This anthology began with an idea—the human examines, and makes art of, already-examined and already-shaped nature—and with the grand ambitions and the naiveté of first-time anthologists: this would be a collection about not only zoos but gardens, with prose as well as poetry, with writing from the earliest known instances of collecting and exhibiting animals and plants, from countries that no longer existed, written in languages that we couldn’t read.
Gardens were the first to go. That anthology would be a different one, its concerns less charged; though there is must to be written about botanical imperialism, for example, it takes considerable imagination to lament a geranium’s pot-bound existence.
Originally out of an idea by Montreal poet and editor Stephanie Bolster, the poetry anthology Penned: Zoo Poems (Montreal QC: Signal/Vehicule Press, 2009) collects poems out of that most Victorian of ideas, the artificial space (gardens, like zoos, weren’t specifically Victorian creations, but they certainly perfected them). Whether gardens or zoos, you can see both throughout Bolster’s own collections of poetry (a fourth is set to appear in 2010), making this collection a continuation of some of her own particular concerns (one of her poetic models, Cole Swensen, recently also did a poetry collection around gardens). I’m fascinated by the construction of this anthology, more for how it speaks to and from Bolster’s own writing than, specifically, the writing included in the collection itself, with pieces by Stephen Burt, Irving Layton, Marianne Moore, E.E. Cummings, Molly Peacock, Allison Calder, Al Purdy, Robert Kroetsch (“The Winnipeg Zoo” is a favourite, I admit), A.A. Milne, Lorna Crozier, David W. McFadden, Susan Howe, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lisa Jarnot, and a host of others.
The Show is not the Show
But they that go—
Menagerie to me
My Neighbor be—
Both went to see— (Emily Dickinson)
These are poems writing on worse than merely tearing down paradise for the sake of a parking lot, but tearing down paradise, sometimes, for the sake of a simulacrum of paradise on the same spot. How do zoos and gardens fall into such creations? Even as Europe colonized (or attempted) the rest of the world, Victorian elements of the ‘wonders’ were deposited back home, from deepest Africa, for example, or the far east. So far, it reached, eventually, all the way to the west coast of North America, and then back into the interior. Edited by Bolster, along with Katia Grubisic and Simon Reader (who came to the project some time after it had begun), the poems range from contained, controlled to the uncontained, from snow to animal to landscape to man, but so few of these pieces really delve into the zoo as an artificial construct. As they suggest of “geranium’s pot-bound existence” in the introduction, I wonder how the editors were able to wrap their heads around such, unable to artificially produce poems that would surround an otherwise thesis (and could no one produce a poem on the mid-nineteenth century death of Jumbo in Ontario’s own St. Thomas?); is it the fault of the poems or the poets themselves?
we are that stuffed cat that guards the hats
in the london haberdasher’s window where
you stood five rainy minutes trying to decipher
us. well, we’re alive, always alive because that’s
what you need us to be, windowsful of exhibits
at the natural history museum, bison, saber-
toothed tiger ready to spring, even poor trigger
in roy roger’s living room. you think it’s
easy, you who were there at the cincinnati zoo
when the earth’s last passenger pigeon bought it?
duty, that’s what: your own dead you can fling
into the earth, but we always have to be with you:
that small pile of bones in the back of the closet
or out of the melting glacier, the unnameable thing. (Alvin Greenberg)