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Auto-da-fe, review, author unknown

     I suppose every book of poems is implicitly a declaration of a faith in language, and Auto-da-fe is explicitly so. The epigraph, from William Eastlake, is a kind of manifesto of hope: "Someone has got to believe in a future. Someone has got to give us a religion we can go by, and the truth is a defeatist....If there is no future, then the artist will make one". Make one, imagine one: the poet is committed to fiction. The poet bears witness—that is, knowledge as a sign—through language, which is both revelation and disguise. The richness in meaning of the title points to the spare, condensed complexity of the poems.

     Like Two Kinds of Honey and Lacerating Heartwood, Auto-da-fe has shape as a book; it is more than a random collection of poems. I wonder, though, if it is not divided into too many sections for a slender selection of poems. I liked the graphics at first, but I wonder now, after several readings, if the book isn't over-designed. These are marginal matters, which have to do with the book as something made, not with the poems, which on the whole speak with an unostentatious, clear colloquial voice at once lyrical and sturdy, a voice which, even when it is adopting the tone of a manifesto, does not over-insist on itself. The poems work at various levels, graphic and symbolic, but without rhetorical over-elaboration. "Heritage", describing the double quality of Doukhobor women, seems to me also to describe this double quality in the poems:

Doukhobor women, who lacking horses
or oxen
harnessed themselves to the plow
pulled a beast's burden
to break new land

knew the power of their body
break rules of government
by stripping their clothes
their faith
as 'spirit-fighters'
sure as their borsch-fed buttocks

and yet
something is frail about
those women
of my heritage
walking naked in protest

their flesh unlike any machine
or weapon

     Implicit in this poem—and explicit in, for example, "War Poem"—is one of the tensions which sustain Zonailo's poems: the contrast between destruction and creation. Yet, since these dichotomies are themselves, in their schematic rigidity, part of what is destroying us, the poet rarely renders them simplistically; rather, she weaves fictions which conflate opposites, or reveal their intricate inter-dependence:

Virgins and whores are myths
made up by men
unable to believe
their own image
                    (from “Hooker on Hastings Street”)

I fell from a feathered nest
and my poem became a flight
wounded in mid-air,
the cry of a bird
whose wings are words.
My poem became an open
mouth
fed by worms
my eyes turned
the same blue
as the cat's
and I forgot
whether I was predator
or victim.
               (from "Nest")

     The central poem in the series is, I think, "Spirit, Sons of Freedom", an exploration of the element of Fire, traditionally, personally and in family and regional history. Fire is a tongue of flame, the burning bush which spoke, and the poet who speaks in eloquent subversion is linked with the women who burn bridges "in eloquent subversion". The women at the centre of the fire—witch, martyr, St-Joan—is a powerful image from traditional iconography, and in the poem this image is fused with the fiction of the women daring to emulate Prometheus, to steal "new secrets/ as undiscovered, as forbidden/ as Prometheus' fire".

     "Initiation" is a fine example of Zonailo's central strength as a poet: her ability to render a multiplicity of meanings in a language at once graphic, kinetic, colloquial and cadenced:

Inside
an animal lurks
its nature
undefined

. . . . .

It is an antelope
or bird
a bear moving
in awkward rhythm
or the antelope
dancing
on tips of antlers
a bird flying
west north south
by instinct

. . . . .

I will wear
the mask
forever
until it covers
my own face

The animal
and I
will grow
into the same
sound

     Wearing a totem mask, like writing poems or walking naked in the country of the clothed, is both expressive, a revelation, and disguise, subterfuge, metaphor. The series of prose pieces called "Myths of Heresy" are small parables which uses the syntax of prose to subvert narrative, sequence, point of view. It is familiar territory, static, enigmatic, a place of gesture without motion, space without time. Central to the subversion of traditional meanings in these pieces is the figure of Circe, transformed from sorceress to goddess of plenitude; central to the subversion of narrative technique is the figure of the Jogger, that surreal image of our own time, who undermines the act of running by having no goal. The prose pieces are slight, indeterminate, they resist closure, with finesse; they call into question the existence of definitive story, but they leave us with language, with versions, with variety.

     The final series in the book, "Ascension of non-believers" consists of five brief poems, exercises in tone, and an epilogue. Arch and flippant, the five poems are comic commentaries on a variety of macho clichés. Thus, though they differ in tone from the dominantly lyrical and reflective voice of the earlier poems, they are also heretical, they undermine polarities. This is Zonailo's second book; the first, Inside Passage, was a limited edition, distributed privately. As I said earlier, I question the shape of the book, but I applaud the care with which the poems have been chosen. Each one of them is interesting in itself, either for what it is or for the direction in which it points.

Copyright reverts to author upon identification: www.carolynzonailo.com, 2004.

 
 
CZ.com | Reviews | author unknown
 
 
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Photo Gallery
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Literary Papers
Spanning the years 1955 to 2005, the Carolyn Zonailo Papers holds, as nearly as possible, a currently complete collection of Zonailo's extant literary papers.
 
 
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