colourful language sometimes borrowed from display signs in galleries and tourist booklets. She takes these descriptors, smothers them in wit, and serves them to us raw. My particular favourite instance of Bolter’s pastiche mode comes from the title poem, “A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth,” which lists several multi-syllabic creatures borrowed from a Time Life volume:
Prehensile-tailed porcupine. Nine-banded armadillo.
The giant tree frog croaks its diapason in the boughs.
This is tourist vocabulary. It’s musical, fresh, difficult to speak, and therefore valuable in the tourist’s mind. The perfect companion to A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth’s music would be a baguette, spread neatly with a dollop of straight-faced naivety, as we gander at what’s beyond the glass. Bolster begs us to ask, why must we preserve these things?