I have to admit, my first thought on Stephanie Bolster’s fourth trade poetry collection, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth (London ON: Brick Books, 2011) was disappointment, that she hadn’t included a poem I found in issue #109 of The New Quarterly [see my review of such here], a poem she said, at the time, she had just removed from the manuscript.
Dogs ravaged the yard where yesterday
rabbits and toads. The dead
fed to the cages and the dark.
The mouth of the mouth.
Plants dangled from pegs
beside padlocks. Reaching,
though they weren’t.
A dark stain on concrete.
A little water.
Let’s go, I said,
Who am I, it is true, to second-guess, but the piece, in my mind, holds up; perhaps it simply didn’t fit in the collection? Hard to say. Arguably, that should have nothing to do with her new book at all. Originally from Vancouver but living in Montreal for the past decade or so, Bolster is author of three previous trade poetry collections—White Stone: The Alice Poems (Montreal QC: Signal Editions/Vehicule Press, 1998), Two Bowls of Milk (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 1999) and Pavilion (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 2002)—and it was her third where her poems really started to break free, pulling apart the diamond-cut of her previous into a fragmented and a passionate lyric, letting the restraint of what had come before break suddenly through.
After an extended period between her third and fourth collection—which included her time editing a selected poems by the late Diana Brebner, co-editing an anthology of zoo poems and having two children—Bolster’s fourth, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, continues the conversations that began in previous works, from writing about Victorian considerations of zoos and gardens, painters such as Vermeer, and London’s Crystal Palace, feature of the 1851 Exhibition. The book begins with a quote from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, which, according to Wikipedia, is “an enormous collection of writings on the city life of Paris in the 19th century, especially concerned with the iron-and-glass covered ‘arcades.’”
This is the city that says you are never
good enough and we call the City of Love.
Millefeuilles flank boulevards of windows and down
in the Seine parks float, held by concrete.
When egrets combed these marshes,
Louvre came from louve, for female wolf,
whose nightly howls erected a fortress on a high
surveying point. First thing on the other bank, an outpost,
a tower, named for louver, blockhouse. A place
of incarceration. Foundations still rest. 1202.
Named Lupara. 1190? Named for l’oeuvre:
the work: What it was it would hold.
In a collection as much pause as parse, the open-fragment of the previous collection has evolved into a quiet contemplation, questioning much of the subject matter that had been previously worked in earlier collections. Bolster’s gaze has deepened over the years, and the poems even begin to question their own authority and motives, discovering new facets of, among other things, her Victorian subject matter. The poems in A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth have deepened to the point of small essays on various subjects, rendering some of her previous pieces mere description in comparison. The poems read like small essays, and the finest end so wonderfully, just before they end, leaving so much more said by remaining unsaid.
Could an attack smash – no,
make of it the liquid
that it always was?
The pool imagined to be sticky, plant-lodged
as a frozen pond.
Heated, glass would not revert to sand.
It makes a distance.
The bee bumps against.
So many Victorian “wonders” were not what they seemed, or even properly understood, opening up the world to so much more, even while retreating the British culture into a strict, and repressive morality. Can even the witness change what is being seen, over time?