Inhabited By Ghosts

Savage Pageant by Jessica Q. Stark. Birds LLC, 2020. 116 pages. $18.

The pregnant female body is “a body-stage,” writes Jessica Q. Stark in her poetic debut Savage Pageant, where she deftly moves from the spectacle of the intimate and personal into the broad landscape of a past inhabited by ghosts. In doing so, Savage Pageant evokes a compelling feeling I’ve had ever since I was a girl: the sense of trying to understand reality by grasping what had previously existed in a single physical space. What remains of the past? Isn’t it present all around us? And especially: What is around us that we do not see?

In Savage Pageant, Stark critiques the spectacle that America has made of suffering. She does so through the poetic exploration of a piece of land outside Los Angeles known (for much of its history) as “Jungleland.” Jungleland was a private zoo that bred and trained animals for Hollywood movies. The table of contents presents itself as a play with four acts, two intermissions, an epilogue and a prologue. Each act is a time period in the history of Jungleland and each act (section) of the book is preceded by a chronological timeline of events. Thus, in this way, and with a scattering of photographs, sketches, and textured forms, the book establishes a heightened sense of time and space. The richly-textured form enacts spectacle from page to page and invites the reader to partake of the performance. There are titillating details that create a voyeuristic feel while at the same time Stark evokes tenderness for the people whose violent stories we encounter (except maybe Ronald Reagan who is nearly strangled to death by Peggy the chimpanzee—I did find myself rooting for Peggy).

Act I, “The Soil,” is a history of the land itself and connects how violence done to land is violence done to the body—how carelessness with land is carelessness with people. “The Soil” tells the history of its initial purchase: land grant titles were given to prominent men while the land was frequently tilled by Spanish-speaking Native American workers. The Soil tells how the land was misused early on, both as a spectacle for racism (the screening of “Birth of a Nation” by President Wilson took place at Jungleland) and by proximity to a nuclear waste accident where workers carried waste, and under confidentiality agreement, released it into the air and soil. In a factual paragraph on the timeline, Stark writes that “[the workers] disposed of barrels from reactors by taking them out to The Burn Pits, which released radioactive materials via smoke across the bodies of those ordered to dispose of the barrels.” One of the stylistic traits of these timeline sections is the way poetic lines emerge from between the facts in startling brilliance. “It’s been eating me alive is what it’s amount to,” says one worker at the end of the passage.

It seems as though the real purpose of the timelines and maps is to understand what has been done to us and others. The factual framework is particularly interesting as a way to locate pain—as a way to pin down where violence is—to make visible what has been ignored and unseen.

The poem “Trace Leakage: LA Pet Cemetery” resonates with startling force because its lyricism comes after the facts of the radioactive accident:

waste   we breathe                     that

we   drink but                                   cannot touch or

count              the number of                        times

we have                           taken                  in

this land            and                                                   body,

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.

Act II is titled “Ghosts” and it explores famous figures who haunt Jungleland: the actress Jayne Mansfield whose son Zoltan Hartigay was bit on the neck by a lion while at Jungleland, Daniel Boone, lion tamer Mabel Stark. Stark treats their ghosts tenderly, beyond their epic identities. The ghosts merit the same respect as the living. They too are part of the invisibility that this book evokes. The poems and drawings are especially attentive to Mabel Stark. When the narrator encounters a woman with the name of Mabel she address the Mabel from the past:

In September, I met my first Mabel and wondered if you were buried in her vocal cords. She introduced herself as a pharmacists. When I shook her hand, I shook your ghost in reverie. Watching you walk away felt like touching wet bricks. 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. Every taste electric, every light another piece.

We also learn the Mabel Stark was “mauled and hospitalized 17 times.” Savage Pageant returns in unexpected ways to the spectacle made of the female body. Opposite a sketch of Mabel and her tiger is this solitary quote by her regarding her lion taming:

Most of all I was concerned for the audience. I knew it would be a horrible sight if my body was torn apart before their eyes.

(Is there anything more female than trying to protect others from the discomfort of witnessing one’s own pain?!!) Stark reveals our obsession with spectacle without the responsibility of the spectacle. Female bodies are meant to entertain, meant to bring forth children, but they should not trouble others with their needs (and pain).

The first three “acts” of the book particularly call attention to the American trait of denying pain that is right before our eyes: literally not seeing the landscape (as in the sequence about the radiation accident) and pretending that the inherent violence of the spectacle is not there while the entire reason for the spectacle is the potential violence.

