Unknown“When In A Slur I Understand”:  Tourism and the Lyric Self in Stephanie Bolster’s “Beyond Saint Petersburg”

 by Adam Sol

This essay is part of a larger project about the self in contemporary poetry.  In particular I’m interested in how the generation of poets born from the early 1960s through the early 1970s, deal with “confession” as a mode of poetic speech.  As the inheritors of a tradition that values a personal voice (from Robert Lowell and Irving Layton through Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, and Leonard Cohen to Sharon Olds and Lorna Crozier), contemporary poets have a strong loyalty to, and education in, a lyric persona that closely resembles the poet.  “I” mirrors I.  But as products of an artistic moment that must account for Jacques Derrida, Jerry Springer, and Twitter, they also have a discomfort with, and distrust of, these very tropes.  In various ways, they try to dance around certain “Confessional” modes, but still try to bring out similar effects.  Call them the “Post-Confessionals.”

As one way to flesh out this phenomenon, this essay focuses on a poem from Stephanie Bolster’s recent collection, A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth.  “Beyond Saint Petersburg,” while presenting itself as a poem covering familiar issues relating to tourism and travel, instead questions the tropes of confessional representation in a way that I believe is endemic to a generation of poets currently working in North America.

A repeated concern of the poems in A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth is enclosure, especially the way we enclose the natural world.  Zoos, gardens, and artistic reproductions all attempt to give us access to nature, but in a controlled, “civilized” and safe way that ultimately undermines the nature of the nature being enclosed.  How wild can a creature be if it’s in a cage? There are rich thematic implications to be drawn from this tension, parallels to our emotional and political lives, and Bolster pays some particularly rich attention to a critique of the 18th and 19th centuries’ ideas about mankind’s role as custodian of the earth.  She also manages to avoid the usual hand-wringing self-righteousness of many poems about Man and Nature.  I assume and hope that others will take up this line of thinking about A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth and about Bolster’s work in general, because it is unquestionably worthy of further study.

Meanwhile, though, it seems clear that the poet has been traveling.  A number of the poems in the book take place in Paris, Brussels, New York.  Standard tourist sites – Versailles, the Frick Gallery – become places to locate poems, even though the poet rarely discusses where, why, or when she has gone there.  A reader can’t help but wonder if there’s a kind of travel-narrative underneath the short set-pieces that make up the bulk of the book, but we get nothing as obviously self-revealing as “I got a fellowship to spend the summer in Paris,” or “I was in New York to visit my sister and we went to the Frick.” Compare Bolster’s reticence to older poets like Frederick Seidel, who in “The Castle in the Mountains” has no trouble reporting, “I brought a stomach flu with me on the train,” or to P.K. Page’s “Brazilian House: “In this great house white / as a public urinal / I pass my echoing days” (31; 120).  Even Elizabeth Bishop admits in “Arrival at Santos,’ “So that’s the flag. I never saw it before. / I somehow never thought of there being a flag” (89). This may not seem particularly notable – contrasting Wordsworth’s and Whitman’s poetry of the self is a long tradition extending back from Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” of the poet as a pure observer.  Bolster, though, tries to dance between these two standards, evoking hints of a personality that flavours the speaker’s “pure” observations but doesn’t take over.  The implication is something along the lines of “I’m not the story here, but I’m seeing something that you should see, and the way I’m seeing it is part of what I’m seeing.”  She is too conscious of contemporary doubts about objective truth to lay claim to pure insights or even unfiltered observation, but she refuses to completely abandon the poet’s traditional need to reveal.  So a bit, but just a bit, of an acknowledgement of the poet’s role as the tint in the lens, is crucial.

