Prairie Fire Review of Books

Review by Ann Decter

“Let me introduce you to our family” (7) says a tinny voice, opening Rachel Zolf’s poetry collection, Her absence, this wanderer, and beginning a rumination that slices in and out of time and through generations. Fierce, careful and incisive, Zolf’s poetry travels through the family in question on the desire of the narrator not only to know but also to be and be known.

Delving into the history of any Ashkenazy Jewish family risks bumping up against the genocide known as the holocaust. Tracing crumbling pictures, the tinny voice of Aunt Rose takes us quickly from a bungalow in North Winnipeg to a shtetl in Ashkenaz. Alongside blueberry danish Aunt Rose serves images of the matriarchal Aunt Peshe settling disputes like Solomon, keeping the peace between Jews and gentiles and tending a “scraggled line of daughters/and sons and grandsons and granddaughters.” (9) Three generations lifted into the wind, ash in the fires of Nazism.

But holocaust memories are not the only ones Zolf explores. Memory is also a fragmenting, disappearing parent; memory is that ultimate shape-shifter, sexuality. The intellectually innovative poem “erotic play” juxtaposes fracturing childhood sexual experience with mature lesbian desire, and interplays them. Although in the successful concrete poem, “motherwish,” Zolf describes refusing to inhabit her body as a child, in “erotic play” the poet does just that, and completely. Rather than fragmenting into the dichotomized theoretical boxes of abuse and desire, Zolf weaves two narrative lines of poetry through the body to intersect and fuse.

These deep, finely crafted poems offer a satisfying narrative journey through a well-engaged struggle with life. And there is variety. The pastoral “furrows” offers lyrical lines like “hours she lies lapped listening for blueweed goldenrod” (27) and “laundromat angel caresses cracked sepia” (28). The effective concrete poems are refreshing, as is the sequence “Stone poems,” eight titled black and white photographs which includes “my mother’s hands,” featuring a 1942 photo of the aforementioned Aunt Peshe. Elsewhere, scrawled graffiti bursts through carefully wrought text.

The stories are consistently sombre. Zolf employs a deliberately even, somewhat flat voice that serves to distance narrator from narrative, successfully avoiding sentimentality. The voice also distances the reader from the narrative, occasionally undercutting a situation’s potential emotional power.

The title poem, “Her absence, this wanderer,” traces a journey, now made by many descendants of those who lived through and who died in the Ashkenazy holocaust, to the death camps and cemeteries of eastern Europe. Zolf keeps it fresh with irony and anecdotes, like the story of the rabbi at the only remaining synagogue in Warsaw, who fleeces visiting Jews for donations and a free kosher meal. While it is impossible to avoid echoing familiar themes, Zolf is able to send a jolt as the narrator glimpses fleeting visions of the massive historical event in everyday life where it happened.

Yet in the end, the notion that underlies the opening poem and echoes throughout the collection is stronger. Here in Canada, the holocaust runs through everyday life, it’s on the coffee table, beside the blueberry danishes, when you sit down for a nosh with a poet and her aunt. Zolf’s closing poetic gesture, in “Not gonna make you invisible,” fulfilling the narrator’s motivating desire, is to cut all of this open, knowing and being known, seeing and insisting on visibility.

Return to Her absence, this wanderer book page.