Stark further underscores the sense of gawking bystander by including several pages of anonymous comments pulled from a public comment section on a website. With a high degree of nostalgia, fans discuss how fun, how violent, how entertaining and exciting Jungleland was. Spectacle is a means of desensitizing the public; it approves the entertainment of violence and the commodity of risk to another body: human or animal. The poem “A Note for Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer” opens with the lines “The root of entertainment / is the ruse of control.”

In the act titled “The Animals” we are made aware of the misplacement of the animals used in the entertainment industry. There is the MGM lion flown in a cage, an escaped panther, an elephant burned in a fire, and Peggy the chimpanzee tranquillized (later killed in a fire) for trying to strangle actor Ronald Reagan with his necktie. In all these instances we are acutely aware of the perverse misplacement of these animals. Shakespearean villains are out of time; here villains place the vulnerable outside of their environments: “Hollywood loves its orphans– / elephant replacing elephant, // no time for a new name.”  Thus, the replacement animal takes the name of the dead predecessor. Addressing the elephants in the same poem, Stark writes, “Species of mothers, this is a / sorry stage for your kind.”

Between the acts of Savage Pageant are short intermissions that contain a timeline of pregnancy: the most personal of pageants, the most exacting of timelines. Here Savage Pageant addresses the natural violence of change via the pregnant body—the grotesqueness of the shape, which really seems to be the grotesqueness of vulnerability. In “Savage Pageant: 33 Weeks” the poet writes that “I am obsessed with hiding my own / nakedness. The body on display.” These personal intermissions mingle with images from the animals of Jungleland; “33 weeks,” for example, is addressed to the escaped panther. The personal poems of intermission seem to ask if living in this country where such careless violence has occurred transfers the grotesque spectacle onto the individual body. The intimate poems become a commentary on America as a country of spectacle, a country desensitized to its own actions.

In “The First White House Screening,” a poem about the showing of “Birth of a Nation,”  Stark posits that “The imagination is most active / when the body is scared.” And of course, spectacle is often premised on the fear felt by another being, human or animal. Isn’t this the spectacle of reality TV? The commodity of humiliation?

As it transverses spectacles over time, Savage Pageant deftly erases the concern regarding the artistic value of pop culture. For me this has never been an interesting question. The question of value isn’t the one to ask. The question is: how does this aggressive system do harm?

The epilogue moves from Mabel the lion tamer, to Michael Brown (unnamed), to Flint, Michigan:

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.

We call a hundred mouths laughing

an epidemic.

We call a thousand killing bodies
a circumstance.

We are so far away
from it all, aren’t we?

The plastic jungle
and the crass crate.

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people” is the quote that opens Act III, and Stark establishes that spectacle is truly a thinly veiled recreation of our own systems of power and powerlessness.

One of the most interesting sections of the book is the final act about psychogenic illness (an illness felt by groups with no identifiable symptoms—often a response to trauma) and conversion disorder. Essentially, these are illnesses that cannot be explained—responses to invisible trauma. Stark has a poet’s gift for making connections between social phenomena on different scales, for connecting radioactive accidents, to animals in Hollywood, to epidemics of mass hysteria. Once when I was being carried upstairs as a girl, I yelled out “I can’t see!” and I truly couldn’t see. The moment passed. My vision cleared, but it had been real—the whiteness before my eyes—but I sensed even then that it came from a kind of hysteria of powerlessness.

In “Conversion Disorders in the Burn Pits, Please Take Flight,” Stark writes that:

(of course) it   starts     with       little girls                 near puberty         or in

poor                                                       working conditions                                            stifling

laughter                            in the back of                    a schoolroom                   spinning

— – – – – – — –  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

produces a sensation of                    choking          if you            can think

yourself           better       you       can also make                       yourself           sick

with love                        call it mania        for                       a collective

breakdown                    a stress response against            a line of              history

Stark also loosely links psychogenic illnesses to a fungus and the radiation that was secretly released into the air, thus circling the final act of her book back to the invisible harm that permeates the air from Act I.

Part of the shimmering appeal of the book is the way that Stark inserts poetic thinking amid historical fact. It upends the cruelty of the spectacle by suggesting that there is another way to live in this world. For instance, in a paragraph dense with historical fact, this gem bursts through and it feels like a direct address to my poet self: “and for us, who must describe what we imagine before what we know, what we dream before what we verify, all wardrobes are full.” There is something deeply satisfying about this “poet signalling”—an acknowledgement of the world the rest of us love amid this world that is ravaged. The presentation of the book as a play and the inclusion of the sketches sets the reader up as spectator, and yet the book subtly calls for interruption to the spectacle. Poetry calls attention to the ghostly and the invisible. And that’s what Stark has done in this startling and smart debut, a book that is deeply pleasurable in its lyric beauty.

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