Small hints of an individual personality seep through cracks in the early poems of A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth.  She lets slip in “Versailles” that the famous Hall of Mirrors is “less impressive / than expected.”  Note the lack of pronoun: less than who expected?  It has to be “than I expected,” or perhaps “we,” but Bolster wiggles herself out of the direct reference.  This is exactly the kind of sleight-of-hand avoidance of the obvious speaker-as-poet that I’m suggesting is characteristic of Bolster’s generation.  The I is elided, but still implied and very much a part of the way readers encounter the subject and the poem.  In “Awake,” “a name was / called, not mine.”  It isn’t specified that “Stephanie” might be the name that the speaker is truly waiting to hear, but what other name could it be?  There’s a cat-and-mouse game happening with the poetic self that is different from, say, Modernist experiments with collage, or more contemporary interest in erasure poems.  (Though I should point out that Bolster uses the former technique to great effect in “An Education,” and the latter in “Last Days of the Crystal Palace.”)

Later in the book there are a handful of poems that seem to inhabit a mode of speaking that is more traditionally personal in their lyric voice, but the general pattern is conjecture, not declaration:  “I think I can hear / bulldozers catching up,” “Would I were there, I would still want…” The speaker might imagine or propose, but won’t reveal.  At least not about herself.  What is “confessional” about these poems is a sensibility, an angle of imagination and perspective, and the poems must maintain their interest on that basis.[1]

In “Beyond Saint Petersburg,” this side-stepping and misdirection about Bolster’s lyric “self” is finally revealed as an essential part of her thinking about the more explicit themes of the collection: if zoos and other enclosures are artificial, beautiful but vaguely immoral ways that we access nature, so too is art itself, as are our encounters with each other, as are our revelations of our own experiences, hopes and misgivings.  In other words, if an okapi in a cage is no longer truly an okapi, a “Stephanie Bolster” in a poem is not exactly a Stephanie Bolster.  Moreover, and perhaps more importantly we visitors to the zoo aren’t really what we claim to be either: we are changed by our seeing, and changed by the way the creature responds to us in the cage.  Here’s the poem in its entirety:

Beyond Saint Petersburg

Someone translates

the kids:  Americans eat too much

hamburgers.  George Bush is a nerd.

 

They gather, watch us

watch them.

 

Not Chernobyl after the disaster,

no rooms strewn with upturned desks

and photographs of Lenin, paint peeled

in the shapes of republics or animals.

 

The dogs talk back.

Chocolate’s cheap.

The cast-off German tour bus

idles while we pay.

 

When in a slur I understand,

No camera, I zip it up.

 

Fields like home: birch, pine, and near

an iron pipe a woman sits with hacks of meat

and what might be an axe, it’s hard to tell.

 

How much better

if there were no one here.  Then

I could feel how they suffered.

At first it appears that we have a straightforward piece about being a tourist in Russia. Things are odd from the start, though:

Someone translates

the kids:  Americans eat too much

hamburgers. George Bush is a nerd.

Who is the “someone”?  A guide?  A well-meaning local?[2]   The minor grammatical error (too many hamburgers/too much hamburger) – is it the translator’s? (Surely it isn’t the poet’s!) What about the translation of whatever term “the kids” use to refer to George Bush?  The 43rd President of the United States has been called many things, but rarely a “nerd” in the way North American speakers use the term.  Is the confusion the kids’? The translator’s?  Or is the translator trying to soften a more severe slur, for fear that the poet/speaker might take offense?  Already we are projecting into the suspected motivations of a “someone” whom we know nothing about, and projecting what s/he thinks might be the attitudes of our speaker.  Rather than hiding behind palimpsest and collage, then, the poet is revealing herself via others’ confusion. The layers of misdirection are rich with humour, but they also reveal that while the speaker might be misunderstanding the subjects (objects?) she encounters on her travels, the reverse is also true. (Isn’t Bolster a Canadian?  Given what we’ve already read of the poet’s attitudes toward zoos, can we imagine that she really eats “too much hamburgers”?  Why are the kids making such statements to her in the first place?  What are they trying to convey about their own attitudes and opinions?)

