I was driving back to Montreal from Toronto, the radio tuned to Ottawa's Magic 100. The news included an item about a graduate student in entomology whose take-home assignment was caring for a tarantula. To her surprise, she has become very fond of the arachnid and calls her "Alice". Imagine love for a spider with six-inch incisors!
I have been pondering the nature of fame and what's in a name, not only because, in its guise of celebrity, it is a central preoccupation in our mass media culture, but because the book of poetry I have agreed to review is immersed in this theme. White Stone: The Alice Poems is a collection centred on a poet's search for "the real" Alice. It is Stephanie Bolster's first book and remarkably the winner of the 1998 Governor General's Award for Poetry. This book is an ambitious work. What may account for its success is that it taps a treasure trove of images from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Bolster takes Victorian figures, both literary and historical, and makes them contemporary by addressing questions of sexuality and subjectivity through them.
I am reminded of a Herman Hesse novel in which there is a caravan of authors and their imaginary characters on a pilgrimage. Cervantes is described as very pale before his Technicolour character, Don Quixote. I imagine Lewis Carroll among them as the thin echo of Mock Turtle. But Bolster's interest does not focus on Lewis Carroll, pseudonym for the Rev. Charles Dodgson, nor on his bestiary of characters for that matter, but on the true life of Alice Liddell, for whom Alice in Wonderland is named. The poet examines the historical story, the biographical evidence. Her bibliography is substantial. But, that there is so much of this kind of attention paid to Liddell is puzzling. It seems like Victorian People magazine to me. Moreover, Carroll's books are hardly romans à clef, hardly disguised stories about Alice Liddell's life to account for such prurient interest. The question that does engage me here is a variation on the theme of the Hesse caravan: why does the created image sap the life out of the living model?
The Alice books began as tales told to amuse a bored child. Literature's gift of immortality does not preserve the body. Alice Liddell has aged and died, but the little girl character that was inspired by her is still making her literal-minded way through Wonderland with every reading of that text. In the biographical note on her, Alice Liddell is quoted: "Poor little Alice, I am quite tired of that little lady, slightly ungrateful on my part, I admit." This is the lament of one who knows that this gift of "eternal life" is not to live "forever", but merely to continue to exist in the public mind.
What makes the poet identify with Alice rather than the writer? From the very first poem, "Dark Room", the poet squarely situates herself in the text: "I'm here, poet on the corner stool, watching/a kind of homecoming. As a child I reached" where Dodgson is developing his photos of Miss Liddell. Although Bolster is in the darkroom as image maker too, what she is developing are self-portraits, in Dodgson's vat of chemicals. But what the poet produces, she calls "ordinary", while Alice's image emerges as highly eroticised: "Her milky shoulders start to dry." There is deft irony in the "near/assurance" with which she claims that Dodgson "does not attempt/to unlatch her collar." It seems that the poet serves as sexually self-conscious observer of Alice Liddell, the child: "I am her eyes that shy from his/ (stanza break) and look again when he can't see; I watch" ("Thames").
What White Stone is about that Alice in Wonderland is not about is the sexual interest of an adult male for a young girl. The poem, "In Which The Poet and Alice Are Suddenly Old", shows the poet and Liddell together as two old women. What we are told they clearly share is "loss of childhood". In "iv" of "The Poet as Nine Portraits of Alice", Bolster is "age nine" when she encounters a man twice her age. She dreams growing up to be a "Charlie's Angel" and kissing him. If this is meant to suggest the poet was sexually abused then, it seems coyly presented. A line in "Pomona"-"You've grown too old too young"-is sharper, more telling, revealing the jaded precociousness of the sexually abused child.
Admiration is not what draws the poet to Alice: "Alice Liddell had bangs and brown hair and was probably not very witty". What Bolster herself offers as wit are elephant jokes: "Go to your kitchen, I say, look for footprints in the butter." She seems to fall for her own joke: "At home I peep into my fridge...Nothing scurries behind the jar of jam." The humour is whimsical, but somewhat disturbing in the context of the whole piece, called "Portrait of Alice as Missing Person", which begins with the image of missing children on milk cartons and then represents Alice as the child, kidnapped and killed. Alice stands in for every victim of the violent pedophile. This casts a very lurid light on Dodgson. Do you suppose this is justified?
The comic beginning of one sentence-"Spaniels have been mistaken for her hair"-is completed by the horrific image, "shreds of bloody rag at roadsides for her pinafore." Not only does Bolster refer to the tabloids in this piece, but what she does with Alice is similarly sensational and surreal: "A tabloid exclusive insists she lay inside Diana's coffin." Now what do Diana and Alice have in common besides being "household names"? Bolster presses this connection: fame, but more precisely, celebrity. She also links Alice to "Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Temple and that small blonde doll" (Barbie?). Yes, these are all images of the blonde and the female, but surely the distinctions among these figures are as important as the similarities.
Because these poems are "based on a true story", the poet fears that she will be "branded as a deconstructionist". There's little danger of that. The poet employs free association rather than analysis. Some of the connections made are more convincing than others. Christopher Robin and Alice were both children written into the stories created for them, so a "Portrait" of them together seems apt. (And they say A.A. Milne was a cold father, that he didn't like children! and Winnie the Pooh is based on a Canadian bear!) But the "Portrait of Alice with Elvis", in which they argue about who is the more famous of the two, seems silly.
The real people that sometimes exist behind characters interest us, not in themselves, but because of the vividness of the creative work. Critics chase the acorn when they're tired of shaking the literary tree. The poet complains about what critics have done to Alice: "all their words were tattooed black/upon her". Bolster's Alice cries out "Have mercy". There's a problem here which the poet acknowledges: "but those words were not hers either." So what makes Bolster's own treatment of Alice different from the critics'? Is it possible to speak for the silenced without appropriating their voice? This poses an interesting philosophical dilemma and Bolster's strategy is to identify with Alice. In doing so, she too becomes subject/object of her representation; in this manner, "Portrait of the Poet, Annotated" complements "Portrait of Alice, Annotated".
What bothers me in this book is that Bolster too easily equates Dodgson's photographs of the naked girl with Lewis Carroll's literary creation of the character, Alice, reducing them both to ways of keeping Alice Liddell in the prison of his "gaze". Still, "the world is made of gazes" and thus Bolster acknowledges the complexity of the moral ground as well as her complicity as the poet. Perhaps the only escape for the writer from this quandary is to follow her example in "Suddenly Old...":
I leave the lens cap on:
aim at you and photograph a blackness absolute.
Mary di Michele lives in Montreal and teaches at Concordia University. She is the author of eight volumes of poetry, including Debriefing the Rose (House of Anansi).