by JESSICA COVIL
Jessica Q. Stark, Savage Pageant (Birds LLC, 2020), pp. 116.
This review originally appeared in the Summer 2020 print issue of Carolina Quarterly.
In its “Explanatory Notes,” Savage Pageant declares itself a book of various kinds of poems, mixed together with “Not-poems about song about poems.” This marvelous opening reads almost like a recipe, perhaps more like an incantation—the poet naming her ingredients aloud as she casts them into the brew. These notes are certainly not “explanatory” in the sense of providing flattened, straightforward meaning. Instead, they prepare the reader for what unfolds as an immensely layered form of storytelling, where meaning is made and felt as a kind of churning, where pieces accumulate and react in proximity to each other. Savage Pageant is an argument for the connections between all things: between people of distinct races, nationalities, genders, and classes; between humans and nonhuman animals; between the living and nonliving parts of any ecosystem; between the past and present. Savage Pageant is a profound work of care that insists on our becoming involved in the face of historic and continued harm—because, in fact, there is no way to extricate ourselves.
Formally organized into acts and intermissions, Stark’s book is tied to the theatrical tradition. And while there is nothing inherently menacing about the stage or performance, it’s the specific idea of spectacle that gives this work its haunted/haunting quality and populates its pages with “ghosts.” The very title Savage Pageant attaches a negative descriptor to certain scenes of public entertainment, with the term “savage” registering both violence or brutality and the specter of nonhuman animals. Indeed, the animal on the cover confirms the latter reference. However, a space is opened up here to recast nonhuman animals as recipients rather than aggressors of violence, and the book thrusts powerfully in this direction.
Each act of the book begins with a “genealogy” of Jungleland, a zoo in Ventura County, California, where animals were held on display for decades under various facility/park names. In “Jungleland: A Genealogy, 1919-1929” and “A Note for Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer,” the renowned Mabel Stark (no relation to the author) appears as the subject of mauling, a testament to the “wild”-ness of animals. And yet, the poet contests the easy assignment of blame and what might be called the moral (mis)framing of nonhuman animals as more violent (and thus more at fault) than their human counterparts. In a poem titled “Zoltan Hargitay Was a Telephone,” the poet tells the story of what happened in a violent encounter between a lion and a child at the zoo, but she tells it through a variety of frames. The prose poem opens with the statement, “Zoltan walked into the lion’s cage and was bitten on the neck by the lion,” which seems simple enough. But as the poem progresses through a series of statements, including or omitting particular details, it becomes increasingly clear that the public is not settled on how or why the incident occurred, and who’s to blame (the child, the child’s mother, the tiger, or park employees). The poem’s title, with its reference to the (game of) telephone, compares the very act of narrating an event to a series of translations, interpretations, and mediations. For Stark, the issue is not so much about “what happened” in a sense that requires evidence, or that elevates verifiable facts; rather, hers is a creative push that welcomes imagination with a conscience for the impact of the stories we tell.
The poet’s attempts to reframe the narrative, and to think about framing as a mediated process with political stakes, pose important questions for readers as well. In “pageants” wherein certain beings are made available for viewing while others form an audience, wherein one group has the power to name and characterize the other under the false premise of a one-way gaze, how can we trust the story being told, or believe that this story is all that there is? What other stories might there be? What could we say that might not have been said?
Moreover, Savage Pageant’s “genealogies” apply these questions of framing to the timeline of history, asking that the past be remembered and that this act of remembering not be taken as given, unmediated, or nonpolitical. The term speaks profoundly to the present moment, and to the collective preoccupation with DNA tests to determine ancestry. Yet, this book’s “genealogies” are better understood as an accounting of the history of a particular place—Jungleland—in relation to race and nation, and as a site sticky with multiple, related instances of exploitation and abuse. The genealogies teach us that, before it was Jungleland, the site was once a piece of land distributed to Spanish settlers and tilled by “Native American workers, many of them former mission residents”—exploited first by the Church and then again by “tyrannical” rancho owners. Later, the site served as the set for Birth of a Nation, a racist propaganda film utilized by the KKK and screened at the White House in 1915. Still later, a nuclear test site was constructed nearby, just two years after the United States dropped bombs on Japan. Also nearby, and a decade or so later, a nuclear accident occurred at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, and workers were made to dispose of the radioactive materials; this activity, which extended throughout the early 1960s, resulted in severe illness and death for the workers and in poisoned land that came to be known as The Burn Pits.
In offering a genealogy of a site, and of sites just nearby, the book moves through time and connects events that normally would not be narrated together in a single, continuous history. These events are layered onto the location in much the same way that multiple meanings can be layered onto a particular word; significance attaches and accumulates. All of these instances of human harm are made legible and connected in the mind. In fact, “Jungleland: A Genealogy, 1919-1929” highlights the accumulative imagination quite explicitly; in the timeline’s entry for the year 1919 (or, the prose poem’s first paragraph/stanza), Stark writes:
“Louis Goebel arrives in Los Angeles and begins work at Gay’s Lion Farm butchering animal carcasses for food for the lions. But images do not adapt themselves very well to quiet ideas, or above all, definitive ideas. The imagination is ceaselessly imagining and enriching itself with new images.”
