There is a tension at the heart of Stephanie Bolster’s wonderful new book. That tension is between the title with its huge inclusiveness and the contents of the book which is often, though not exclusively confined to zoos and their analogues. Bolster’s new collection is based around a central conceit of the zoo as a place in which humans not only place animals but also themselves; it is a site for the gaze. And that gaze has an uncomfortable way of reflecting on the viewer as well.
Bolster prefaces the book with a quotation from Walter Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’: ‘At the entrance to the arcade, a mailbox: a last opportunity to make some sign to the world one is leaving.’ And in this as elsewhere in this powerful book, Bolster exploits the ironies implicit in that remark: that the world itself is receptive to signs, that one is ‘leaving’ the world, in the sense of dying, and that the leaving of post is in itself a transitory act, the placing of a message in one place in the knowledge that it won’t be there tomorrow. And that further hints at the eco-criticism which is part of the dynamic of the book; that humans have never been capable of placing signs that will disappear harmlessly the next day.
From the contemporary archive, Bolster picks out some of the better known examples of how we have dealt with animals when they are caught up in human conflict; zoos in Kabul, Baghdad and Dhaka. This latter is the context for this mordant comment, ‘After the quake, families/who visited the zoo on holidays/will move into the vacant avaries.’ Moving back in time, Bolster shows where spectacle was not confined to that desired by collectors and patronage. In ‘Versailles’, decorated by Marie Antoinette with ’sixty pictures of animals’, there is also the room ‘where the queen gave birth, watched by whomever came to watch.’
Paris is a favoured site and context for these rich meditations on how humans place themselves and nature in an artificial light. Not, I hasten to add, out of any Francophobia, but mostly because of the sense of decoration and delight in the French capital. London also features in the book with Kew Gardens, Crystal Palace and London zoo also falling under Bolster’s own exact and exacting gaze.
The favoured style for many of these poems is a clipped, occasionally costive syntax, in which Bolster’s fine musical writing is layered quite closely, one phrase abutting the next paratactically. But in the second half of the book, there is a more fluid feeling for sentence structure. This is particularly true in the deeply moving ‘When We Stop Visiting’ placed towards the end of the book: ‘The keepers will keep on/keeping, as they stirred the tanks in Budapest/during the siege, to stop/the sharks from freezing/into aspic.’
This is a book which, under the guise of looking at man’s confining attitude to the natural world, meditates profoundly on the contemporary condition. It is further confirmation of Stephanie Bolster’s status as one of Canada’s finest younger poets.