Jessica Q. Stark: Savage Pageant

[Birds, LLC; March 17]

A menagerie of illustrations, photographs, screenshots, prose, and poems make up Savage Pageant, the debut full-length collection by the Durham-based poet Jessica Q. Stark

It’s a book about a lot of things—psychogenic disorders, Hollywood, ghosts, Daniel Boone, and a nuclear meltdown, to name just a few—but at the center is Jungleland, a now-defunct zoo in Southern California where Hollywood’s show animals were kept, beginning in the 1920s, until the zoo shuttered in the 1960s. 

The story of the zoo unfolds through timelines and connected historical characters, including Mabel Stark (no relation), a renowned tiger trainer who was mauled multiple times and died from a drug overdose, after hearing that her favorite tiger had escaped and been killed. 

This strange corner of history is fertile ground for Stark’s broad investigations of the body, taming, and trauma. It also suits Stark’s distinct writing style, which is both epigrammatic and exploratory. Pregnancy is described as “the awkward roundness of past sex on a body-stage;” a ghost is “a felt miscalculation.” The past—trauma, true happiness, mistakes, heroics—externalizes without fail. 

In recent years, a cadre of writers—Maggie Nelson and Kate Zambreno come to mind—have experimented with the bounds of text, embroidering poetry, prose, and history into fluid documentary poetics. Savage Pageant is a thoughtful and important addition to the form. At some points, it can be easy to lose the thread of all these different textual elements—the inclusion of intermissions, an epilogue, and four acts slows the pace down a bit—but that’s also a testament to the collection’s high ambition.

The gripping title poem, “Savage Pageant: The Jungleland Had Many Names,” makes the most of these ambitions, writing of a “spectacle archive of harm” that includes mass shootings and the Flint water crisis. These dark subjects are a high-wire act, for sure, but the poet walking it is careful and confident. 

Later, hope flares in “There Are Many Types of Cannibals,” when Stark writes, “In the overflow of human information and category— reserve a space for the crack. Look through perfect symmetry for some bright triangle in misty air.” 

Beyond being spectacularly lovely, that line also might be one of the best working definitions of poetry I’ve ever heard. This information-saturated world is overwhelming, but the best poetry makes sense of it—not by being that bright triangle of light and air, but by being the crack that allows us to see it. As Stark has it, “There are spaces—enough for everyone.” 

“Savage Pageant” is available for discounted preorder ($15) through the Birds, LLC website ( until Jan. 17. Books ship Jan. 24. The book officially launches March 17, when you can find it at Quail Ridge Books and So & So Books or online at Small Press Distribution for $18.

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