Parlance (Suzanne Zelazo)

Parlance is an accomplished first book. Suzanne Zelazo crafts succinct prose poems which wear the influence of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school, but owe more to Gertrude Stein.

At its best, Zelazo's prose is biting, possessed of a sharp, confident grace, but from time to time the poems are so cold and carefully wrought that they appear bloodless and lack a certain visceral acuity.

Zelazo's poems work best when she is able to marry her intellectualism with a certain tautness, as in the poem “Vortex”:

Glass splinted somewhere left of centre
you've unblocked me. Hypnotized by the
last conspiracy of leaves. How the night
comes on in vertigo. Your revolt accents
the flatspin. But I am the moon twin swal-
lowed by the spiral of a furious rhythm. […]
Internment. Love is ornamental he says. It's
embedded in the speech of the missing. It
makes its mark in leaving.

Here strong images couple with inventive phrasing and a clear sense of rhythmic control (note how the line “[b]ut I am…” departs from the terse, even cadences of the previous three sentences to strike out almost in opposition to them, a move heralded by the word “[b]ut”).

The lines are juxtaposed against one another in interesting ways so that they seem to flow without being too linear or leading, offering the reader numerous entryways into the poem, suggesting narrative while leaving tremendous spaces open for re-interpretation.

These poems manage to appear personal and emotionally saturated without reverting to a mere expressionism that possesses only a limited appeal to the reader for whom the language itself stands as the main attraction.

At the same time, the poem deals in concrete images rather than abstracted intellectual concerns, so that it might be read with attention to its heavy emphasis on gender relations or with an ear attuned more to the mechanics of the language or the beauty of its phrasing.

When this style works less successfully is when Zelazo languishes too deeply in abstracted notions. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between:

The hand in the act of origin. Imperial
debt. Grasslands culpable and steadfast. A
guaranteed mythology of colour. A matte
movement of modernism. She could write a
swan's neck seldom stroked sketching the
movement before contact if only she could
trust the cleft. It does what a cloud does.
The future indicative effects a typeset con-
cern.

This poem is generally strong, but lines like “[i]mperial debt” and “[a] matte / movement of modernism” and “[t]he future indicative effects a typeset concern” are too literal and pointed to be interesting, and merely break up the flow of the otherwise excellent poem.

Again, we can see Zelazo's strength with respect to pacing and rhythm, with the line “[s]he could write…” unfurling across the page in a hurried sprint after a series of rather clipped sentences, so that it seems somewhat breathless in its description of the unnamed writer's abilities (the alliteration helps to push forward this otherwise luxurious line).

Though the majority of the book consists of prose poems, the highlight of Parlance is the long poem “Through the Lighthouse,” which reads through Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse to produce a fragmentary text exploring the poetry inherent within Woolf's carefully crafted prose, producing a new, complementary text filled with narrative potential.

Beginning with the text of Woolf's novel, and paring it down through excising the majority of Woolf's language, Zelazo produces a series of gorgeous images cleverly juxtaposed to maintain the core concerns of Woolf's book, particularly its feminist critique. “Through the Lighthouse” is filled with outstanding imagery:

one moment blown apart and draped
mother

bringing back life had drawn her hand
reluctantly beneath her
[…]
Yes mother's drowned the presence of shared jewels waiting
She consented to the necklace of missing shapes
amethysts to clasp some buried speechless feelings

It's amazing the way that Zelazo is able to paint a character portrait with such sparse lines. There is so much narrative and character history suggested by this passage, a testament to both Woolf's enduring legacy and Zelazo's careful, patient reconfiguration of the novel's text.

I only wish that Zelazo had experimented more fully with this kind of fragmentary storytelling in the book. Freed somewhat from the grammatical oppression of the sentence, Zelazo shines, her lines sharper and more provocative.

Nevertheless, Zelazo's prose poems are strong and Parlance is an exceptional first book.  

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2018-05-18T06:45:02+00:00

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