canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

White Stone: The Alice Poems
by Stephanie Bolster
Signal Editions / Vehicule Press, 1998

Review by Geoffrey Cook

Stephanie Bolster is an obviously talented young poet, and the reception of White Stone has rightly acknowledged her importance. Much has been written about the book, so this review takes a more abstract approach: less a book review than a comment on Canadian poetic sensibility. The tone and perspective in this review should not, however, be misunderstood - I do not doubt the legitimacy of either the poet's talent or success: Two Bowls of Milk, Bolster's second collection, proves we have a significant and diligent new poet in the country. White Stone was obviously a very self-conscious literary project : the acknowledgments suggest the manuscript passed through writing workshops (Banff), graduate degrees (UBC), journals (17), prizes (2), publication and the Governor General's Award (and for a first book!).

The literary community has been behind the poetry for some time; once the book appeared, it seemed that the momentum of support could not be stopped. I am not suggesting that the GG judges were naively wowed or that they compromised standards, nor, again, that there is a disingenuousness about the manuscript. Rather, there are several reasons that the book is popular, critically lauded, and important, reasons that the Canadian literary (poetry) community and reading public have acclaimed White Stone. Bolster deals with universal yet peculiarly contemporary anxieties through the exploration of a particularly rich narrative (or 'image-reservoir') using techniques that are typical in Canadian poetry.

One of the most common, almost 'traditional', poetic vehicles in Canadian poetry is the sequence of poems "in-persona", which balance narrative, lyric, and dramatic modes. Some other examples of this sub-genre of poetry are: Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Gwendolyn MacEwen's T.E. Lawrence Poems, and Lorna Crozier's recent collection in the voice of a female character in a novel, As For Me and My House, by Sinclair Ross. There are male poets who also use the device, though it is more common among female poets, arguably because there has been a period of greater exploration and anxiety in the establishment of a female voice in Canadian poetry and in contemporary literature generally. That is, if the legitimacy of a voice is in question (publicly and privately), many potential voices are explored. I am not suggesting that female poets (or writers) do not have a commanding voice in literature: obviously they do. Yet it is also self-evident that the question of female voice has been crucial in the last 100 years of cultural development. And it may be true that authentic voice is a result of such periods of anxiety - both cultural and personal -, and that traditions are founded on anxieties.

Bolster's collection, then, is in a tradition of Canadian poetry. How it was originally conceived and set upon is a biographer's question; but, though it may not have begun with a single image, certainly the title-image HAD to manifest itself at some point in the sequence. The following is from the title poem of the collection (the "it" is the white stone which, following a social convention, Charles Dodgson used to mark his journal the day he met Alice Liddell; a white stone "bookmark" in a journal symbolized a lucky day):

... We seek
to measure it according to our own
desire, test its substance, hold it
to the light to see what lives inside.
It is a shining shape receding as we near it.

This stone is a metaphor for the whole enterprise of The Alice Poems and, indeed, the work of art generally. (I could not help often recalling Osip Mandelstam's first collection of poetry, Stone, not just because of the analogous titles, but because the Russian's book was so thematically coherent and such a touchstone for his development - as, I suspect Bolster's first book will prove.) The lines quoted above suggest the image's centrality to the sequence; they also note how such key images are a vortex of energy and reference, provoking - or locating - an overlapping of themes; an example of what is now called the 'intertextuality' of the poetry.

From the most abstract perspective, White Stone is concerned with how life is mythologized - concerned with both the aim of art and its dubious moral effect. Alice Liddell (AKA Alice in Wonderland) and her relationship with Charles Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll) is a perfect case study not only of this fundamental issue (i.e. of art's (and artist's) moral responsibility and irresponsibility), but of woman as Muse, of feminism, etc.: the popular, timely social anxieties I spoke of earlier. The opening poem of White Stone describes the poet-voyeur watching Alice watch the famous "Beggar Girl" photo of herself (by Dodgson) come into being in the photographic chemical tray. Bolster, that is, does not duck the implications of her study: while Dodgson's motives are suspect in some poems, there are equally sympathetic portraits of this artist; there are pure love poems, and there is a consistent self-consciousness which allows Bolster to mythologize herself (in identifying with Alice) and to de-mythologize herself: as suspect as Dodgson, and as Julia Margaret Cameron (who photographed Alice 'as' Greek goddesses). In "Thames", we get a glimpse of the tension in these multiple perspectives:

And me: where do I fit?...
... I am her eyes that shy from his
and look again when he can't see; ...
... I am his need
to make a story good enough to hold her
like no photograph, his hope that her foot will stay close
and his knowledge that it won't; her fear that he'll

stop the tale now or that it will not end...

The narrative of Alice (as person, woman, model, Muse, as "Alice in Wonderland") allows Bolster to exploit a host of images, scenes and ironies, and the collection divides into variety of 'takes': thus the division of the book into 4 sections, and thus the inevitable explosion-implosion, since the logic of any idea, emotion and image demands not just unassailable autonomy but absoluteness:

Of the advantages to death and myth,
this you have most deserved: space

enough to open out and be the only thing.

from "Portrait of Alice as Her Own Universe"

White Stone is a very rich first book, one that Stephanie Bolster could milk for some time - I mean this positively: the book's significance is partly that it focuses so clearly, almost obsessively on fundamental aesthetic-ethical issues.

The "almost obsessive" remark is relevant: a reader does at times wonder if the poet will get out from under her Muse, turn from the books and ideas to the rawness of the world, filter less through the Alice-lens, speak more directly, familiarly, lyrically. There remains a whiff of the academia in "White Stone" (check the "Sources" page). But "The Alice Poems", as accomplished as they are, are apprenticeship poems - in literary art and interpretation. Two Bowls of Milk, Bolster's recently published second book, shows the logical next step in the development of a poet: many of the (excellent) poems are based on pictures in the National Gallery (again, I am reminded of Rilke's "New Poems", so many of which were "about" works of art).

This move to poems about paintings is a maturing of the personal voice since there is slightly less distance between the eye and the world, the work less studied and anxious (eschewing footnotes, for example): instead of the librarian's cool hands, in Two Bowls of Milk, the poet's fingernails have some dirt (or at least paint) under them, and the poems are more human for the dirt. Despite the Governor General's Award, then (and the very fine "Alice Poems"), what is ultimately important about Stephanie Bolster's White Stone is what the book promises: with her first step, Bolster has arrived at a plateau in Canadian poetry; and her second starts stretching for the next mountain - drawing poetry in this country with her.

Geoffrey Cook's poetry has been published in "Pottersfield Portfolio", "The Nashwaak Review", and "Descant (#104)". This fall some of his poems will appear in "Matrix" and "The Gaspereau Review". Geoff has received a Toronto Arts Council Award and a grant from the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Quebec for his poetry. He has also published numerous essays over the years in "Pottersfield Portfolio", "The Fiddlehead", "Books in Canada", and "Comparative Literature in Canada". Originally from Nova Scotia, Geoff currently teaches English at John Abbott College outside Montreal, where he lives. He is seeking a publisher for his collection of poetry, "Postscript".







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.