In the timeline’s next entry, Stark makes a seemingly disconnected reference to the ratification of “the nineteenth amendment, which grants women the right to vote.” Because this event about women, and not nonhuman animals, is included in the genealogy of Jungleland, it gains meaning as a reminder of U.S. women’s previous (“previous”) status as noncitizens. The book’s multiple genealogies repeatedly perform this act of imaginative connection; in the process, Native Americans, Black Americans, the Japanese and Japanese Americans, workers whose labor was more valued than their bodies/lives, and roughly half the population (women)—and all those standing wherever these categories overlap and intersect—are seen on a continuum of disenfranchisement. And because these stories are also part of the story of Jungleland, the reader is enabled to see (if they haven’t already) race, national origin, class status, and gender not as categories of the human, but as markers of nonhuman status.
Through acts of linkage, Stark problematizes both the reduced state of animal life and the reduced state of human life—both enabled by the signification of “nonhuman” as that which is not worthy of dignity, and as that which is in binary opposition to the white, Western, able-bodied, cishet man as the default sign of the human. Seemingly distinct acts of mistreatment across time are reframed as variations of the same, rendering each iteration as not quite unexpected, and certainly not accidental. In what I take as a prose poem (the book is rich with a variety of styles and forms), Stark writes:
“Perhaps there are no accidents. Maybe there are a multitude of strings attached at the tips of our fingertips from now to a deeper cut from a past or future frame.”
Here, the poet suspects connections between the past, present, and future, grasping time as a collapsible thing; and she (anxiously, perhaps) assesses our potential, as beings with thought and memory, to manipulate the timeline through our “fingertips.” The poet’s own power to reimagine, finesse, and discover is quite strong, since the prose poem ends when she “look[s] to [her] right, and find[s] it”—whatever she’s looking for in the bookshop. The reader can imagine her plucking a book from the shelf, turning its pages, perhaps writing notes in the margins, and drawing connections that otherwise might not be, through the careful work of her hands.
It is perhaps this work of the hands that most moves me, that makes Savage Pageant more than a book whose language flows (which it does) and renders it one that I, as a poet and person in the world, want to take down from the shelf, turning its pages and writing notes in the margins. Seeing Jess Stark read her poems back in January, in a living room packed with artists, editors, and listeners, only increased my desire to pick it up and read it again. Then in March, at the Tongue & Groove open mic in Raleigh, I watched as a man held her book and read “Savage Pageant: 33 Weeks,” finding in this poem about pregnancy, creative workshopping, and the advice/wish to “…Stay static, for a time,” something that deeply resonated with him.
In my own work on gender, race, and class, I find in Stark’s book an echo of my own desire to witness, to reckon with, to mourn, to acknowledge, to stay with and put hands on in nonviolent and caring ways. This desire is even more resonant now, when global pandemic renders us all vulnerable, but hits already-disenfranchised populations the hardest and underscores the violence inherent in our social systems, which are laden with inequality. Meanwhile, the desire to literally reach out and touch is also that much more felt, since our (all-too necessary) social distancing protocols remove us, physically, from each other. Stark’s use of hands, therefore, remains a pressing metaphor—one that we can access and build into our consciousness, imagining a more just and caring world. On this point, I am reminded of Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake and its poignant theorizing of “care work,” done in part through a desire for the body, through the remembrance of the dead and dying, through acts of “annotation” that reclaim dignity in the face of violence. I read Stark’s similar inclination as a poet in part through her own description, when she writes: “And so when a poet rubs a piece of furniture…she creates a new object; she increases the object’s human dignity; she registers this object officially as a member of the human household.” Insofar as “human dignity” is the rubric by which we understand the self-inherent value and wholeness of a being, the poet is in the business of caring for and restoring that.
However (and importantly), Savage Pageant does more than problematize the status of the human/nonhuman, eroding the distinction; it is also heavily invested in the earth itself, in a time when we, collectively, are watching our planet burn and sink into the ocean. In yet another assertion of our fundamental interrelatedness, the book takes seriously harms done not only on the land, but also against it. Indeed, the former (that is, the genealogy of violence against human and nonhuman animals) is made legible through an attention to the latter as a metaphor for forgotten histories. Stark writes:
“Under the soil is another soil,”
And yet, the soil is also much more than metaphor; it is a literal depository of harm that cannot simply be covered up and forgotten, because when it is poisoned, we are also poisoned. “It is / waste we breathe,” and we are made to imbibe the very toxins we have put into the earth, “thinking a hole (so simple) / might actually forgive us for / what was left.”
There is so much left to be said of this book, and perhaps that is the best reason I can give for you, wherever you are, to read it yourself. But in closing, I will underscore the last question that the poet leaves us with, before the book ends: “We are so far away / from it all, aren’t we?” The “Yet” that follows signals the poet’s stance against such wishful thinking. One would like to think we are beyond the past, untouched by violence—temporally, geographically, or socially removed from the happenings of the world. Some of us are certainly more vulnerable than others, but we are all connected, implicated, at risk. Perhaps we could begin by acting like we mean something to each other, and that our meanings are bound up together. What’s our story? How could we begin to tell it differently, first and foremost with a heart for dignity?