Although the cover of Janey’s Arcadia casts a calm, blond gaze over a blue and gold prairie landscape (the cover image is from a 1930 Canadian immigration pamphlet), the book is anything but Arcadian. Beneath this surface of seeming rural contentment, Zolf’s book writhes with remembering, dismembering and membering.
As with many projects of memory, found material forms the poetic base. With constantly shifting dictions and tone within any one poem, it is clear that Zolf mashes together many found texts throughout Janey’s Arcadia; however, it is often unclear what documents are being used, as texts from the present messily merge and morph with texts from the past. So that, for example, the poem “Concentration” uses snippets from the Prime Minister’s Apology on Behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools System, what seem like comments from a newspaper discussion thread, and lines from historical material concerning the creation of the Indian residential school system. The poem ends with:
Therein ligaments the sediment Goy bless
all of you of the great Rewrite and God bless
our land sniffled the original the prime
minstrel of the Mission Rivière Rouge.
And this is just a small sample of the found material played with in Janey’s Arcadia. Other poems use text from Rev. James Evan’s creation of the Cree syllabics system (Evan was also, Zolf tells us, “the first missionary in the ‘Canadian North-West’ to be tried . . . for sexual abuse of Indigenous children in his care”), snippets from texts by Rev. J. S. Woodsworth (“author of two well-known, openly white-supremacist, books”), and CPR immigration-recruitment pamphlets called “What Women Say of the Canadian North-West” and “What Settlers Say”.
All of this material is sampled, read, misread, wrought, erased, fucked up and kneaded into poems that shift and move beneath every reading. Simultaneously, Zolf has included the added disjunction of Optical Character Recognition software (used to translate .pdf images into text) so that the poems become riddled with language glitches and puns. As Zolf states, “OCR software is used to translate scanned images of printed (often old, acid-worn) texts into malleable language … these accidents can … conjure other forms of mis- and non- and dis- and un-recognition”. Although Zolf’s play with OCR isn’t new, the technique has useful allegoric significance in a project partially about mis-reading, translation and incomprehension.
Cumulatively, all of this poetic disjunction evinces a palpable textual anger – an anger at the past and its textual relics, at the atrocities of settlement and colonization and at how firmly our violent present is rooted in our history of violation. Zolf makes the connection between past and present all the more tangible by inserting pages of the handwritten names of murdered and missing Aboriginal women.
But who is the “Janey” of Janey’s Arcadia? Zolf explains in her notes that Janey is
a savage, fleshy rendezvous between Janey Canuck and punk pirate Kathy Acker’s guerrilla icon Janey Smith. What pops out skewed-wise is Janey Settler-Invader, a fracked-up mutant (cyborg?) squatter progeny, slouching toward the Red River Colony.
So Janey is a conglomeration Janey Canuck (who was the prolific pseudonym of Emily Murphy, one of Canada’s “Famous Five” who got women acknowledged as “persons” and was a vocal supporter of the forced sterilization of the “insane and feeble minded”) and Acker’s fictional Janey Smith. At the same time, Janey is also “Jane Doe,” the unknown female body discovered at a crime scene. Whatever Janey is, all of the already difficult poems in the book are channeled—as if in dramatic monologue—through the tempered lenses of her “fracked-up” personality.
Yet, by the end of Janey’s Arcadia (especially after the six pages of end notes written by Zolf), I wonder why the book even needs “Janey.” I understand the distancing of the author from the lyric “I” that Janey offers, but, in a project about racism, colonization and settlement where the writer, Rachel Zolf, is so integral to the problems the book investigates, what real purpose does Janey-as-persona serve? As Zolf states in her interview with TO Magazine that this book started with very personal questions: “While working on a book on colonialism in Israel-Palestine I realized I was ignoring my role as a settler in Canada – and my thinking shifted from ‘not in my name’ to ‘look into your own backyard.’”
In the end,“Janey” seems like a strange mask, the sort of covering a white writer may feel they need to be removed enough (or e-raced enough) to write about race – and it’s the comforting (though far from comfortable) distance that “Janey” offers that I mistrust in this book. “Janey” is an unneeded complication to a project that’s far closer to Zolf than she may be comfortable in letting on, for it’s precisely the complications that Janey hides that make this project vital.
Shane Rhodes is the author of five books of poetry including his most recent X (2013), and Err (2011 and a finalist for the City of Ottawa book award) both with Nightwood Editions. Shane has also published three earlier books with NeWest Press. Shane’s poetry has won an Alberta Book Award, two Lampman-Scott Awards, the P. K. Page Founder’s Award for Poetry and a National Magazine Gold Award. Shane is the poetry editor for Arc and is the 2013 Queensland Poet in Residence in Brisbane, Australia.
WRITHING WITH VOICES WAITING TO BE HEARD: ARC!