The second stanza confirms this suspicion: “They gather, watch us / watch them.”  Tourist poems frequently are self-aware enough to acknowledge the duality of the encounter, as well as its limitations, but here the speaker’s awareness of being an object of observation is primary, rather than corollary – all she sees of the kids is how they “watch us.”  There is no physical description of them apart from what they say – or rather, translations of what they say – and the fact that they are watching us.  The poem seems to be about being seen in Russia rather than seeing Russia.

But it turns out that not even this much can be taken for granted.  How far “beyond Saint Petersburg” are the speaker and her companion traveling, anyway?  Chernobyl is mentioned in the third stanza but Chernobyl is over 1000 kilometers away, and in any case the poet declares that where they are is “Not Chernobyl after the disaster / no rooms strewn with upturned desks / and photographs of Lenin.”  Where are we, then?  We have no idea except that we are in a “cast-off German tour bus,” somewhere “beyond Saint Petersburg,” where “Chocolate is cheap,” and that is “not Chernobyl.”  That is to say, we only know where we are not. We could be anywhere from Thailand to Finland.  If we dig a bit deeper we might catch, in the penultimate stanza, the phrase, “Fields like home: birch, pine…” Birch only ranges south as far as northern China.  So probably not Thailand.  So say, China to Finland.

A bit later, the speaker observes, “The dogs talk back,” but we don’t understand them, nor do we have a clue as to what they are talking “back” to – did the speaker say something to them?  What might they have understood, leading them to “talk back”?   It’s a conversation without signification.

Our confused encounter with the mysterious inhabitants of this unidentified land culminates in a troubling couplet in which the speaker seems to be asked not to take pictures of the scene:

When in a slur I understand,

No camera, I zip it up.

It seems that she has deciphered a slurred direction to put the camera away, but a closer look at the sentence confuses things further:  grammatically speaking, the phrase “when in a slur” refers to “I.”  If it were the command that were being slurred, as by an angry local or embarrassed tour guide, Bolster would be compelled to write, “When I understand the slur…” But instead she understands “in a slur,” which once again calls the whole notion of her “understanding” into very serious doubt.  Nevertheless, she responds by zipping up her camera, and acting as if she understands the directive.  It’s worth noting that the phrase “zip it up” is also, of course, used to refer to shutting up, to cease talking.  And so is this part of what Bolster is “zipping up”?  The amount of detail that the poet must have gathered on this excursion certainly exceeds the amount that she has provided for readers in this poem.  So has she “zipped up” her observations as well as her camera?  When she does look, she is either self-consciously imposing her own self on the landscape –  “Chocolate’s cheap” (compared to where?), “Fields like home” (whose home?) – or she is aware of the limitations of her perception: “it’s hard to tell.”

The last stanza is the final straw:

How much better

if there were no one here.  Then

I could feel how they suffered.

The layers of confusion, false sympathy and downright ridiculousness here are wonderful.  First, what sort of dimwit really believes she can “feel how they suffered” if only they would go away?  Secondly, “if there were no one here,” then the speaker would not be here.  And so in a sense, Bolster’s speaker seems to be wishing herself right out of the equation, even as she asserts the centrality of her role for the sake of the poem:  her semi-sincere exhortation of “how much better” it would be amounts to a desire to “feel how they suffered,” although we have no sense from the speaker’s observations (the translations about Bush? The dog answering back?  Chocolate being cheap?!) that suffering is a major aspect of their lives, or that the speaker even has the capacity to get inside their suffering.  Note also that the speaker wishes to understand how they “suffered” not how they “suffer” – this is a tourist in search of a historical perspective that is distracted from its goals by the presence of the living.

This is also where our sense of the real Stephanie Bolster, the poet behind the poem, begins to infiltrate our understanding.  Though there is precious little of the “I” here, of course much of what we understand of the tone of self-deprecation and intelligent critique in the poem is informed by our knowledge of the real-life Stephanie Bolster, winner of the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and Professor at Concordia University.  In other words, as readers, we know that Bolster is not as ignorant as she makes herself out to be in the last stanza, and we begin to sense that something else is at stake in her gathering of this series of confusions along our road beyond Saint Petersburg.  The lyrical I, slipping back behind the curtain, nevertheless lets us see that she has been pulling the strings all along, even though part of what she’s been revealing is her own bare backside.

