Sundress Reads: Review of Savage Pageant

How do you trace the genealogy—let alone the geography—of a place that no longer exists? In Jessica Q. Stark’s sharp and subversive new collection Savage Pageant (Birds LLC, 2020), her poems, accounts, and sketches simultaneously collapse and expand what we mean when we speak about the archive—of living things, places, and collective and private histories, as well as the traces and ghosts that haunt the spaces we move through. Here, narratives fold onto themselves, histories repeat, and points-of-view shift dizzily around us, affecting how we remember the past and move into unstable futures. The success of this collection hinges on its refusal of categorization: part-archive, part-history, part-memoir, Stark paints a startling portrait of American spectacle, celebrity culture, collective pain, and unwritten narratives. It’s unlike any collection you will ever come across, which makes it all the better. Through her strange yet oddly comforting poems, Stark speaks to the unspoken spaces between us, of “the body on display: / a public domain of choices made,” while guiding us through the unwritten, unheard, and unremembered parts of our histories. The traces of this book will stay with you long after you close its pages. In her hands, we arrive transformed.

Savage Pageant recounts the strange history of the defunct Jungleland, a private zoo in Thousand Oaks, California that housed Hollywood’s show animals and marketed itself as “a kind of Disneyland with Live Animals.” Bankruptcy, runaway animals, and tragedy followed the zoo from its beginnings as a family home in the mid-1800s to its financial collapse in 1969, where more than 1,800 of its animals sold at auction. Rather than walk us through a straightforward retelling of Jungleland’s rise and fall, Starks slips across its historical lines, adding her unwavering voice to the anonymous mass that has built a collective archive to its memory, leaking with communal sentimentality. 

In “Trace Leakage: Jungleland,” anonymous commentators across time and place congregate, sharing personal memories of this bizarre monument to America’s reverie for exotic animals and spectacle. It is fitting, then, that these archival traces are archived themselves, each misspelling and retraction and “wait, does anyone else remember this?” serving as an alternative form of history-making, of history-making as history-remembering, looped within a network of knowledge that relies on everything that came before and after it. “The imagination is ceaselessly imagining and enriching itself with new images” so, eventually, we will begin where we once ended. Stark’s assured words moves through histories, speaking to the cycles we find ourselves in. Each Act in Savage Pageant begins with an epigraph from Society of the Spectacle (La société du spectacle) by Guy Debord, framing our incoming knowledge within the spectacle of spectacle-making. Afterwards, a sketch of Jungleland’s history—Leo the MGM Lion roaring for the cameras, a lion trainer, a woman riding an elephant, American flag in hand—before we come across aerial maps of where Jungleland once stood; clues to where its specters still roam.

Then, a series of genealogies: “Jungleland: A Genealogy, 1803-1915,” “Jungleland: A Genealogy: 1956-1969.” Here, Stark cuts into the archives, makes space “to remember what was never written.” Louis Goebel’s drive to make sure Hollywood productions use his exotic animals transforms him into “the spiraled being, who, from outside, appears to be a well-invested center, will never reach his center.” Zoltan Hargitay, Jayne Mansfield’s son who was mauled by a lion becomes a game of telephone, blame bouncing off of him, his mother, the lion, its cage, its lack of care, celebrity worship, Jungleland, Jungleland’s ability to exist only in America, only in this moment of history. “At times when we believe we are studying something, we are only being receptive to a kind of day-dreaming,” a collective unconsciousness, “of constructing the house, in the very pains we take to keep it alive, to give it all its essential clarity” even if we do not yet know how to construct it or remember its history the right way—written out, slotted in place, tucked away.

“Call it mania for a collective / breakdown a stress response against a line of history / that speeds fast like red metal towards dense fog,” Stark writes on the phenomenon of conversion disorders, mass psychogenic illness, the dumping of nuclear waste in the Burn Pits, psychological conflict taking its pains out on the body. She dedicates “Mass Psychogenic Illness” “for the archive,” for where else could you place the laughter of dozens of schoolgirls during the 1962 Tanganyika laughing epidemic except shut away in the annals? “…but here is the affliction / from stories better left unsaid: / the spectacle in the archive of harm” or, as Debord puts it in the epigraph that precedes Act I, “the spectacle’s essential character reveals it to be a visible negation of life—a negation that has taken on a visible form.” What Stark has achieved with Savage Pageant is an astute reimagining of the archive and the spectacle folded around it; if history is the practice of looking, then Stark has turned our eyes elsewhere, towards new possibilities and ways of knowing, where “now we are carving mythology out of unremembered time.”

Savage Pageant is available through Birds, LLC.


Kanika Lawton holds a BA in Psychology with a Minor in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia and an MA from the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute. She is the Editor-In-Chief of L’Éphémère Review, a 2018 Pink Door Fellow, and a 2020 BOAAT Writer’s Retreat Poetry Fellow. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, Vagabond City Literary Journal, Glass Poetry, and Cosmonauts Avenue, among others.

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