Lances All AlikePoetry
Reviewed By Carl Watts
- Coach House (2018)
- 88 pages
Going by its back cover alone, Suzanne Zelazo’s Lances All Alike is a strikingly deliberate enterprise. The book seeks to explore the “non-relationship” between Mina Loy and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, both multidisciplinary artistic figures who worked at the peak of High Modernism, yet whose work has never gotten the same attention as that of the largely male, capital-M modernist pantheon. It does so by “weav[ing]” the poetry of each into an “imaginary conversation” suppressed by the literary establishment and the vicissitudes of history. (This description of the text notes that there’s no record Loy and Freytag-Loringhoven had ever met.) The idea seems at once promising, especially given the strength of the prose poems in Zelazo’s Parlance (2003), and yet perhaps a somewhat predictable extension of a writer’s academic interests into her poetic practice.
The first poem, “‘Widows in Greenwich Village,’” begins:
white flesh quakes
The remainder of the book’s first section, entitled “Excision I: The Bisected Poems of Mina Loy and Baroness Elsa,” proceeds in much the same vein, with lines such as:
brain sugar of sweet
its manly legs
bite this tempest.
These lines seem almost tangible in their imagist brevity and weight. Only a few pages in, it’s clear that this is not what one could reasonably expect from Coach House—or, for that matter, from any broadly conceived constellation of contemporary experimental poetry.
The book’s writing-through and reclaiming of women’s voices is of course a welcome and necessary undertaking in itself, but the alienness of the first section adds an element of unpredictability that is sometimes lacking in this kind of methodical, reasoned out project. Even the typography seems to extend conversations about influence and voice. Take, for instance, Zelazo’s gradual development of Loys and Freytag-Loringhoven’s use of the em dash, in which its sporadic appearances in the first few poems gives way to its tripling (“Red spoon / of the laboratory / brimming sea whispers— — —”) and, ultimately, “‘Cut Piece’: Mina and Elsa at the Arensbergs’,” which consists only of dashes arranged so as to resemble writing. (The poem would be asemic but for the dash’s registering as some kind of syntactical unit, as well as the existence of an exclamation point at the end of one “line.”) This elaboration on a typographical convention that connotes ambiguity, informality, orality, and physicality could remind readers who are less familiar with Loy’s work of Emily Dickinson, or at the risk of being crass, controversial modernist figure Wyndham Lewis, whose visual-syntactic use of em dashes in his prose worked in tandem with the Vorticist aesthetic of his paintings.
Still, even in the distinctive first section, other layers reveal themselves. Lines like “the cargo of our dissonance,” from “Arabesque of Victory (an omen),” echo the light punning of substitution-based poetry. Subsequent sections seem to move closer to the identifiably contemporary even as they employ similar methods of writing over and through, such as in the recovery of female characters’ subjectivities from male-authored modernism in “Excision 2: Engendering Exiles” and “Excision 4: As I Lay Sighing.” “II: Dog’s Eyes” from the latter begins:
Born a wife,
suddenly a mother.
/ Slip measure fixing
These sections yield verse that feels lyrical and of the present, despite being built out of voices that are of another time and place.
Even as the foreignness of that first section fades, the historical source material and the systematic curatorial techniques to which it’s been subjected raise the question of whether this is, despite its disorienting effects, at its core academic poetry. And indeed, as disorienting as the push and pull between hard-hitting modernism and the found-text methods of contemporary North American poetry may seem, Zelazo and Irene Gammell have—in their introduction to Body Sweats (2011), a collection of Freytag-Loringhoven’s writings—found a logical connection between the two. They write that the latter’s work recalls Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath’s “outrage at patriarchal entrapment” and “powerful assertions of their own subjectivities” as much as it “points to the poetic experiments of our own era,” including even the conceptual work of Kenneth Goldsmith. There’s a lot going on in Lances All Alike; the closer one looks, however, very little seems to have been left to chance.
And yet the book mostly avoids coming off as an academic exercise. Zelazo, in addition to her creative and scholarly work, is described in her bio as a former professional triathlete who remains active as a coach. This range of expertise perhaps goes some way in explaining the strain of physicality that is detectable in Parlance and emerges in different ways here, crossing the lexical and rhythmic weightiness of the first section with a more content-oriented feminist poetics that sounds more contemporary. “Tectonic Gaze,” one of Zelazo’s “poetic portraits of contemporary Canadian poets and artists,” extends this preoccupation with the physical and the bodily into more conventionally authorial poetic territory, adding to the mix a layer of textual imagery:
remembers the slip.
Unfurl those golden fists,
a veil, a yolk, a swollen tragedy,
fleshquake in tender hesitation.
The book’s notes concisely explain Zelazo’s method, from the “collaged conversation” of the first sequence to the “over-writing and excision” that draw Bertha out of Joyce and Dewey Dell out of Faulkner. Its statement that the collection is “about the amplification of the female voice (both in the moment of artistic creation and in the future moments and voices it inspires)” most directly marks it as keeping with the interests of much of current experimental-poetry culture, and this final piece of commentary also suggests that there’s a learned quality linking this element with the book’s modernist voices. Still, the startling, even physically jarring juxtaposition resulting from the interplay of these distinct elements distinguishes Lances All Alike as much more than a work of academically oriented presentism.
Carl Watts is from Ontario. He holds a PhD in English from Queen's University, and he currently teaches at Royal Military College. His poems have appeared in The Best Canadian Poetry 2014, the Cincinnati Review, the Cortland Review, and Grain, as well as in a chapbook, REISSUE (Frog Hollow Press, 2016).