Savage Pageant, a hybrid poetry debut by Jessica Q. Stark, reviewed by Rita Hynes

Jessica Q. Stark’s Savage Pageant is a cut and paste of celebrity biography, online comment threads, archival drawings, and Google maps. It is a collection of poems, memoir, trauma, and history. It is a scrapbook of American nostalgia. It is a circus.

Savage Pageant is written in four acts and three intermissions, like show cards skirting the side of a big top. The reader is lead through each of these in a (re)remembered realm of Jungleland, a Californian compound where animals were once trained to perform for circuses and movie studios alike.

However, Jungleland is not what is appears to be. Something feels horribly wrong. Panthers escape, elephants die, and monkeys strangle their co-stars on screen. There is unease here, a manmade savagery:

The root of entertainment
Is the ruse of control

Tigers are wild animals; un-
Hook the latch on the eyelet.

Memories of Jungleland are unleashed. They take on bolder meaning as symbols and taxonomy of an American nation. A compound in California, subsequently forgotten in the annals of history, is laid out again and brought back to life. Scraps of collective memories are gathered and (re)presented poetically to reveal an inherent problem with national nostalgia and history making. Memories of Jungleland remain troubled, trapped like a lion pacing up and down its cage:

… We know memory,

Like a trapped lion, must snack on
dry sandwiches to survive.

It would be nice to leave it alone,
the small lion to its tidy sandwich,

but here is the affliction

from stories better left unsaid:

the spectacle in the archive of harm

Jungleland and its conflation into American history takes shape in all kinds of poetic forms. It appears as a drawing of renowned lion-tamer, Mabel Stark, done in the style of Stevie Smith; a stock image of an allotment that once held hundreds of animals captive; and a year by year genealogy of land ownership and refute. It finds its way into poems starring Jayne Mansfield and Ronald Reagan and it is theorised in generous quotations taken from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle:

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but
a social relation among people, mediated by images.

Stark’s references and research are funnily observed in notes at the end of her collection and it is worth taking these into consideration as a reader. It is here we see timelines borrowed from a Weird California website, Wikipedia, and an unofficial genealogy site of Daniel Boone. Archival photographs are drawn from memory and a mascot is copied straight out of Newbury Park High School.

Savage Pageant is made up of many these free hybrid forms and manipulated styles. Together this sustains a poetic project that is as delightful to read as it is unsettling. For here is an unrelenting historical integration of America unmade. An infected pregnant body, white supremacy, nuclear experimentation, psychogenic disorders, and a toxic celebrity subculture that make the texts and sub-texts of Jungleland’s trauma.

Poems like ‘Trace Leakage: LA Pet Cemetery’ and ‘The Burn Pits’ cast a historical shadow over the more whimsical illustration and funnier anecdote while ‘Conversion Disorders in the Burn Pits, Please Take Flight’ follows up on trauma directly. This poem uses a case study of hysteria amongst a group of unnamed young girls who, in states of social panics, fainting spells and trances, come to revisit and unravel America’s history. It jumps in spaces, tense and unruly:

call it mania    for         a collective
breakdown        a stress response against   a line of      history
that    speeds    fast   like red metal     towards dense fog

Allegorical warning serves this work intentionally. Stark uses it many times over in her repurposing of Jungleland and she achieves it at dizzying speed. At times, it feels like it could tumble right off the page:

One million B.C., Birth of a Nation
Tarzan, The Ape Man, Jungle Jim

The warning is out. Entertainment can be cruel and nostalgia further obscures that cruelty. In the end, these pent up incendiary moments are what Stark does best. She makes the reader pause and think twice about what has just been presented. She stops history, for a moment, turns it over in the waste pile of collective memory. She says: this is America.

Stark has made a show-stopping debut. With all its smoke and mirrors, Savage Pageant presents a rouse, a nation in flux, a circus. It is a multi-disciplinary project that goes way beyond its potential as a collection of poetry and poetic impressions. And yet, it still remains impossibly entertaining and devastating. It rushes in with spectacle but leaves a fierce, burning hunger for what America remembers and what America forgets.

Savage Pageant, by Jessica Q. Stark. Austin, Texas: Birds, LLC, March 2020. 116 pages. $18.00, paper.

Rita Hynes is a bookseller who lives in the North of Scotland. She has published writing at Burning House Press, Shirley Magazine, Blooodbath Litzine, and frequently reviews at Pamphlet & Small Press Review.

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