As its title suggests, the poems in Stephanie Bolster’s first collection in nine years are hyperaware of being enclosures. Set in zoos, arcades, museum gardens – manmade corrals of all kinds – the figures, both human and animal, in these poems are never far from a wall, a fence, or a pane of glass: detached, as Walter Benjamin (whose unfinished opus The Arcades Project is the presiding sprit of the collection) would have it, from their functional relations. Interrelations between people, species, and so forth are always mediated – over railings, through windows, over well-trimmed hedges – and the natural relationships between humans and animals are more or less forgotten concepts, meaning there is little pining for the open air, the distant hills.
Densely researched, cosmopolitan, and delicately wrought, Bolster’s poems root us firmly in this artificial space. Not surprisingly, this can make the collection uncomfortable. It is easy to overlook how much lust, dignity, hope, and humour the poems have purposefully removed from their purview. The few small moments of human contact – laughter overheard in the bushes, Bangladeshi families moving into vacant aviaries – pack an emotional wallop.
Most of the poems are compact – sometimes single stanza affairs, sometimes a few wrought-iron couplets that turn in on one another. This collection also contains a sprawling lullaby and a terrific prose poem that provide welcome formal variation.
Peppered throughout the collection are poems entitled “Life of the Mind,” wherein the speaker addresses a single concept (“Wanders,” “Wonders,” “Tapestry”). These philosophical verses constitute the book’s most inventive structures: their conceptual limitations are overcome by a searching, hungry, and agile mind hurrying over the full range of her research and experience, the full breadth of her various passions.