torquere: Journal of the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Studies Association, Volume 3, 2001
by Professor John C. Stout, McMaster University
Rachel Zolf’s Her absence, this wanderer explores issues of post-Holocaust Jewish identity and lesbian desire. Zolf bears witness to the difficulty of transcribing memory after the Holocaust through a complex, multilayered textuality in which individual fragmentary phrases alternate with blocks of verse placed against the blank space of the page. Reading this text, we catch glimpses of a historical reality that is distant and, almost, too painful to contemplate. Through a series of photographs placed at the centre of the book, Zolf juxtaposes images of tombstones from Jewish cemeteries in Poland and Czechoslowakia, images of WW II death camps as seen in 1996, and photographs of family members who died at Treblinka. She thus combines the roles of archivist and poet. As an archivist, she faithfully records and restores fragments of historical reality; as a poet, she transmutes this historical material into a postmodernist collage where various voices and perspectives interact.
Zolf’s achievement in Her absence, this wanderer recalls that of other young Jewish- Canadian artists, such as film-maker Elida Schogt (Zyklon Portrait, The Walnut Tree) who seek to restore their family’s history while recognizing the difficulties and aporias involved in retrieving what has been lost. Snapshots, graffiti on a wall: these are the models Zolf employs as metaphors for the arduous process of recovering the past: “layers on layers, palimpsest text/ -ures, found fragments// stitchings// how the pieces/ don’t quite fit together”(64).
Her exploration of her sexuality serves a different, though also crucial, personal quest for the speaker of Zolf’s text. Her presentation of sexuality in the sequence of poems entitled “erotic play” is intense, though, at times, ironic:
why can’t she be a good lesbian
and write a real poem
full of slippery tongues and thighs
deep thrusts and sighs (19)
Zolf’s word-play here, and her use of dramatic structure (with sex acts named for acts in a staged play) seamlessly blends the erotic with the linguistic: “so goes the erotic stanza, unleashing/desire: pungent, ambrosial–/ syllabic enrapture// how the black ink bits slip and slide/ how the ululant turns pustule/ how the w(ou)nd gapes, weeping// so goes the erotic stanza/ devouring// trompe l’o(r)eil(le)”(24). This eroticization of language through lesbian desire links Zolf’s writing to [Daphne] Marlatt’s, [Erin] Moure’s, and [nathalie] stephens’s . Like francophone writers Nicole Brossard, Michele Causse, and Monique Wittig, all four poets have produced outstanding examples of a new lesbian writing that is changing the contemporary literary scene.