Reimagining Women’s Histories

Reviewed by Heather Olaveson

Poets Lori Cayer and Suzanne Zelazo turn to the past for inspiration for their latest publications: both Mrs Romanov and Lances All Alike reimagine the lives of historical figures while privileging female voices. Cayer’s long poem provides an intimate first-person interpretation of the political, familial, and emotional life of Alexandra Feodorova, last tsarina of imperialist Russia and affectionate wife of “Nicky” II. Divided into two sections pre- and post-incarceration, the text traces the narrator’s life from childhood to firing squad, where some beautiful turns of phrase describe violent, bloody events, such as the lines “plaster behind erupting with sprayed stars // I am gone where light explodes.” Although the speaker claims to “twist from focus,” Cayer is adept at empathetically illustrating the tsarina’s rich inner emotional world and her relationships within the domestic space. Particular attention is given to the tsarina’s terror and guilt over her treasured son’s haemophilia—a “ruinous sceptre passed down”—and to her relationship with the polarizing mystic Rasputin.

Cayer juxtaposes her characters’ richly textured private lives with rising social unrest, political struggle, and ravening gossipmongers. She captures the delicate balance of the Romanovs’ Inside and Outside Worlds and the fragility of their highly scrutinized lives through the motif of Fabergé eggs, “those bejewelled manifestations of us / . . . / arrayed on the mantel.” Although I initially wondered about her decision to format the text almost exclusively in paired lines with no end punctuation, these sometimes disjointed lines perhaps nod to and contrast epics’ heroic couplets and speak to the characters’ fragmented and uncertain lives.

While Cayer provides a glimpse into the emotional experiences of a highly public figure, Zelazo constructs a “conversation” between Mina Loy and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, two modernist poet-artists who, despite their commonalities, did not interact. This promising experimental project uses processes of excision, overwriting, and collage to merge and tease out new readings of their poetry, setting them amongst their esteemed male contemporaries Joyce and Faulkner. Mirroring its content, the text is divided into four “Excisions,” the first containing poetic scraps stitched together in a dense and somewhat obscure Dadaist collage. Here, the em dash becomes a visual suture culminating in the poem “‘Cut Pieces’: Mina and Elsa at the Arensbergs,” which consists solely of dashes positioned to resemble syntactical units.

Zelazo’s project of feminist recovery comes to light in “Needlepoint,” where the voices of previously silenced female artists announce,

we are a century of catastrophic echoes,
a riot of stones
hurled . . .
. . . . . . . . .

missiles unfurled,
rapture on our lips
where the sutures were.

Zelazo gives voice and body to female artists who have often been historically and unjustly suppressed, making these “[d]aughters of deco / echo of sunshine / forever and always and sometimes.” The text requires an active reader, though, as its dense yet beautifully fragmented imagery and syntax can sometimes be difficult to navigate; however, Zelazo’s writing certainly inspires further reading about these fascinating artists.

This review “Reimagining Women’s Histories” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 140-141.

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