Review of A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth
From Matthew Zantingh , The Goose 12/13, November 2013

Animals, Wonder, and Humans

Don McKay, in Vis a Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness , writes that metaphors are “entry points where wilderness re-invades language,” pointing beyond themselves to that which is Other. In Quebec poet Stephanie Bolster’s latest offering of poems, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, wilderness most often appears in the form of animals. In the strongest poems of the book, such as “A Visit to the Children’s Zoo,” “A Brief History of the Bear Pit at the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes,” or “When We Stop Visiting,” the animal, often caged or contained by humans, looks out at readers and asks difficult questions which I, for one, struggled to answer. The central conceit of the latter poem asks the question of what happens to animals when zoos fall out of favour, wondering whether ”a few / donations to return them / to where they come from, / though they no longer / come from there” is enough. The following poem, “Housing the Great Auk,” ironically describes the commodification of the now-extinct North Atlantic alcid before ending with the deadpan declaration that “we were a marvel.” Such instances introduce a note of deep longing or mourning on Bolster’s part concerning our fraught relationship with animals. They are something Other than us, and our attempts to capture them appear, in Bolster’s poems, hopelessly inadequate. Zoos and museums which can be places of wonder, especially for children, are also places of cruelty and ecological atrocity, as the earlier poem suggests. This rich poetic wondering and Bolster’s ambivalent feelings culminate in “Rainbow,” a poem alluding to Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” which ends with “Can art / cancel ruin? Who am I / to gulp the world and live?” Bolster’s ability to move between different affects and ambivalence while writing in a spare yet evocative style makes these animal/human moments poignant and memorable.

She is also interested in human architecture and the way that it is both an attempt to control the natural world and augment it. “Foundations” returns to Paris’ pre-history as a marsh and explores the connection between names, place, and animals, while “The Gardens of Capability Brown” explores gardening and our urge to make the land into an aesthetic image. In these poems and others, the human ability to control the natural world is not simply dismissed as inappropriate and necessarily damaging, even if it can be both of these things. In “Topiary,” the speaker wonders at the horticultural practice of training plants into shapes, describing it as “one wild thing / pruned to another’s shape.” However, she also connects this act to “the shaving of a face. / The shapes extravagant.” This triangle of human, (wild) animal, and plant is both wonderful and unsettling in the hinting at violence in “the taming of both.” Just as the volume seems haunted by the loss of certain animals, caged or otherwise, it is also haunted by the loss of a form of grand architecture in earlier periods where London’s Crystal Palace and the Palace of Versailles were pinnacles of human achievement.

Overall, Bolster’s volume is worth looking at for readers interested in human-animal relations, the Victorian period, and architecture more broadly. It is a far-ranging collection, much like the encyclopedic The Wonders of Life on Earth (which the collection borrows from), that is accessible yet retains enough depth to reward multiple re-readings of many of the poems. I felt like the first half of the collection flagged in comparison to the latter half. I am not sure whether this is because it took thirty pages to become accustomed to Bolster’s poetic style or whether it emerges from the poems themselves. The decision to arrange the poems into roughly thematic groups works for the most part, although I felt that the “Life of the Mind” poems, with the exception of “(Dear),” “(Wonders),” and “(Night),” which frame these groupings, tended to become somewhat scattered catalogues of items. While A Page is not strictly a volume of nature writing, Bolster’s willingness to blur the boundaries of the human and natural worlds would certainly place it in this genre. Canadian ecocritics, writers, and artists alike may find welcome sustenance in the nuggets that Bolster offers up.

MATTHEW ZANTINGH is a PhD Candidate in English at McMaster University. His dissertation looks at literary depictions of urban nature in several Canadian cities.

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