West Coast Line 54
by Jacqueline Turner
Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources (Coach House Books, 2007) takes on the idea of language “play” making language work and making that work evident in a way that’s fun and funny. I have just contradicted myself, yet in attempting to “describe” Zolf’s work contradiction seems entirely appropriate.
Like an ethnographer of language usage in the corporate world, Zolf shatters dialectics of participant versus observer by pushing the language system both within and beyond capacity. She lets some poems be written by a “machine” noting, “Valery’s poem was a machine for producing emotion,” and showing there may be some “disconnect” in how we can think about words while at the same time making such a corporate world laughable. She asks a question out of a question by Anne Carson on Paul Celan: “When you ‘cleanse words and salvage what is cleansed,’ do you collect what’s been scrubbed off or what remains minute older claims from methods accepted machine?” She wrings out the limits language and shows the centrifuge where is meaning is contested and spun up against so many moments, where it’s also taken at face value, like the American penny whose roughed up and close up version comprises the cover image of the book.
I feel like I have to type fast here in writing a review of a book that shifts my relationship with it every time I read it. It’s a book that keeps offering up alternative versions. The book moves quickly, as quickly as language usage evolves in contemporary times, transforming (as Lisa Robertson says) a necessary social anger.
Zolf takes apart cliches in such a way as to allow their commonly used referents while at the same time exploding them for comic effect. “This means we have to pass the punctum as sacred surplus I’ll flip it over to you,” she writes (I think that’s her, although it may have been the machine). “Rank your names,” she continues, “stick handle the translation.”
Interacting with the very concept of subjectivity she writes, “being so overdetermined can be taxing” and “Forget the self without your pain you’re nothing,” Zolf manages to be captionistic and poetic by jambing and heightening the parataxis at every turn. This. This is the new sentence, actually. (Yes, Silliman, I’m calling you.) “I don’t want to make an ‘event’ out of this slippage in language suffice it to say.”
She uses the structure to examine the structure so that her critique of some kinds of language usage isn’t even a critique—not with typical condemnation of somebody from the outside. In fact, binaristic categories of all kinds fail to make sense when talking about Zolf’s work as she so successfully navigates opting in and opting out at the same time. (Probably renegotiating the terms of “success” and “negotiation” too.) And by now, you get the idea of giving up authorial intent (the machine sometimes writes it—number stand in for words).
But you also get the language firmly entrenched in its corporate cubical: “We’re in a bit of a holding pattern right now providing you with a pulse on ‘inquiring minds’ I’d kill this sentence entirely” or “Chunk it down into various links I’m totally medicated as I type.” Like the series of “how to” poems (“6: Avoid ‘If’ statements”) that send up the idea of a simple answer to the question, “how to write.” Yet they also might work because “Nor was Socrates’s dialectical method for eliciting ‘truth’ any less wily or rhetorical than drilling down through my inbox queued up for deterritorialized release, performance management.” And because soon “My head’s gonna pop off of the iterations of the new.” That’s what’s news.