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Review of A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth
From Rebecca Geleyn , The Fiddlehead, No. 255, spring 2013

The Fishes’ Forgiveness

Between Dusk and Night, Emily McGiffin. Brick, 2012.
A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, Stephanie Bolster. Brick, 2011.

Reading Emily McGiffin’s first collection of poems, Between Dusk and Night, and Stephanie Bolster’s A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, feels like diving into a cultural stream of consciousness, where a crucial matter is on the minds of contemporary Canadian poets. As diverse as the styles of these authors are, the vein of environmental consciousness pulses throughout the works of both McGiffin and Bolster. The two writers broach the theme in different ways: McGiffin’s poetry pulls the reader closer to its instinctive and animalistic tendencies, and her work remains lyrical, experiential, and ethically charged. Bolster’s poems, on the other hand, weave the ever-so-cloying human need to capture, preserve, and place things behind glass into a succinctly troublesome analysis of the natural world.

Between Dusk and Night opens with a journey into a wild space in “Wokkpash,” which deliberately sets the mood of the collection. Perhaps a bit too didactically, the speaker narrates the subject crouching “animal, / alive,” though the human-as-animal theme recurs throughout the poems in subtler and more skilfully achieved incarnations. In response to the Cartesian view of language as a barrier between the animal and the human, McGiffin has her subjects constantly lose their grip on speech, lose

                                   the words
for everyday things (affection, quiet) —
they’ve become hostile, unrecognizable.
And my mute, illiterate heart gropes
its way after you down the unlit tunnel
of your sadness.                      (“Breakwater”)

Because the speaker’s heart is illiterate, so perhaps is the lover’s sadness “unlit” by a typically human reason. Again, almost the entirety of the poem “Rain” renders this a linguistic state:

                                   I have none
of the proper words, only
the handful of damp twigs
one might try half-heartedly to set alight
when there’s no better tinder around.

Speechlessness pervades the collection, where in “Cranes” the poet is “lockjawed” and even the land has had its “tongue cut out” in “Nass.” Eliminating the language factor (or at least, providing the illusion of an inability for discourse — we are, after all, still in the realm of poetry) allows for a levelling of the playing field between humans, animals, and plant life.

So, human is animal; but McGiffin reaches beyond this simplistic equation. A shift occurs in her collection, from the opening poem’s premise to the idea of responsibility and appreciation of nature, by virtue of proximity and a sense of community. I was surprised by her ability to reinvigorate seemingly tawdry environmental phrases with fresh poetic language. In a poem that clusters reminiscences about a grandparent who has lost his memory, McGiffin unexpectedly plugs in an ecological concern: “What is it to be wise? Will the beetles, the fishes, / forgive us their diminishing variety?” (“Grandfather”). The question emerges not from the mouth of a preaching activist but from the free association of the speaker’s thoughts, making the point entirely effective. Similarly, the trees that no longer “stand surely as granite / as the wayward air rushed past” in “Negative Space” offer a shift in the poet’s perspective on how to view the landscape, but might it also be an indirect comment on ecological fragility? Fear of deforestation? She evokes an anxiety that creeps up in late winter, when we’re unsure if the seasons will continue to re-cycle, when the “days bead up and trail, / stealing certainty” (“Nettles”). Although such a reading isn’t particularly obvious, McGiffin’s environmental concerns punctuate her work and establish grounds for new metaphoric exploration. The weightlessness the speaker craves in “As Air” is a thought-provoking play on reducing one’s use of natural resources, with the unmistakeable allusion to a carbon footprint:

How often I look back
for the moment my footprints
fade from sight

the dew undisturbed and the moss —
the point when I finally take

    nothing.

While McGiffin’s collection is sometimes solemn in tone, Bolster plays with parody and satire in A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth to inject her qualifications of the state of the natural and cultural world with humour. Heavily quoting Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, a massive work that analyzes, among other things, the glass-ceilinged arcades built in Paris in the nineteenth century (think precursors to modern shopping centres), Bolster is interested in all forms of glass enclosures, the concepts of exhibition and reproduction, and the modern simulacra of the natural world that renders any sort of “authentic” natural environment irrelevant. Her fascination with zoos is apparent in “Comfort,” “Domesticity Revisited,” “A Visit to the Children’s Zoo,” “Biodôme” and “Three Zoos.” Even apart from zoos, animals predominate the landscape of her poems. They are, at times, playfully archetyped in a parody of our human attitudes towards them, as the giraffe is

Awash in blotches, weirder than the unicorn
but made it here. Keepers named it
the dumbest of species. Maybelline lashes
aflicker, puzzle-cut flanks.                    (“Lady Giraffe”)

In other instances, Bolster delves into an ecological critique by portraying zoo animals in a disturbingly realist manner: “A lion, one-eyed, pools / in its infection. China will replace it, / plus a pair of peacocks as a bonus” (“Three Zoos”).

