‘Neighbour Procedure’ by Rachel Zolf

I’m tempted to begin with a discussion of the lesbian rule, which is explained in “Afterthought,” a poem—or exegesis? —in Rachel Zolf’s most recent book, Neighbour Procedure (Coach House Press). It might be appropriate to begin there for a review on Lambda Literary, but the lesbian rule is not where the book begins.

Neighbour Procedure begins with “Shoot & Weep.” The first of four parts. The other three are “Book of Comparisons,” “Innocent Abroad,” and “L’éveil”. Each section, almost a chapbook. Together, a whole, though one that resists completion. This is conceptual poetry, I am informed by a blurb on the back cover, though I don’t know what conceptual poetry is, perhaps it is like pornography, one knows it when one sees it.

More than conceptual poetry, however, this is political poetry, though, like conceptual poetry and pornography, I don’t entirely know what that means either. The easiest way to reach for an explanation is to say that the poems of Neighbour Procedure are deeply concerned about the world and arrangements of power in the world and how one recognizes, negotiates, and challenges power in the world. That, for me, makes it political poetry. The poems are also compilations, distillations, manipulations, and reorganizations of other forms of text; that makes it conceptual poetry. Zolf uses a conceptual framework to produce the poems though it emerges through the poems – a generative and creative framework, not a concept for unthinking adherence. More simply, Neighbour Procedure is an exploration of the world through one poet’s mind with particular attention to Israel and Palestine. It is a passionate and quotidian mulling of language and culture; it is deeply invested in how to make meaning in a world of war, conflict, and strife.

Since I first read Neighbour Procedure, I’ve been thinking about it, mulling Zolf’s words and ideas, returning to her poems. Immediately, I felt compelled to write about it as a way to think about it and engage it more deeply. This review is my internal flailing to understand. In some ways, Neighbour Procedure is Zolf’s flailing to understand, though her poetic work is more artful than this prosaic review.

I confess to being a reader with the greatest passion for lyric and narrative poetry; I was drawn most to the section “Innocent Abroad” where Zolf assembles poems that resemble lyric and narrative poems I love. These were for me ambassador poems for the rest of the book; they invited me to grapple with the other work. They were an invitation to engage more deeply with her project. In two poems in this section of the book, “Messenger” and “Mixed Crowd,” Zolf explores multiple translations of the Quran into English, tracking the changes of the passages and examining differences between, “We made a covenant of old with the children of Israel” and “We formerly accepted the covenant of the children of Israel.” Gray and black text highlights differences in translations. Zolf gathers and presents words, arranging them as images on the page to be read discursively and visually; she is an intrepid curator assembling her installation in this book for readers to contemplate meanings.

The final five poems in the section “L’éveil” are formed in a grid with four parts. In each of the sections, Zolf selects words from four daily newspapers covering Israel’s thirty-three day war in Lebanon in July and August of 2006. Each poem is haunting in its appearance on the page and in pondering what is included and what is left out. Zolf invites us into a different reading practice. She invites us to awaken with her to think more deeply about the world around us.

“Afterthought” as I mentioned may be the final poem of the book, or it may be notes on the poems, or it may be Talmudic exegesis. Either way it drives readers from the final pages of the collection back into the book to read and study further.

The form of this poetry is not fixed; it is malleable, pliable. There is a sense of discovery and unfolding in the book, for both the poet and the reader. There is a reaching for meaning even as it is never given. Justice, ancient and modern, haunt, even taunt, Neighbour Procedure. That is the lesbian rule. Articulated by Aristotle as justice is a pliable rule, and explored by Zolf in this fine, vexing, and ultimately satisfying collection.

by Rachel Zolf
Coach House Press
Paperback, 9781552452295, 90 pages, $14.95