Rachel Zolf & Neighbour Procedure

Rachel Zolf. Neighbour Procedure (Coach House 2010).

Rachel Zolf read material from Neighbour Procedure at an Olive reading here recently; it made for a powerful (& politically provocative) performance. She prefaced the reading by saying that only 3 lines in the book were actually hers, & added comments from her ‘Afterthought’ as prefaces to many of the pieces. This is such a startling piece of heavy bricolage that it would be wise to read the ‘Afterthought’ first. What Zolf has done here is do a series of major excavations of wide variety of documents, mostly connected to the Israel/Palestine conflict. That her poetic redactions convey both a terrible realty of the situation & a dark beauty due to the formal control she evinces throughout is testament to her craft, as well as her commitment (to truth, art, & our common humanity).

There are four sections, ‘Shoot & Weep,’ ‘Book of Comparisons,’ ‘Innocent Abroad,’ & ‘L’éveil,’ each of which finds different methods by which to ‘quote’ history, propaganda, journalism, philosophy, personal testimony, & much else, mixing them all with the élan of an angry & compassionate master DJ. This is not a book from which one can quote a line or two. Each piece depends on various complex rhetorical buildups throughout to achieve its power. For example, the first poem, ‘a priori,’ depends on the first word of almost every line, ‘If.’ Each line offers an event we may or may not remember from the ongoing ‘situation’; they are balanced, too, between the two sides, & the piece, like so many others, leaves readers in a kind of responsive limbo, forced to make any distinctions on their own. ‘Grievable’ is simply a list of names; the following piece, ‘Nominable,’ a list of numbers: the ages of those whose names we have just read. In performance, these two pieces took on a gravitas far heavier than they have, at first, on the page. There are a number of performance texts here, where Zolf has found a way to articulate her found material into chants & soundings; this is especially the case with ‘L’amiral cherche une maison à louer,’ which is based on ‘the story of Dadaist Marcel Janco founding a Dada artists’ community in 1953 in what was Palestinian Ein Houd.’

Throughout, Zolf takes her found materials & turns them into sharply defined poetic fragments that would fit into any Modernist text of fragmentation, as in ‘Book of Comparisons,’ which ‘is based on eleventh-century Andalusian Jewish scholar Ibn Barun’s ‘Book of Comparison’ of common verbal roots and similar phrases in the sister Semitic languages of classical Arabic and Hebrew.’ In the result, each line, hanging in the space of the page, carries a weight of history & strange beauty. ‘L’éveil’ splits the page in 4, & inserts phrases from Canadian, Lebanese, US, & Israeli newspapers during the 2006 war in Lebanon, again achieving both political force & charged beauty in juxtapositions. Neighbour Procedure is I suspect one of those necessary books; certainly it’s a powerful one, which I hope will be widely read.

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