Savage Pageant by Jessica Q. Stark
One historic meaning of “pageant” according to the Oxford English Dictionary is “a scene erected on a fixed stage or moving vehicle as a public show.” Jessica Q. Stark begins this remarkable, prismatic collection, her Savage Pageant, with an “explanatory note,” tongue-firmly-in-cheek, containing the line: “Poems about animals playing other / animals without explanatory notes.” Stark scaffolds her ambitious enterprise with enough handholds (including, literally, images pulled from Google Maps) for the reader to navigate the dragnet of her various fascinations. This is a multi-layered poetic history of a space, as well as a meditation on “spectacle,” inflected with the rising panic of the felt costs of catastrophic environmental damage.
Stark organizes Savage Pageant as a “public show” in a four-act structure named, respectively, “The Soil,” “The Ghosts,” “The Animals,” and “The Illness.” The “savage” component of the title spirals outward, riffing on all of its etymological denotations, containing multitudes. A great sense of sprawl, discharge, and mobility infuses Stark’s writing. These poems are: “Songs about poems about howls of / unholding – an expanding context for / love and flight.” (1) They roam like thirsty, Californian specters. I think of their pungency days later — a twist full of casual violence, fickle cruelties, and the roving implications of “incivility.”
Three distinct strands form Stark’s braid. Firstly, and intimately, the speaking subject’s pregnancy, where the space of her own body is the expanding context. She tracks week progression, sonograms, sometimes directly addressing the unborn:
“Last week I felt your hiccups
for three days straight.
unknown. A collection of impulses –
this savage page…” (80)
She details her childhood observations of pregnancy (“disgusting”), and collages pregnancy symptoms into poems, recalling matrilineal inheritance via their reproductive labour, until her reveal:
“Sometimes you can’t put all the bones
back where they’re supposed to go.
I had a boy and they took you out with a knife.” (5)
The second thread is a history—Stark calls it a “Genealogy”—beginning in the nineteenth century of the property in Thousand Oaks, California, that will eventually become known, in 1956, as “Jungleland.” She relates the settler-colonial land claims and the ranchos worked by Native Americans who “…bear within themselves a kind of aesthetic of hidden things.” (8) The Birth of a Nation was shot here, with Californian oaks standing in for the Old South. Later, improbably, the space was reincarnated as a theme park for big cats which broadened to encompass a menagerie of “Trained Wild Animals.” Tentacular connections to Old Hollywood appear, including a cameo by “Leo” the MGM lion, and an unfortunate mauling involving Jayne Mansfield’s child. Stark has rendered such an immersive portrait of the contradictions, the luxury and bloodthirsty tackiness of Southern California, that the pages are almost redolent of hairspray and adrenaline, heady with fumes.
Finally, Stark is preoccupied with the 1959 Rocketdyne nuclear accident outside Los Angeles. She uses the horrific toxification of the environment as an analogy for the generalized psychic sublimation of collective cultural modernity’s rapaciousness. She writes in “The Burn Pits”:
“We pour our mistakes into black pits,
close the lid, and hope that the
smoke story might not reach the frontal
lobes of chain-link and ashtray” (103)
Here in “Trace Leakage: LA Pet Cemetery”:
“thinking a hole (so simple)
might actually forgive us for
what was left
We didn’t clean it up (have never)
but our hands and tongues are
leaking, and there is so little time
left for unburying it alive.” (21)
There is something feral, feverish, and elusive in Stark’s writing, be it about escaped panthers, actresses scalped in car wrecks, or collective delusions (“episodes of mass psychogenic illness”), and she frames each “Act” with a quotation from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Pointedly: “But a lie that can no longer be challenged becomes insane.” (85) Is the lie the veneer of “civilization”? Our own mortality and irrelevance on the one hand, and on the other, our seeming inability to cease treading so heavily, endangering whatever we come into contact with?
There is a tenderness, almost a gaucheness to Stark’s scrapbook: poems punctuated by line drawings, satellite photos, transcripts of message-boards, a mini film script called “Roadside Attractions.” Stark inserts herself urgently and idiosyncratically into the moving public show, marking herself alive and present––rife with need. The poems call out across the uncanny, to the unfamiliar within the familiar; the embryo within the mother, the wildness amid the stripmalls, the poison brewing in the ground. Recurring motifs of empty drawers, the Dead Letter Office, rabbits, are all tokens of negation or affirmation, multiplication, or invalidation. In the end, what does it matter? “Perhaps there are no accidents,” Stark writes. “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. Every taste electric, every light another piece” (40). The “multitude of strings” are certainly not accidental; they are under Stark’s tight control. The human bodies, the bodies of the animals, all powerless to forces beyond their purview, doomed to the hapless, abject precarity of unknowable consequence.
Savage Pageant is a spring-loaded curiosity, wound up and weighed with wit, depth, and tragic pertinence. It purports to be one thing and turns into another and its slipperiness is revivifying. In her last poem, “Jungleland Had Many Names” Stark leaves us with:
“but here is the affliction
from stories better left unsaid:
the spectacle in the archive of harm,
the body left untouched for four hours,
of Flint and the shootings that no
longer receive another name.” (108)
Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others that: “The argument that modern life consists of a diet of horrors by which we are corrupted and to which we gradually become habituated is a founding idea of the critique of modernity––the critique being almost as old as modernity itself” (95). Savage Pageant deftly sidesteps solipsism and gratuitous reference. Seldom do collections of poetry seize moments so powerfully and control the alchemical elements of self and world with such precision and subtlety. Jessica Q. Stark bites and hangs and does not let go, like the long-dead big cats of the roadside attraction. The reader is left considering “the spectacle in the archive of harm,” not only what that means, but its persistent intractability, what it looks like, and, most importantly, our own complicity.
Anna Westbrook is an interdisciplinary writer, critic, and queer feminist storyteller living in Sydney, Australia, on the unceded land of the Gadigal people. She is the author of the novel Dark Fires Shall Burn (Scribe), a former lecturer at NYU Sydney, and holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of New South Wales. She is working on her second novel, a collection of essays, and various other projects. You can find more of Anna’s reviews of books, art, and performance at ArtsHub (https://www.artshub.com.au/) or find her on Instagram @menagerie.