The Landscape of Spectacle: A Review of Jessica Q. Stark’s Savage Pageant
By Dorothy Chan
Savage Pageant, Jessica Q. Stark. Birds, LLC, 2020. 116 pp. $18.00
Spectacle is at the center of Jessica Q. Stark’s new collection, Savage Pageant. Divided into four acts, complete with prologue, epilogue, and three intermissions, this hybrid collection unravels the complexities of spectacle, using Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (La société du spectacle) as a framing device. Stark’s debut is gorgeous. It is fascinating and layered, combining the writer’s expertise in poetry, comics, and illustration, and allowing the forms to talk back and forth to each other. The book’s non-linear narratives center on Jungleland USA, which was once a Hollywood filming site, zoo, and even amusement park that drew headlines when a lion named Sammy attacked Jayne Mansfield’s son, Zoltan. Stark traces the genealogy of Jungleland USA, while simultaneously unraveling topics such as birth and death (there’s plenty of striking spectral imagery), animalistic tendencies, illness, tabloids, Internet reviews, and Hollywood.
Stark is a queen of surprise, and I love how the collection wavers between instruction and pulling back, thus giving the reader plenty of autonomy in interpretation. The book cleverly opens with an “Explanatory Note,” which serves as a warning to the reader: enter this site of spectacle at your own risk. The note essentially teaches the reader how to approach the hybrid text. Thus, the “Savage Pageant” of Stark’s Jungleland USA works on multiple levels. We can interpret Stark’s poetic landscape as a place of danger and vulnerability. But we can also interpret it as theater, which is extremely fitting, given the book’s multiple “Acts.” In entering Savage Pageant, the speaker warns us:
“Poems about saline and unsolicited
Poems about ghosts and the unhinged
Poems about sunsank and missing
Poems about dark matter on Google
Stark’s speaker is also quick to point out the juxtapositions of the book: “Not-poems about song about poems // Songs about poems about song // Songs about poems about howls of / unholding—an expanding context for / love and flight.”
The “Explanatory Note’s” ending idea of “love and flight” is especially striking as we transition into the prologue poem, aptly titled, “Savage Pageant: A Genealogy.” Right away, Stark places the practice of genealogy at the forefront, and in the case of this prologue poem, it’s a personal genealogy:
“My grandmother had eleven pregnancies and
My mother had four and wished for boys.
Sometimes you can’t pull all the bones
back where they’re supposed to go.
I had a boy and they took you out with a knife.”
The ending of this personal genealogy serves as a warning: “they took you out with a knife.” The move of caesura followed by “knife” is the speaker’s way of warning the audience to stop making a spectacle of female experience (especially intimate female experience), if the lines above are any indication: “What / we really wanted was inelegant: / a clean break from the spectacle.” The speaker indicates how the act of spectacle follows women everywhere. This act also leads to judgment. So how can the act of female spectacle be prevented? The speaker of this poem resorts to both ownership and truth, and here, the truth lies in tracing her own genealogy and the pains, both physical and emotional, associated with childbirth.
This personal genealogy serves as a model to the genealogy of Jungleland that opens each act of the book, as Stark’s speaker gives a history of the animal site and facility. Each of these Jungleland genealogies reflect on the site’s various decades. In these opening pieces, Stark gives us historical facts, such as tiger trainer Mabel Stark’s life in the circus, the renaming of Goebel’s Lion Farm to Jungleland USA, and Jungleland as the “Home of the MGM Leo the Lion,” etc.
But how do the speaker’s personal genealogy and Jungleland USA’s genealogy relate? The answer lies in the theatrical qualities of Savage Pageant. If this collection combines multiple genres, such as poetry, hybrid, and the visual, then theater also needs to be emphasized within this discussion. The opening Guy Debord quote in “Act III: The Animals” speaks to these relationships: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” In considering Jungleland, Hollywood, and animal stars, such as Leo the Lion of Golden Age MGM, Stark ponders the relationships between people and spectacle. It’s theatrical in the sense that sites like Jungleland always provide something to react to, from exotic animals, to movie star families, and unfortunately, to tragedy.
Arguably, the power of theater lies in how the genre taps into the subconscious, bringing the audience in as a key player. If in the explanatory note, Stark’s speaker talks about “Poems about ghosts and the unhinged / latch,” then we can focus on what I call theater’s “spectral qualities.” Stark opens each “act” with a Jungleland genealogy, and thus, each of these historical genealogies of the now defunct zoo and amusement park serves as a precedent for the rest of the section, as the speakers then tap into their own personal genealogy once more, connecting to her own family. The speaker brings in her own subconscious.
