You have probably noticed, online or over breakfast: North American Jewish conversations about Israel are contentious and messy. They’re often full of gate-keeping and accusation, competing definitions of “justice,” “home,” and “peace.” Neighbour Procedure (Coach House, 2010), Canadian poet Rachel Zolf’s fourth collection, pays close attention to the fractures and fissures in this discourse—in our dinner-table talk; The New York Times; the email forwards our grandparents send along from AIPAC.
This poetry collection reads like an interrupted tour of the Holy Land. Zolf doesn’t tell you, but I will: according to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, the neighbor procedure of the book’s title is a practice in which the Israeli military “use[s] Palestinian civilians to order other Palestinians to leave their houses to be arrested.” This collection describes, obsessively and elliptically, the procedures of military occupation in Israel/Palestine. The poems here speak sometimes in occupation’s own splintered language; at other times they repeat the blank spaces also produced by violence.
The first of four sections of the book, “Shoot & Weep,” includes the poem “The capacity to give names.” This is a litany of the Jewish settlements that were built over Palestinian villages and towns in the process of state-building, a genealogy that even these settlements’ residents may not know:
Nahal rose in the place of Mahalul
Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta
Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis
Ein Houd turned into Ein Hod
This poem does a kind of remapping of the terrain of Israel/Palestine that is akin to the work of the Israeli organization Zochrot (“Remembering”). Zochrot puts up signs with almost-forgotten Arabic street names and takes visitors and Israelis on tours of 1948 Israel to show them the places where Palestinian villages used to be. These reminders of the old names make a map of the region that accounts for Palestinian history and the devastation of the 1948 Nakba.
For all its remembrance of the dead and the destroyed, though, and for all its parallels to political work being done by activists, this collection is not a polemic. That’s what makes it so rich. In Neighbour Procedure, Rachel Zolf offers up poetry that is as profoundly committed to its political questions as to its poetic concerns, without putting one in the service of the other. Her political claims and questions are made emphatically through the form of poetry, never as a translation from or to a simple slogan.
The slogans that do appear here are, in fact, upended, as with “shooting and weeping,” Israeli shorthand for the violence and grief of “moral soldiers.” Yossi Sarid wrote in Haaretz this spring that “the term [is] used to describe those who fought in the Six-Day War and met regularly after the hostilities ended, often expressing remorse for the suffering their actions had caused to the other side.” Since 1967 the phrase has been used, often critically, to describe the pairing of war and mourning by soldiers—think, more recently, of Waltz with Bashir. “Shooting and weeping” is a performance that requires killing before it arrives at regret, often bolstering Israel’s “world’s most moral army” mythos. In “a priori,” the first poem of the collection, Zolf makes these tears “ours” as she critiques them from an insider point of view:
If this state is the golden calf
If ingathering means expulsion
If catastrophe becomes a passion
If we shoot and weep
Later in the poem, “If an animal is discomforted during slaughter” speaks more subtly to the values that cross each other in Israel’s policies: the invocation of the rules of kosher butchering underscores the dissonance of Israel’s practice toward its human residents and religious Jews’ careful treatment of animals for consumption. The subjunctive mood haunts this whole section, posing questions through strange pairings.
Zolf’s poems earn their most straightforward claims (the state as a golden calf, for example) by never being facile even when they’re simple; the poems seem constantly to struggle with themselves. For example, the blank spaces between the lines of “a priori” and in other poems make for an uneasy reading procedure. For a book obsessed with discourse, it’s full of quiet spots, pages where fifteen words sprawl in a suffusion of white. This blankness is sometimes menacing, hinting with its very silence at danger. Perhaps this is the kind of suppression described by William Carlos Williams in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”: “The bomb speaks./All suppressions,/from the witchcraft trials at Salem/to the latest/book burnings/are confessions/that the bomb/has entered our lives/to destroy us.”