What is both unsettling and fascinating in her work is the juxtaposition — and perhaps deliberate conflation — of these caged animals and their simulation, as if by existing behind bars the animals are in some sense no longer animals, but works of art. This idea is imaginatively developed in “A Brief History of the Bear Pit in the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes”:

As though the bear were never here in this pit
beside the statue of a bear, were never more
than a snuff and a reference, probably wrong,
were never down there, nosing the bars,
its back water-dappled amidst the massacre
of chestnut blossoms fallen from a high place
that was never grace.

The stanza is worth quoting in full for the incredible image of the “massacre / of chestnut blossoms” but also for the scepticism the poet displays regarding the true existence of a real bear, although it is reproduced in the statue and also, quite beautifully, in language. In a similar way, Bolster blurs the line between the caged real and simulacra in “Life of the Mind (Wonders),” where zoo animals “have backdrops / painted into jungles,” temples, or “temples / overgrown by jungles.” The animals become part of the art work, captured into still life, objects instead of living creatures, and Bolster objects: yes, this is ethically problematic.

Between Dusk and Night and A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth confront different issues, but they overlap in a poetic discussion on the use of language and art, where our cultural memory inescapably precedes our understanding of the environment. In Bolster’s “Tanyosho Pines,” the New York Botanical Garden signage informs us that the pines are “one of the most spectacular plantings / outside of Japan” while in “Lingua Botanica” the poet grapples with the human desire for language and prescribing meaning:

Words rising, the shapes unnatural.
Look at this, what I found, listen. Smell this flower-of-no-scent.
The mellion-ground, the ha-ha, the great bastion.
My kingdom for what it might mean.

Bolster observes the realness of the effects of language on the world. In a poem that likens writing to fishing, she lets the fish “go (into wallpaper, similes, / feathers) into the greasy / rainbow” and asks, “Who am I / to gulp the world and live?” (“Rainbow”). McGiffin, in turn, notes that “there are never only irises, / but always irises and Les Iris: Van Gogh’s / flourish of oils alive amid the blossoms” (“Saint-Rémy-de-Provence”), depicting how art often dictates our interactions with nature. She, like Bolster, adopts a satirical tone regarding the imposition of intent and significance on the world:

we’ve been looking
for bona fide companions. Or a mathematical
equation. For irrefutable signposts on a well-marked path
to trot down blithely, knowing at last how to proceed,
how to slip beyond the confines of our scanty minds
into the real meaning of things.            (“Note on Astronomy”)

Regardless of the differences, it’s evident that Emily McGiffin and Stephanie Bolster share a gift for creating unexpected metaphor within altogether engaging poems. McGiffin’s language is sometimes overwrought and a bit too abstract, such as in the lines “you know nothing / the dusk doesn’t” (“Wokkpash”) and “their words are almost of your body / after so much conspiring with your sleeping bones” (“After a Journey”); here the anthropomorphism and use of body parts to create an image prove difficult to grasp and don’t quite work. However, these moments of figurative awkwardness are easily overshadowed by the brilliance of certain short, incisive lines — descriptions of the “sky / and its brief bloom of stars” (“Wokkpash”), or of a lover’s hand, “which is large and square, reliable / as a dictionary” (“The Falls”). The clarity of these images resounds, and McGiffin’s most successful pieces are the ones in which personal human relationships find their way into her writing. Bolster, who uses a mixture of short clipped lines and sprawling verse, continues in her latest publication to display an incredible ease with finding poignancy in very few words — “lipsticked cigarettes” that “stand in for women” (“Arènes de Lutèce”) or “shoes in gravel, the leather sucking water” (“Life of the Mind (Wanders)”). I could quote from the two collections at length to prove the merits of each, but instead I’ll urge you to read them; they are fascinating investigations into cultural and environmental concerns, and more importantly, they are wonderful books.

— Rebecca Geleyn currently teaches English in Kladno, Czech Republic.

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