‘Disfluent’ Reading

Reviewed by Linda Morra

By coincidence, I began reading Cathy Ford’s Flowers We Will Never Know the Names Of on December 6, 2014. A long poem that commemorates the lives of the women who died at L’École Polytechnique, the text is written within the tradition of the flower-celebrating arts; specifically, Ford makes reference to the stories of Turkish and Arabian women who “sent letters to one another using flowers, and their meanings, in message bouquets” about “artistry, support, love, celebration, sorrow, warning.” So it is that, within her work, she invokes a variety of flowers and their associations to pay tribute to the fourteen women who lost their lives over a decade ago in the Montreal Massacre.

The shape of the poem largely follows an alphabetical format that is accompanied by illustrations and that relies on alliterative and floral associations to reflect on, mourn, and celebrate the lives of these fourteen women. Readers are invited to make links between the flowers depicted and their properties and significations in order to build meaning into the text—as, for instance, Ford does with the reference to Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings in section “F.” She argues that these associations are necessary to work out the “unfathomable,” to develop a “new sense of language” and “a new way of seeing,” and to apprehend the “inexcusable, the indefensible.” These efforts, although noteworthy, are only limited in success because she does not have consistent command of her poetic technique. Sometimes, the conflation of images seems to generate confusion: how do “words strangle up out of the earth,” “like the first tulip shards in December?” Also, several poetic lines do not live up to this “new way of seeing:” “cut down in your prime, before your time” is a poetic line that is inadequate to the purpose, even clichéd.

If Ford’s work is a sorrowful rendering of the loss of innocence, Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Acadia is a gritty, vituperative account of the violence associated with colonial practices, the systemic violence inflicted against the Indigenous, and the appropriation of their territories. Writing against the grain of Canadian pastoral mythologies, Zolf undercuts depictions of Canada as not “exactly a Utopia, Ltd.” She opens with Janey, a “fracked-up, mutant (cyborg?) squatter progeny” who makes her way in “focked-up arcadia,” and then shifts to other “infallible settlers.” She captures the clash of cultures and intermingling discourses: “Indigns” and “Chrispmas” are indicators of that collision, especially the means by which Indigenous nations are approached as “potential” for further exploitation. She juxtaposes the lexicon of Christian conversion and economics in ways that are appropriate but disturbing: if the “persona of Chrispmas” is shared “with every / young person within our target group,” the “aboriginal youth community” as a whole is characterized as a “prime area of development.”

Zolf’s poetic forms and language are sharp and intelligent, both explicit and implicit in terms of how the process of colonization was underwritten by economic interests and socio-political concerns that served only “The Grab of Canada.” She eschews poetic and moral effusions—and to great effect: “dextermination” and “Gord bless / our land” are evocative of the slipperiness of language (and political intent), of the “hauntological errors” that require what she calls “a kind of disfluent listening” that ultimately reveals the legacies of colonial violence, including the disappearance or deaths of close to 1200 Indigenous women in contemporary Canada. “[D]isfluent listening” and reading are also required for Trish Salah’s Lyric Sexology: Vol. 1. Therein, Salah pushes the boundaries of normative values, how “becoming sexes” is, in fact, “so rarely acknowledged, art.” Divided into seven chapters, the collection as a whole explores how definitive categories are scripts of a culture that dictate identities and behaviours: “How is it,” she asks in Chapter five, that “in a man’s voice—that of a doctor or a judge—a law has been scrolled/for both the sexes?”

Adopting various incarnations of the figure of Tiresias (Madame Tiresia, as one example), Salah tries to penetrate “all possible and probably worlds” and to undo these scripted formulations. Boundaries that dictate normative intimacies are tested and pushed, and the rehearsal and performance of sexualized identities confronted, as in, respectively, “3 am on Maitland” and “Two Self Portraits.” Scintillating poems often emerge from tender moments experienced by the poet’s persona who relays the challenge of “walking between fissure.” Those challenges are addressed with a compassion that ultimately reminds us that “we have such small distances between our skins.”

This review “‘Disfluent’ Reading” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 150-51.

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