Rachel Zolf came through Portland to read with Natalie Simpson last Sunday. Simpson's new book, accrete or crumble, features a series of “mostly prose poems” that revel in a kind of Shakespearian sonnet-y density around which meaning accretes in “a fragile balance of tenuous.” I was drawn especially to those moments where the poems seemed to reflect the conditions of their own making, teaching us how to read what they’re doing as they do it: “particulars fall as leaves fall;” “these occur often in sentence structure playing field;” “what bales words out of rhythm;” “her speak expands to boom.” I also learned that Alberta is sort of the Texas of Canada.
Rachel Zolf read from Human Resources, written during (and against) her time as an HR copywriter. Where I expected an ironic use of cube-speak to critique the whole corporate thing, Zolf instead delivered a profound exploration of how euphemism, bureaucratic codes, and numbers in certain combinations enabled the twentieth century. Socrates, Primo Levi, Paul Celan, and the Harvard Business Review joined a chorus of anonymous voices (“I didn’t write that. A machine wrote that”) that comment, Greek tragic-like, on the violence that hides beneath the codes we use to keep modernity moving: “Just shoot me now my inbox is a little crammed;” “Forget the self. Without your pain you’re nothing;” “my head is going to pop off one of the iterations of the new.” Business clichés like “take it offline,” “snappy business attire,” “move the goalposts,” and “on the same page” bump against phrases like “Arbeit mach frei” or “a chew is a chew” (Cantos) in a way that calls out sloganeering, stereotype, and the stock phrase—the white noise of corporate communication—for their complicity in imposing dehumanizing identities. One of the most powerful poems she read was a series of numbers, clumped in groups, that evoked everything from tax forms to penal codes to the system of identifying prisoners at Auschwitz. At the same time, her work conveys a kind of hope via encryption, the possibility of being, through poetry, the thing the machines can't read: “poery machine over money;” “If all poets are Jews veiled in Cyrillic letters ....”
Zolf read at a lighting pace that tended to blur individual words and poems into a single unrelenting rhythm. It conveyed the anonymity and machine-like impersonality of the language her work was critiquing, and helped to foreground what may be its characteristic semantic mode—speed over meaning, more beat than ‘message’ (or is it that the beat is the message?). Over time the effect was exhausting, and diverted attention (mine anyway) from the density of reference and the richness of the individual lines. That may have been the intention, and it certainly helped me see the work in a different way than I would have from the book alone, where the poems get more space on the page than I would have expected from the delivery. It was a bold move for a bold book, and showed Zolf's commitment to the intricate poetic she's pursuing. I wouldn't miss her work however it finds you.
55 minutes ago