On “Savage Pageant” by Jessica Q. Stark

Savage Pageant by Jessica Q. Stark
Birds LLC, 2020

As historical documents are increasingly being discovered and recontextualized, how can we, as individuals, similarly realign ourselves in the context of these renewed discussions? Although not explicitly asked, Jessica Q. Stark’s poetry collection Savage Pageant pushes this question to the surface in an effort to write its own history. Gathering information from documents, including screenshots of the current locations of where the animal training facility and park Jungleland was once located, Stark’s imbues the past with an exhilarating pulse, emotions and trepidations that gives it a new breath of life.

Genealogy is at the forefront in Savage Pageant — Stark traces several of them over the course of the collection, from the four “Jungleland: A Genealogy” poems to the recurring presence of the historical figures of Mabel Stark and Jayne Mansfield. Below this initial mapping of kinship and legacy, however, is an underlying question about relationships — physical (human-animal, human-land) as well as abstract (memory and historical narrative). In thinking through these relationships, the “savage” in the collection’s title, as well as its recurring presence in the form of the “Savage Pageant” trinity, takes on a greater significance. It becomes both presence and puzzle that the reader is invited to ponder over the course of Stark’s collection.

One of the culminations of these relationships is in the series of poems about motherhood nestled within Savage Pageant. Stark’s treatment of the topic is documentary—noting the way the body changes and responds to pregnancy at different stages of the process—but also already motherly in a mentoring way. “And the/last tissue I’ll give you,” she writes in “Savage Pageant: 33 Weeks” and addressing the “you” to her unborn son whom she mentions in the acknowledgements,


giving you away to the clock

and the stars, is a simple one:

already you are part of the air

and this end will not summarize


Beyond the more narrative aspect of the collection, Savage Pageant also has a subtler, more philosophical side. Stark opens each of the collection’s acts with a quote from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) and works extracts from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1964) into her poems. In doing the latter, however, Stark frames Bachelard’s ideas not as endpoints but as points for further contemplation, spinning them in such a way that begs another look: “I should say: the house shelters/day-dreaming; the house protects the dreamer; the house allows/one to dream in peace.” Spectacle, rumour, and taming are just some of the broader implications raised by the poems in Savage Pageant, a collection preoccupied with consequence in an immediate and a long-term sense.

One of the most striking ways in which Stark weaves this layer of contemplation into her work is through a kind of slippage, in which lines of historical narrative are immediately followed by lines that heighten the reader’s awareness of the process through which narratives like history are constructed. In “Jungleland: A Genealogy, 1930-1951,” this slippage is also one of the most surreal and dream-like moments in Savage Pageant, a work that already has the sensation of traversing through a maze constructed using sheer gossamer, disorienting in its allure.

When we accept slight

amazement and, in the world of the imagination, it becomes/normal for an elephant, which is an enormous animal, to come

out of a snail shell. It would be exceptional, however, if we were

to ask him to go back into it.  

Stark raises the question of the word savage’s potential usage in the closing poem, “Savage Pageant: Jungleland Had Many Names,” which comments on naming explicitly in the blind eye that is turned on ongoing problems like police brutality and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

When the poem asks, “We are so far away/from it all, aren’t we?”, it places this collective negligence several steps down the path of cruelty that has long been present in white colonial and anthropocentric discourses. It is disinterest and dismissal, a rationalism rooted in possession and wealth, that, combined, form what might be thought of as the contemporary “savage,” a being that is defined not by being “lesser” than the status quo, but by blindly denying the quo’s arbitrariness and outdatedness.

Review by Margaryta Golovchenko.

Margaryta Golovchenko (she/her) is a settler-immigrant, poet, and critic from Tkaronto/Toronto, Canada. The author of two poetry chapbooks, her individual poems can be found in Menacing Hedge, Lon Con Magazine, Acta Victoriana,Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and others. She has written literary and exhibition reviews for publications including Canadian Art, Peripheral Review, Cornelia, Arc Poetry Magazine, The Puritan. She is an incoming student to the art history PhD program at the University of Oregon. Margaryta can be found on Twitter @Margaryta505.

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