In relation to the “I had a boy and they took you out with a knife” closing line of the prologue, I’d now like to focus on two more standout poems, “Miss Photoflash” and “Zoltan Hargitay was a Telephone.” Above all else, Savage Pageant is a very Hollywood-glamorous book, especially in the tabloid sense of the word. Stark translates the classic Hollywood move of moving pictures and celebrity fodder into the illustrations of her book. The standout picture that sandwiches these two poems is an illustration of photographer Allan Grant’s infamous shot of Jayne Mansfield in her swimming pool (heart-shaped and built by bodybuilder husband/hunk, Mickey Hargitay), clad in her pristine white bikini, surrounded by three dozen inflatable pool toys bearing her body and image. However, Stark puts her own spin in her version of the image, adding in the following quotes: “You know which title I like best?” “I like to be called mother.”
“I like to be called mother” is fitting, especially given the themes of female spectacle in this book. Stark’s illustration and her two Mansfield poems especially take us back to the prologue poem, where the speaker gives birth to a son. This Mansfield illustration is a reminder that while the woman is queen and always front and center, when it comes to her maternal business, that territory is all hers. “Miss Photoflash” speaks to the quickness of the lens and how audience creates spectacle of blonde bombshell celebrity. And yet, the celebrity herself also plays into this notion of spectacle:
“Where do you sleep tonight,
Vera Jayne Palmer?
A heart-shaped pool,
a wayward corridor, a pink
penchant for gone-wrong.
Great Tail Switch,
Broadway’s Smartest Dumb.
Attach a name to fix you
and keep you known.
To my silver screen ladies:
yell five straight hours to get
a husky voice, the sexy kind.”
I love how Stark’s speaker opens with a direct address to Mansfield by invoking the bombshell’s birth name: Vera Jayne Palmer. It’s arguably an intimate act, one that further highlights the spectacle of celebrity. This invocation is also a move that speaks back to the intimacy of the prologue poem, in that a name, particularly a lesser known name of a famous person, ends up revealing a woman’s secrets and intimacies. But this move of spectacle isn’t without intense vulnerability, especially at the poem’s turn when the speaker addresses: “To my silver screen ladies: / yell five straight hours to get / a husky voice, the sexy kind,” along with the lines, “Fill a stage with anatomy, but / don’t forget your expiration // & cultivate a showy end.”
“Zoltan Hargitay Was a Telephone” serve as the companion piece to “Miss Photoflash,” and fittingly, it’s about Mansfield’s son, Zoltan. This poem also presents intense vulnerability in the midst of spectacle. Stark gives us a prose poem that plays a game of “telephone,” for instance with the transitions from “Zoltan walked into the lion’s cage and was bitten on the neck by the lion.” and “Zoltan had forgotten a toy in the lion’s cage and ran / back to retrieve it and was bitten on the neck by the lion.” The poem ends with “Shortly / after the attack, the lion was immediately shot and removed from the park,” thus alluding to the larger problems of abuse and spectacle in Jungleland, whether it be physical or emotional, human or animal. It’s all a problem.
With this questioning, Stark also comments on Jungleland as mythology throughout the collection. And yet, Jungleland cannot only exist as mythology due to consequences, as seen above in the Zoltan Hargitay poem. The collection’s closing poem, “Savage Pageant: Jungleland Had Many Names” emphasizes these ideas:
“And now we are carving mythology out
of unremembered time. The recurrent
dream about Jungleland isn’t about
tigers or Mabel or a roster of poorly
behaving men. We know memory,
like a trapped lion, must snack on
dry sandwiches to survive.”
Throughout Savage Pageant, Jessica Q. Stark gives us questions of survival within contexts of spectacle. If Guy Debord once said, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images,” then Stark gives us flesh and memoir, image and relation, as the spectral body of Savage Pageant inhabits these animalistic cross-generational stories, begging for protection from the consequences of human spectacle.
Jessica Q. Stark is a mixed-race, Vietnamese poet and scholar originally from California. She received her PhD in English at Duke University, a Master’s of English from Saint Louis University, and a B.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks, the latest titled Vasilisa the Wise (Ethel Zine Press, 2018). Her chapbook manuscript, The Liminal Parade, was selected by Dorothea Lasky for Heavy Feather’s Double Take Poetry Prize in 2016. Her poems have appeared in Hobart, Tupelo Quarterly, Potluck, Glass Poetry Journal, and others. She writes an ongoing poetry zine called INNANET and works as an Assistant Poetry Editor for AGNI. Find her on Twitter @jezzbah.
Dorothy Chan is the author of Chinese Girl Strikes Back (Spork Press, forthcoming 2021), Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She is a two-time Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship finalist, a 2020 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Poetry for Revenge of the Asian Woman, and a 2019 recipient of the Philip Freund Prize in Creative Writing from Cornell University. Her work has appeared in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Chan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Poetry Editor of Hobart, and Founding Editor and Editor in Chief of Honey Literary. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com