Or, to put it differently:  it’s not enough for a tourist to desire understanding and connection – the poet must also undermine its potential.  On the other hand, it’s not enough to express frustration – she has to mock the romanticism of that frustration as well.  And finally, it’s not sufficient to hide behind a traditional, but misleading, veneer of objectivity – Bolster also calls attention to that hiding, and to what’s revealed by calling attention to that hiding.  The poem is not about Russia, or about a speaker trying to understand Russia.  It’s about trying to understand a speaker trying to understand her own efforts to understand.  The poem is thus a subtle collage of qualifications.

In “Beyond Saint Petersburg,” Stephanie Bolster seems to be treading a thin line between critiquing and inhabiting a lyrical speaker’s voice.  She is not actually trying to make herself into Emerson’s transparent eyeball at all – anyone who reads this poem looking for observations about rural Russia is not getting very much from it.  Nor is the poem a neo-confessional self-examination of the poet/tourist’s clumsy efforts to understand a foreign world.  Instead we have something in between, something self-revealing but coy about what sort of self is revealed, mocking of both the kids’ misconceptions of what the speaker might want to hear, and of the speaker’s desire to get right at the suffering heart of the country.  A good “confessional” poet might write a solid “Beyond Saint Petersburg” that would be about the speaker’s dawning awareness of the limits of his/her understanding.  A “non-confessional” poet might try to describe the scene objectively with richer detail, or might make translation itself, or misunderstanding, the central subject.  For Bolster, though, the need to include the I in the equation, and to allow that I to resemble someone like the poet creating it, is essential – the authenticity, or credibility, of the speaker’s voice requires it.  But so is the desire to avoid the tendency to focus the attention on the poet herself.  The poem is not about just anyone’s post-colonial misunderstanding, it’s about a certain person’s, someone who closely resembles the person we know as Stephanie Bolster, but not in any concrete, definable way.  That state of in-between-ness between self-exposure and self-elision seems to be a uniting tendency in poets of the generation of which Bolster is a part.

But regardless of whether or not my larger arguments about the “post-confessional” generation of poets working in Canada and the United States are convincing, I hope this exploration of “Beyond Saint Petersburg” exposes some of the various dynamics that are at work in this remarkable poem.  Humour, romantic self-consciousness, post-modern critique, the tourist economy, translation – all of these enter into a poem that still manages to say almost nothing about its subjects.  Bolster’s ability to sustain these various angles on awkwardness makes “Beyond Saint Petersburg” an impressive achievement.

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth.  The Complete Poems, 1927-1979.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,  1992. Print.

Bolster, Stephanie.  A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth.  London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2011. Print.

Page, P.K.  The Hidden Room: Collected Poems. Vol. Two.  Erin, Ontario: Porcupine’s Quill, 1997. Print.

Seidel, Frederick.  Ooga-Booga. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Print.

 


[1] A quibbler might make an argument about a small number of poems from the second half of the book – “Brussels Zoo,” “Date Lament” – that do inhabit a more confessional voice, and even seem to refer to a romantic relationship.  Rather than offer a complicated argument against that assertion, I’ll accept them as exceptions to the general approach to the personal that I’m discussing here.

[2] I might suggest that part of what’s being elided here is economic information.  Is the poet/speaker’s reticence about her own position tied to an awareness of herself as a member of an economic upper class, but her discomfort with that position?  Certainly it would fit with the images of haute bourgeois zoo-hopping from other parts of the book, but the evidence here is scant.

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Adam Sol’s fourth book of poetry will be published by McClelland & Stewart in 2014.  He teaches at Laurentian University’s campus in Barrie, Ontario.