Tracking the White Rabbit
- Stephanie Bolster (Author)
White Stone: The Alice Poems. Signal Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Méira Cook
Stephanie Bolster’s first book of poetry, White Stone, subtitled The Alice Poems, recently won the Governor General’s award and is a fine debut full of wit, intelligence, intertextual references and self-referential quirks. The poems explore the narrator’s fascination with the persona of "Alice," both the child-muse of Charles Dodgson’s photographs and fiction, and the "real" girl-woman-and-wife called Alice Liddell whom Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) befriended and who apparently inspired Alice in Wonderland.
The first section, "Whose Eyes," is an exploration of the imagined childhood of the dreamy girl in her Victorian garden, courted obliquely by Dodgson as an Oxford don with a dark cloth draped over his head, his "huge contraption of a camera" as fixed an appurtenance as his "large nose." Dodgson’s literary reputation as a man suspected of being overpartial to little girls is evoked even as it is evaded, in an aside where the narrator positioned as witness observes that: "Although it’s dim, I think I can say with near / assurance he does not attempt / to unlatch her collar."
The collection’s opening poem, "Dark Room," introduces us to Alice by way of Dodgson’s photographic technique as we wait, like the photographer, for Alice’s image to emerge on the developing plate. Yet the dark room contains another witness, a narrative voyeur who is invisible to the photographer and his model: "They don’t seem to know / I’m here, poet on the corner stool, watching / a kind of homecoming." The narrator who watches Dodgson create Alice’s image is, in turn, animated by a similar desire: the desire to catch and hold the spirit of the elusive, wondering girl. And, as this opening poem makes clear in a trope reminiscent of Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid, her desire comes to light in the dark room, so that by the closing lines she is herself a photographic plate, an image emerging from the chemicals where she has steeped, "emulsified." In the poems that follow, the narrator is always implicated in the process by which Alice is caught and held during "the long exposure." And it is the narrator’s hesitation with regard to her tentative place in the story—her identification with Dodgson and his ambiguous desires no less than with his readers who will later accompany Alice through the looking glass and into language—that invigorates these poems.
Bolster’s assurance in the language of implication and ambiguity is given full play in the second section, entitled "Close Your Eyes and Think of England," a consideration of Alice’s adulthood through cultural artifacts, photographs, portraits, biographical details, and poetic imaginings. Yet whether posing as Cordelia in her "unfur-rowed girlhood," dressed as St. Agnes the patron Saint of Virgins, or imagined as a woman with her "waist / unlatched," whether staring up at the camera in the mistaken belief that "a shutter-click will reunite you / with yourself" or staring out at the reader as the unblinking paper-girl who has been folded all these years between the pages of a book, Bolster’s Alice is a replica, a reproduction in monochrome, a still life. As the drifting sign of other people’s desire, she is neither the "real" woman uneasily fixed in the amber of biography nor the imaginary girl of Dodgson’s sepia-tinted reveries. Indeed the poignancy of the poems lies in their tightly controlled navigation of these two wholly imagined yd incomparably real states. While Dodgson holds his breath for "forty-five long seconds," waiting for his Alice to appear in black and white, the little girl renounces her pose and flounces outside to play hide-and-seek. As readers we too are obliged to seek these hidden images through the pages of a writer at least as decorously obsessed with the elusive Alice as her doughty old mentor has been.
The third section, a series of annotated "Portraits of Alice," comprises an imaginative free fall into language reigned in by structure and wit. In these poems the narrator imagines Alice’s replication in fiction and myth, contriving a literary persona who is alternately "buried and written upon extensively." In poems that carry the critical weight of inquiry by which Alice is both overwritten and undervalued, Bolster gestures toward an apprehension of the paper girl who can neither speak nor be silent:
The critics overwrote each other
till all their words were tattooed black
upon her. Have mercy, she cried as they
came with the thousand-volumed weight of
archives, but those words were not hers either.
In order to set her free from this palimpsest of annotation and allusion, the narrator imagines Alice through a series of metamorphoses: as chrysalis, as bestiary, as her own foot, as companion to Persephone, Elvis, Christopher Robin and, finally, as a self-portrait in nine vignettes. Playful and inventive, these poems present themselves as off-beat fantasies. In "Portrait of Alice and Elvis," for instance, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and the Queen of Wonderland are introduced as child-like loves who share a strawberry shake at the Burger King in Memphis, then visit the TÃ¤te Gallery in London to ponder the Lady of Shalott. They argue over who is more famous and who has been quoted more frequently, then dine on fried chicken, tea and scones. The poem is witty and anachronistic, yet the final line (as is characteristic of many in these poems) veers away from playfulness towards breath-catching tenderness: "In sleep," the narrator confides, "their tear-blotched faces could be anyone’s."
The assorted images of "Alice" that both enchant and elude the reader are given full play in the final section, appropriately entitled "Hide and Seek." In these poems the writer travels "overseas" to seek her muse in the configurations of English landscapes, doors that open into fields, and Old World gardens that return her, unexpectedly, to the New World by way of her own autobiography:
Since I began
to seek her, I’ve found
love, moved to a land
white as a page. I rarely stop
to think of her these days.
It is hardly surprising, given the writer’s concern with narrative positioning, that the search for Alice resolves into the search for an elusive and fugitive self. The final poem has the narrator stumbling through a doorway and, much like Atwood’s Susanna Moodie, following her own footsteps back to a tentative and provisional subjectivity: "This is fear, this is here, / this is me, I am: the doorway, opened." From the dark room where she first emerges by way of desire and photography to the snowbound landscape where she learns to unlock her "gated chain of cells," the narrator of The Alice Poems pursues the figments of identity and imagination with all the frantic tardiness of an exceptionally talented white rabbit.
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- The Art of Work by Crystal Hurdle
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- A Persevering Presence by Deborah Bowen
Books reviewed: I Am Here and Not Not-There: An Autobiography by Margaret Avison and A Kind of Perseverance by Margaret Avison
- Art of Sinking in Poetry by Jon Kertzer
Books reviewed: Iridium Seeds by Sylvia Legris, Queen Rat: New and Selected Poems by Lynn Crosbie, and Poems Selected and New by Heather Spears
- Voicing Constraint by Ian Rae
Books reviewed: My Darling Nellie Grey by George Bowering
MLA: Cook, Méira. Tracking the White Rabbit. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #165 (Summer 2000), (Brochu, Buckler, Davies, Lowry, Ondaatje). (pg. 120 - 122)
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