In the 17th and 18th centuries, wealthy young men went on what was known as the Grand Tour, with the goal of getting acquainted with the best of European arts and culture. Montreal poet Stephanie Bolster takes readers on a kind of contemporary, shadow version of this trip in A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth, her fourth collection. But her sightseeing, in cities like Paris and London, has more to do with our past and present attitude to the natural world and its creatures than with lofty cultural achievements. As she puts it wryly in “Topiary”: “One wild thing/ pruned to another’s shape,/ animals, mostly./ The taming of both.”
The collection’s title refers to an influential book of natural history called The Wonders of Life on Earth, published in 1960. That volume’s text had a gee-whiz tone, inviting the reader to marvel at life’s myriad forms. Bolster’s approach is mostly ironic, as she surveys flora and fauna not in their natural habitat but as they have been curated, in effect, by humankind.
Many of the poems focus on the artificiality of the settings we have created, whether it’s a zoo, the grounds of an estate or a storied landmark from bygone days. “Eye of the Beholder” pans over the creatures in one zoo with an impersonal gaze that nevertheless subtly conveys the bleakness of their circumscribed existence: “Where concrete’s broke/ to expose a metal frame, curved to resemble/ a rococo grotto, a nest cheeps./ The seal will perform at an appointed hour.”
Elsewhere, Bolster addresses zoo animals from the perspective of an enthusiastic spectator (“Won’t you look up?/ Suckle on the TV monitor your skittish litter.”) and turns to 19th century France, where the visit of a giraffe created a sensation and inspired a fad for wearing fabric “inspired by her hide.” Perhaps as a formal echo of their subject matter, many of the poems are so tightly worded that they’re the semantic equivalent of captivity. Yet within that confinement, there’s a strong musical cadence. In one poem, Bolster addresses the manicured look made popular by the landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown:
What do you make of
forests felled for fields? Fields filled
when they neared villas, with fountains and parterres.
Imagine before: pasture land
out the front door. Make it so.
What the Brits dispense on calendars.
There’s nothing picturesque about A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth. But it’s a poetic tour worth taking, precisely crafted and thought provoking.
Barbara Carey is a Toronto writer and the Star’s poetry columnist.