Suzanne Zelazo: Two new poems
Given the amount of activity Toronto poet, editor, critic and professional triathalete Suzanne Zelazo has been involved with over the past decade, one can understand why we haven’t seen much in the way of new poetry from her since the publication of her remarkable first trade collection, Parlance (Coach House Books, 2003). Editor-in-Chief of the late, lamented literary journal Queen Street Quarterly (1997 – 2005), she held a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at Ryerson University under Irene Gammel, exploring experimental writers and poets including Mina Loy, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Florine Stettheimer. With Gammel, Zelazo co-edited the critically-acclaimed collections Crystal Flowers: Poetry and a Libretto by Florine Stettheimer (BookThug, 2010) and Body Sweats : The Uncensored Writings of Elsa Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven (The MIT Press, 2011). Author of numerous articles exploring “the extent to which the physicality of the female body merges with the artist’s textual/artistic body,” she co-organized (with Toronto poet, editor, fiction writer and critic Priscila Uppal) the 2009 “Bodyworks: Linking Sport, Art, and Culture” conference at York University. She currently works in commercial publishing. In her review of Parlance for Canadian Literature, Meredith Quartermain wrote:
Suzanne Zelazo describes her first book of poems, Parlance, as collaged. As many writers have discovered, this technique leads to nifty and hilarious thoughts that cannot be found elsewise: ‘There are too many places like the adjacent. They are always greener and more congealed.’ […] More or less following Tom Phillips, who made a poem called A Humument with excisions from a book called A Human Document, Zelazo has created “Through the Lighthouse” with excisions from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The more open form of this piece initially leads to greater rhythmic variation and better pacing. Presumably this is the direction Zelazo will follow in future work.
As her publisher described Parlance: “The poems in PARLANCE thrash against the matrix of their own referential nature using a series of linguistic echoes that reference writers like the ‘maternal’ Virginia Woolf or the ‘paternal’ Leonard Cohen. The rebellious child of Zelazo’s text splinters its Modernist and Canadian parentage to occupy an uncharted linguistic space somewhere between excess and void. These poems are painterly, splintered, majestic.” The poems in Parlance are both fluid and remarkably dense, reworking a series of stabilities into a collage of instabilities, packed tight with sonorous leaps and tonal shifts, excised as building blocks towards an entirely new structure. In the poem “Missplit,” for example, she writes:
Wetted ashes the body pretends. The flag a dismal delirium. Aiming towards empty. She falls. How grand after death. Lunation toiling monumental impermanence. Ariel convergence a separate excavation. Give this your second best confused and countered by the first. Blush. Gesture less the line of deliverance. Roll up strong to the left of drowning. Pornographic shudder the complete works take the voyage out. From Nightwood to Nighttown and back again. Moonfoaming your eyes dear. They are ache of electric light.
Given her near-silence before the publication of her first collection, her ongoing silences appear deliberate, in part given the book-length nature of her projects. In an unpublished interview I conducted with Zelazo in 2003, she spoke of balancing the roles of editor and author during the Queen Street Quarterly period: “In many respects I wanted to remain elusive, and in so doing, let the magazine speak for itself. In keeping with that, I was reluctant to send my own work out lest it concretize my presence in any way.” Later on in the same interview, she said:
Yes, I was deliberately not sending work out, partly because I was really concentrating on being “the editor” and on building a magazine with an editor whose opinions, directions, and tastes our readers could trust, and I thought that given the insularity of the Can lit community, that I didn’t want to risk jeopardizing the authority of the QSQ by simultaneously attempting to be taken seriously as a writer – I thought the two required a certain amount of distance until they were independently (somewhat) established. The other reason is that I was concentrating on the book as a book project, rather than simply a collection of disparate poems. In other words, I really saw the poems as needing to work together and so it was not easy to just send out little parts of it.
Not that she has been completely silent. A couple of poems have appeared here and there, from the first issue of The Peter F. Yacht Club (2003) to Read York (Apostrophe Press, 2004), a four-poet chapbook anthology including work by Zelazo, Gregory Betts, Stephen Cain and myself that was produced as a handout for a reading at York University. Some of this work later appeared in the anthology Ground rules: the best of the second decade of above/ground press 2003-2013 (Chaudiere Books, 2013). Part of this included selections from her work-in-progress “CLAIRAUDIENCE,” a project that immediately followed on the heels of Parlance and, as she described in the same interview, is “a long narrative poem which explores the art of hearing – the acoustics of language. This exploration takes its impetus from the nuances of a love affair. ‘Clairaudience’ means the power or faculty of hearing something not present to the ear, but having an objective reality.”
It is interesting to see how both her first book and her current work-in-progress, her self-described “Mina Loy/ Baroness Elsa project” that include the two poems below, emerge from her studies and explorations into modernism, specifically the literary work of important early modernists, from Virginia Woolf and H.D. to Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Curiously, the tonal and cognitive leaps of language that made up the bulk of Parlance have shifted in tone, far more lively in terms of sound, collision and measure. As she describes the project in a recent email: “I’m really fascinated by the fact that Loy and the Baroness were active in New York during the teens and twenties, shared aesthetic resonances and common friends, yet there’s no record of exchanges or meetings between the two women. Their non-relationship is a curious ‘absent presence.’ The project is a discursive collage that imagines a conversation between them, ventriloquizing their combined impact, which emphasizes the sensual and affective body.”
A more tender button
Of the laboratory
Brimming sea whispers— — —
Virgin Window Dressing
Down city presses the door’s chain
Netted virgins on plumb streets
Their hats are not ours
Amethyst cap confessional
Pearl skies wasting our giggles
No dots stand.
Eve deep with soft wings
White virgins for sale
Coins for buying Lilac marriage
our windows sing
sweep arms making room for men
The city deep throbs
blankets the stars