Rachel Zolf. Janey’s Arcadia (Coach House Books 2014).
Ezra Pound said of poetry that it’s news that stays news; or, as in the case of this angry brilliant book, there’s the news that is more than ever the news right now. In September 2014, a book taking direct aim at the deaths & disappearances of ‘close to 1,200 Indigenous women,’ among much else it does, couldn’t be more relevant. Janey’s Arcadia is a work of bitter bricolage, chilling collage: the poetical political destabilized as it always must be.
There was a ‘real’ Janey; as Zolf points out, Emily Murphy ‘also wrote under the pen name of the plucky white-supremacist settler, Janey Canuck.’ And the cover of this book wonderfully represents her in all her naive assertiveness. Combined in Zolf’s mind with Kathy Acker’s Janey Smith, she becomes ‘Janey Settler-Invader, a fracked-up, mutant (cyborg?) squatter progeny, slouching toward the Red River Colony, “Britain’s One Utopia,” in the company of “white slave” traders.’ Janey’s Arcadia assumes her dreams as nightmares, & reassigns colonial gestures from Canada’s past to aspects of the present with its asides on the Israel-Palestine situation. It does so through an amalgamation of documents, mash-ups, illustrations, & carefully garbled lyrics. ‘Janey’s Invocation’ sets the stage for then Arcadian dream: ‘Infallible settlers say this is the latest season / they have known. All seed life seems somnolent, / yet a delicate suggestion of colour is at the tips / of the willows.’ Yet (its) destruction is too close by: ‘The wine / of spring aflush on the face THE COPS- FIND- 2J3<3 / I H *^\ Hn is a Goad of Death Gourd of chanqts Takt / Life is totally totally lonely of Nature.’ And here we see, on the very first page, one of the tactics by which Zolf undercuts every kind of rhetoric found in her researches, the use (& marvelously it was necessary in dealing with archival material) of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, which ‘blithely surveils and recognizes characters without meaning’ (but which becomes all too meaning-full when utilized by a poet so determined as Zolf), & ‘is also notoriously prone to noisy glitches or “errors of recognition” of seemingly unreadable text. These accidents can, perhaps (in Derrida’s torqued messianic sense of peut-etre), conjure other forms of mis- and non- and dis- and un-recognition — and hauntological error.’
I quote Zolf’s ‘What Else Said Author Says’ at such length because her after-words are integral to the text as a whole & also explain a lot about what has gone before. Janey’s Arcadia is both a highly involving work & one which works its readers hard. there are pages of verse, contaminated in all kinds of ways but still asking to be read as such. Janey’s Arcadia seeks to uncover the dark politics of both the ‘settling’ of ‘the territory now called Manitoba,’ & more contemporary versions of such colonial usurpation. Thus, even though on one page Janey might admit, ‘But I was telling you about the Indigns,’ on a later page this speaker who begs our pardon for her ‘digressions,’ tells us what ‘Persian slave traders teach their children,’ & that ‘the Indign’s deadly and unpardonable sin lies / >> a better peasant j.T’J olKO oil this peasant is better / in the act that he has not made money as a whore / and had nothing else to feel.’ There is nothing simple happening here.
Whether it’s Janey on ‘the traditional territories of the Niitsitapi, Nakoda and Tsuu t’ina peoples’ or Zolf’s grandfather, Falk, almost in ‘Eretz-Yisroel,’ the results are the same, & continue. If there are ‘terrorist pleasures of the chase upon the plain,’ there’s no easy way to identify the terrorist, & that’s one of the points. The fragmented tales of Janey’s Arcadia keep un-clarifying the history & politics of those (who think that are) in charge (& who therefore wrote the history being undermined here). I haven’t even begun to discuss the many other genres discombobulated in Janey’s Arcadia, the grammar & ‘vocabulary’ (here a 4 page list of the meanings of invisible terms), the memoir (‘Who Is This Jesus? — a narrative definitely complicated by the OCR), the questionnaire (only the names of responding women & their answers, or, in the case of the missing, non-answers), among others. Nor have I mentioned the ways in which Zolf inscribes varieties of desire into so much of the text. Not just Derrida, but Bakhtin is looking on.
And then, on top of the casual allusions to the rebellions & the death of Riel, & to the Residential Schools & their attempt to ‘take the Indian out of the child,’ there are the many pages of hand-written names: the women who have been murdered or disappeared, & for whom the Harper Government refuses to hold a Parliamentary Inquiry. A reader must stop every few pages to read these, & their accumulation slowly gathers over the rest of the text as a cloud of loss. Janey’s Arcadia appears to be a post-colonial deconstruction of the kind of advertisements & tales of the great new land to be settled, but it’s much more than that: a scathing, doubled edged, poetic attack on both that history & its continuing effects. After reading through it once, one feels compelled to go back & really dig in to truly comprehend just how much terrible information has been packed into its pages. In Janey’s Arcadia, Rachel Zolf has built something uniquely disturbing, in the best sense.