||Between One Room and Another
by Jana Prikryl
"Yet Vermeer would seem to be Rembrandt's antithesis, by virtue of his dispassionateness, his serene, limpid techniqueÓ." It's no accident that this generic gloss of Vermeer's style (from Art Treasures of the Louvre, a forgotten 1951 coffee-table book I plucked off the shelf at random) recalls the calm fluidity of Stephanie Bolster's voice. She returns again and again to Vermeer as her subject. And her poems convey a similar stillness, usually inhabited by a woman, interrupted by the viewer¨or the reader¨who is self-consciously invited to gaze at the work and find meaning in the gaze itself.
Pavilion is Bolster's third collection in four years, and it builds on the clean, quietly feminist style she established in her earlier books, the Governor General's Award-winning White Stone: The Alice Poems, and Two Bowls of Milk. In White Stone, Alice in Wonderland becomes the key that unlocks poems about literature, exploitation, and being a woman in Victorian times. Two Bowls of Milk is less overtly thematic, giving precedence to nature over art, but even here half the poems feature ekphraseis of paintings. Conversations with images in art (or with deceased artists) seem native to Bolster's voice, as though this apostrophising satisfied an appetite for aesthetics mixed with human drama.
Her latest book is her most structurally intricate, with seven sections layering Japanese aesthetics, Dutch painting, dreams, domesticity, and the reality of aging. The collection begins with "Window", a poem that literally brings us to the verge of the speaker's bedroom, the boundary of private, inner space: "This is the window I grew up inside" reads the first line, with no pretension (and more on this window later). Bolster excels at the sort of transparent language that constructs images without appearing to do so. You drift pleasantly along with its low-charge current, seeing what she wants you to see¨but periodically the voltage rises and jolts you all the more for your lack of readiness.
"Window" is followed by eight sonnets in blank verse, almost all of them executed with a light touch not usually found in the sonnet's narrow confines. The most poignant sonnet here is, technically, not written by Bolster at all: "What Was Lost" is composed of sentences and fragments culled from two art books about Vermeer, but the new context makes the words strangely devastating: "The painting is signed at the top/ but not dated. It then disappears from view./ It is not known who this girl was."
Between each section of free-verse poems in Pavilion is a section called "Antique Glass", featuring prose poems about dreams. Prose isn't new to Bolster, but in the past she has tackled it with greater success. Perhaps the problem is the subject: Writing poems based on, or extolling the logic of, dreams presents a challenge because dreams themselves are so charged with symbolic, "poetic" images. Bolster used prose much more effectively in White Stone, where the form allowed her to present a new side of Alice simply by constructing lines differently.
Pavilion's other strong section is called "Late", and it features six poems variously lamenting the passage of time (as if to sum up the ubiquity of time's passage, half of these poems are titled "August"). These poems mark the first time Bolster dwells on the fear of impermanence¨the dread that dare not speak its age¨and the poems are technically accomplished. Bolster's spare diction, with meanings shifting as lines drop, seems to embody the loss she's describing: "Will a field, crossed often/ enough, sink? Your clavicle,/ where my head rests?" Other poems in this section go to the opposite extreme, with the breathlessness of longer lines creating the proper highly-strung effect:
...Still at the window, that mottled leaf
leaps from the vine like the oak leaves that morning twenty years ago,
when your new glasses pressed for the first time against your face, and
you could say nothing to your mother or the optometrist but oh, oh yes.
But let's return to that first window. Liminal spaces are central to Bolster's aesthetic; the first line of the first poem in Two Bowls of Milk instructs the reader to "Come to the edge of the barn the property really begins there." White Stone begins with an ingenious meditation on a photographic print of Alice Liddell, which literally brings her to life as the image develops¨but the emphasis is on boundaries: "He draws back the curtain and she leaves,/ he follows. This room is long and narrow, full/ of longing." Suddenly it seems significant that 22 of Vermeer's 35 paintings are seen through doorways or framed by one luminous window.
An interest in liminal issues often comes with a taste for what isn't there, for people who hesitate between one room and another, or meanings that develop between verses. Bolster's three books see her increasingly constructing her poems around various forms of absence, both in terms of style and content. In Pavilion, two long sections composed of short stanzas¨"Japanese Pavilion" and "Girl"¨strain to generate emotional heat through the juxtaposition of poetic fragments. If the attempt doesn't fail, it's because Bolster's voice is wonderfully economical. Her words are chosen so carefully, with enjambment so impeccably timed, that the mind attends to even her most skeletal lines. Here are two fragments from "Girl":
An isosceles triangle
flips the image onto the retina.
The eye its own
camera obscura. But science fails when light fades:
the lion's teeth emerge
from the brocade in the armchair.
Between her open shoulderblades
I pour my nightly moths.
They stir her chest.
It would be easy to muddle such imagery with careless adjectives or verbs that don't carry their weight. Bolster doesn't; still, you feel trouble brewing between that armchair and those shoulderblades. When a poem's tenor is barely hinted at, when the bulk of the images are abstract, and white space, rather than ink, overtakes the page, the result often shimmers, but just as often it's in danger of slipping into irrelevance¨or worse, earnest self-absorption. William Carlos Williams sustained the long, rambling, abstracted "Paterson" by injecting it with more than one tone of voice (indeed, more than one genre), and language that tickles your nose even in the middle of deeply felt passages. Bolster hasn't succeeded on that scale: here, you get the vague sense that objectifying women is bad and that Vermeer's work is out of reach.
Of Canadian poets working today, Bolster is one of the few who takes immaculate care of the basic tools of her trade: nary a noun, clause or sentence escapes her pen but it scans neatly, and even read aloud it's identifiable as verse, not prose arbitrarily sliced. This is particularly impressive given that (when not appraising art) she so often writes about very personal subjects¨subjects which tempt many contemporary poets into a less than meticulous treatment. Listen to this measured passage from "To Dolly", a poem about Alex Colville's Three Sheep, from Bolster's second collection:
Once my friend ű my sister
but for blood ű strode toward me
in a cafT I was not in, in a city
I had left. You didn't answer
when I called your name ű
blurted by phone and I,
lost and fraught with guilt,
Bolster's autobiographical tangents are a rare species: they illustrate her larger point (in this case, the sheep's doppelganger syndrome is re-cast with emotional repercussions), as well as demonstrate her talent for control even with messy personal subjects. Here, the abbreviation of "blurted by phone" brings us up to the ear of the receiver, while the steady drum beat of each line ("lost and fraught with guilt") insists we keep listening.
The tone that is most natural to Bolster¨a stately stillness, containing the occasional sardonic epiphany¨ was best served in her first collection, where a combination of whimsy and scrutiny created a portrait of Alice in Wonderland as a woman exploited by her role in Charles Dodgson's fiction. Two Bowls of Milk also contains lovely turns¨both of phrase and of narrative. The conclusion of "Six Nudes of Neil", for instance, startles as sharply as a Rilke sonnet.
If there's a galvanizing force at work in Pavilion, it is inspired not by a quirky children's tale, but by a Dutch master whose paintings tend to deflect written interpretation (setting up, as they do, situations with rich narrative potential, but refusing to resolve them). No wonder Pavilion feels like a struggle in a vacuum; Bolster seems to be aiming at an aesthetic so purely related to visual style (whether that of Vermeer or Japan) that at best the poems create a free-floating mood of "serene, limpid dispassionateness." In a lesser poet, such stylization might be praised as a show of discipline; in Bolster, I hope it is a sign of even better things to come. ˛