In the Poetry Pavilion

Pavilion

By Carmine Starnino

A review of Pavilion by Stephanie Bolster

Published on April 1, 2002

Pavilion
Stephanie Bolster

McClelland & Stewart
$16.99
paper
72pp
0-7710-1558-5

After rejuvenating the myth of Alice in White Stone, and after writing the elegant, self-assured, energetically introspective meditations on art and family in Two Bowls of Milk, Stephanie Bolster has, in Pavilion, charged her poems with bleak new tasks. Her signature obsessions are still here – room, mirrors, windows, Vermeer, the voyeuristic confrontation of “watcher versus watched” but they are now sombrely conjured. While it’s true that Bolster’s poems have often been scrupled by sadness (her poetry is far less serene and reassuring than reviewers usually assume), there has always been evidence of a self-pleasuring ear, of playfulness to her purpose. It’s surprising, therefore, to be given something like Pavilion, with its almost unlyrical appetite for thrift. But why would a poet who began with so much stylistic greed suddenly apply such famine to her verse? Two reasons: one heartbreaking, the other unimaginable. Ottawa poet Diana Brebner’s death from cancer in 2001, and the death, soon after, of Brebner’s young daughter Anya (struck by lightning), are what give this collection its grim mood, where Bolster’s grief becomes an erosive force running achingly, and with great attrition, through her language:

A girl, a real girl,
died. Lightning
hit her. Her mother dead
not two months. And so,
art? Tell me something.

These five frank lines are taken from “Girl,” a 12-page lament for the two lives where Bolster appears to invite the idea of perishability into the poem itself, thereby disassembling her writing into anecdotal after-images, confessional hints, and self-dissolving personal details. But “Girl” also draws its inspiration from Vermeer’s famous painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” and the Dutch master is, in fact, the metaphoric pivot the entire collection turns on. Again and again, Bolster reads Brebner and Anya’s deaths into some aspect of Vermeer’s art, and tests the insights she finds there against her newfound doubts concerning the function of her poetry. There are no real answers, of course, but everything in Pavilion – and particularly Bolster’s vision of her vocation – is menaced by this extraordinary elegiac panic. From the opening sequence on her Vancouver childhood home (“The Stillness That Turns The House”), to her fascination with the principles of Japanese culture (“Japanese Pavilion”) to the unsettling dream narratives that periodically interrupt (“Antique Glass”), Bolster is constantly startling herself into chilly, ghost-ridden regions of the mind, as in “What Price”:

We wear down bars of soap
with our palms, stone
steps with our feet. Light
will rub that drawing,
imperceptibly at first, till
the girl’s face vanishes.

I’ve quoted the first two stanzas, but there’s that “girl” again. The legend of the vanishing girl is something that Bolster has sewn, using the most minute stitching, deep into the narrative fabric of the collection. One realizes that Vermeer, and the emblematic vocabulary provided by his paintings, has permitted Bolster to discreetly evoke the more obvious implications of her mourning. In other words, if Bolster has austerely decided to deny herself certain options of phrasemaking, it is only to more resourcefully press specific ideas into unspoken expression; and this bid to find a new, different logic for bereavement has shaped the book in complex and surprising ways. Bolster’s minimalist, abbreviated, subliminal “pavilioning” of Brebner and Anya’s deaths may take some getting used to, but the enterprising brevity of the writing – where all the tiny unsentimental surges of regret flourish into a work of considerable sophistication – may make Pavilion one of the most talked-about collections of the year. “The newly dead,” writes Bolster, “must choose a memory to live in for eternity.” By such painstaking subtleties of detail and suggestion has Bolster built her version of the afterlife. mRb

Carmine Starnino is a Montreal poet whose latest book of poems is "With English Subtitles" (Gaspereau 2004).

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