By Adam Sol
The House That Hijack Built
By Adeena Karasick
Talonbooks, 128 pages, $19.95
By Rachel Zolf
Mercury Press, 86 pages, $15.95
Adeena Karasick has been publishing experimental poetry for more than 10 years, drawing on academic theories, but also from the wordplay and bluster that characterize Spoken Word. In collections such as Mêmewars and Genrecide , Karasick has demonstrated some real daring in her textual acrobatics, with a postmodern feminist’s healthy suspicion of language itself and how it works to inscribe and enslave.
Karasick’s most recent effort is The House That Hijack Built, a collection that tackles the destruction (both physical and linguistic) wrought by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This material puts Karasick’s skills to a severe test. The question is whether her experiments reveal an original way of approaching the events. There was a Big Building That Swallowed a Plane , for instance, is a tour de force of linguistic doublespeak, children’s rhyme and allusion. Quotations from Proust and philosopher Emmanuel Levinas stand alongside Dr. Seuss-like play. (“How urbane! To swallow a plane!”) All of this in a wide variety of fonts, with hand-drawn artwork, digitally altered photographs and other typographical tricks.
Some of Karasick’s attempts to make a text stand out with a font from the bottom of the computer briefcase fail to compensate for sloppy writing. Still, she does manage to highlight the infantilization of language that has occurred around the current “conflict,” while calling down a range of precedents and texts that respond to the genuine strangeness of the event.
Elsewhere, Karasick’s emotional distance makes her experimentation seem no more than play. Her ability to blend street talk and allusion is compelling, but ultimately fails to seem crucial to her material; her insights are no more complex than that of a CNN commentator, which makes one wonder why all the fancy dancing. Ultimately one wishes that Karasick would bring as much vigour to her thematic ambitions as she does to her linguistic daring and erudition.
In contrast, Rachel Zolf’s experimental use of form in Masque emerges organically, as demanded by her self-immolating material. Zolf’s text is no less conspicuous in its use of the theoretical and its experimentation, but her references seem to arrive from the urgency of a speaker attempting to understand her life rather than from a graduate seminar. The narrator of Zolf’s second collection is, among other things, the daughter of a well-known media figure, and much of Masque circles around the complex relationship the narrator has with her father.
Masque uses a multiplicity of voices and narrators, from The Media Man and The Wife to The Philosopher and even a Censor who occasionally blots out words. Often these separate texts are superimposed on the same space, so that one has to read every other line, or every third, for the individual statements to make sense. Zolf is very careful not to make these leaps too burdensome, however, and often cues the reader with indentation or italics to facilitate. In fact, Zolf could have hand-held the reader less: Her renditions of these separate voices are distinct even when read together, and her cues threaten to appear patronizing.
At the core of the work is the dissection of the troubled relationship the speaker has with her father, and how her father’s emotional distance, combined with his notoriety as a wit, affected his family. The disconnect between the charming, self-deprecating public figure and the father who didn’t include his children in his own memoirs is perhaps familiar material in an age of Mommy Dearest -type tell-alls. Here, though, Zolf undercuts the self-pity by calling the forms of her work into question.
The book itself is a part of the problem, of course, because if a woman named “Rachel Zolf” publishes a book in which Larry Zolf is mentioned by name, and which includes a caveat on the publisher’s page that “some words spoken or written by real people, living or dead, do appear in this book, but all characters and events spring from my own mind,” then Rachel Zolf is participating in the warped commodification of her own life. Masque is thus a commentary on and an enactment of the very struggles Zolf is trying to describe. Is the narrator of Masque more angry, insightful or resolved than the Rachel Zolf whose name is on the cover of the book? We will never know. This, of course, is the book’s great insight, and the implications are far-reaching for memoirs of all stripes.
There are moments in Masque that cross the line between what is personal and relevant and what is gratuitously specific. Yet for the most part, Zolf succeeds in paring down to the detail that reveals, and offsets the angst-ridden self-analysis by juxtaposing it with wit and humour. It is a strength of the book that Zolf conveys the charm of the father character while revealing the cold inner life that drives the narrator’s confession.
Karasick’s work expresses the need to come up with different poetic materials with which to contain the world that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, have brought upon us. Her impulse is public, communal, declamatory. It is also didactic and pretentious. Zolf’s multivalent voices are personal, and risk navel-gazing, but–strangely–their intimacy ultimately produces deeper intellectual resonance than Karasick’s smarty-pants renderings. Zolf’s emotional daring makes Masque the risk worth taking. Adam Sol won the Trillium Prize for his poetry collection Crowd of Sounds.