By Rachel Zolf. Coach House, 136 pp, softcover
For some of us, it is a time of heightened social awareness. Among the creative class in Canada, social issues are influencing projects. The reason could be an increased exposure to social media, which brings to light these injustices, in turn inspiring artists. The results, in any case, are evident in recent artistic projects nationwide: Toronto’s Evan Munday has been tweeting images of missing or murdered indigenous women to Prime Minister Stephen Harper daily since January. Vancouverite Cecily Nicholson’s recent poetry book From the Poplars deals with the displaced Qayqayt First Nation, a people devastated by smallpox, whose former home was transformed into a giant shipyard.
Rachel Zolf’s latest book of poetry, Janey’s Arcadia, fits nicely into the pattern of social-justice art. The book is a case study on the misreadings of historical texts that concern themselves with settlers and the indigenous people they displaced, in particular from Manitoba. Its deeper focus is the fact that it exhibits the deaths and disappearances of over a thousand indigenous women.
Using historical source texts such as antiquated brochure literature and newspaper interviews in almost collagelike fashion, Zolf eradicates beginnings and endings of these texts and feeds them seamlessly into a loom of historical intolerance, racism, and colonial shaming. This only heightens the sense of urgency, despite the ordeals and struggles having taken place years ago. The confluence of this unravelling research and Zolf’s own poetic voice-over reveals a tormented historical cross-section with all the power of an award-winning documentary.
Away from the bulk of remixed found material, the pared-down poems offer accessible narratives depicting a societal convergence in commerce and stereotype as various ethnic groups coexist during a simple day of shopping. Zolf writes, “On the streets of Winnipeg, people smile at you in English, but speak in Russian.” And later, in another piece, Zolf sheds light with a strait-laced lyric on the rough childcare conditions: “The sisters run an industrial school where 250 orphans and Indign [sic] children are cared for at the horny sauce of discord.”
With this, her fifth collection of poetry, Zolf has exhumed an important and neglected cache of our country’s sprawling history.