Some of the most suggestive suppressions in Neighbour Procedure pose questions about namelessness as a barrier to grief. An early poem, “Did not participate in hostilities,” lists prepositional or gerund phrases and nothing else:
Treating the wounded
With a group of children on a hill
This poem is linked to two poems that follow it: the first is “Grievable,” a list of Arab names ending in a blank line and “At five o’clock in the morning.” Zolf writes in her notes that this poem “attaches names to the circumstances in ‘Did not participate in hostilities.’” The next poem, “Nominal,” is a list of numbers that Zolf explains are the ages of those killed. Once you’ve read Zolf’s notes, these poems do a certain very straightforward kind of political work: they detail deaths that are often ignored in U.S. and Canadian news media and that are devalued by the Israeli military, that are part of its strategies of control over Palestinian lives and land. After reading Zolf’s explanation, we return to this set of poems to discover that Fatma Muhammad Hussein, 65, was killed at home while eating supper.
For someone who does not speak Arabic, though, the names in “Grievable” become an opaque blur, impossible to read aloud. A reader may not even know that the poem is laid out with one name per line, may imagine that the names themselves are enjambed or crowded several per line. A non-Arabic-speaking reader faces head-on the question that is the epigraph for the entire collection, Judith Butler’s “…feel compelled to learn how to say these names?” Each of these poems, and all three of them together, indicate the challenge of mourning across language, and especially the ways in which militarism and occupation forbid or transpose grief. Until Zolf explains how to read them, these three poems also enact that challenge, forcing the reader to contend with the very unavailability of meaning, the opacity of loss, the denial of grief.
However much we may need Zolf’s instructions to read them, the poems in “Shoot & Weep” are much simpler for an English speaker than the more difficult, spacious poems that come later in the collection, where the discourse fractures further. The poems in “Book of Comparisons” evoke spoken and overheard language, as in “amboolaance” and “shocolaad.” This ordinary-sounding speech butts up against the Biblical and the Buberesque in places like the line “Thou does not let me swallow my nostaalguia.” By now the poetry has become stranger, with multiple margins, gematria, and dictionary entries interrupting any possibility of a single reading or a simple moral.
In fact, there are hundreds of allusions that Zolf does not explain in her dense notes; and with each of these allusions, there are infinite possible ways to read these poems. If you don’t know what the Sbarro is that recurs in the book’s first lines, you are reading a different poem than I did. Because my father was a block away from the Sbarro when it was bombed, I am already reading a different poem than someone whose father was killed in the bombing, who performed the bombing, or who was arrested or shot during demonstrations against closures in the days and years that followed. Which mostly goes to show that we are all always already reading different poems. It’s the way that difference comes up against itself here, opens up gaps through which some wind whistles, crowds in and breaks words or lines into pieces, that invokes not only the violence of the Israeli occupation but the violence of speech about it.
Similarly, “Here we go round the prickly pear” in the later “Acknowledgement” evokes the music of “Here we go round the mulberry bush” for most readers; but only some will know that the prickly pear is also called the sabra by Israeli Jews and the saber by Palestinians. Fewer will know that the plant has historically been used as a boundary marker for Palestinian villages, so that a row of this cactus near what may look to a tourist like ancient rubble (and what a tour guide may in fact call Roman ruins) most likely demarcates a Palestinian village destroyed only sixty years ago. Many readers may know that Israelis, on the other hand, call themselves “sabras” to indicate that they are native to the land, resembling the local plants in being sweet on the inside and tough on the outside.
For those of us who speak the language Zolf speaks and ask the questions she’s asking, this book will do more than fracture, more than mirror. It will remind us that we are alive, responsible, at work, busy, and have begun to produce the culture of our own futures. For readers unfamiliar with the “neighbor procedure” and its attendant practices, the book will be an elliptical tour of an unvisited city, the tricky impossibility of being an “innocent abroad.”
Neighbour Procedure is not a workbook or an informational pamphlet. You might bring it to your family seder next year to see how you can mess with the conversation – but if you do, it won’t be easy. Because on the other hand, at odds with everything I’ve said until now: this isn’t a missive from the Jewish people, or a missive to the Jewish people. It isn’t even (what a relief) a book-long contemplation about how we can identify with or as Jews if we don’t love Israel. At the book’s heart are processes of violence and processes of remembering: the way they make each other possible, the way they make each other inevitable, the way they preclude each other entirely. The way the neighbor procedure sounds friendly, and means death. So we come back around to the book’s central questions: who can be mourned? Who do we mourn? Who are we, who mourn?
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