Neighbour Procedure

Rachel Zolf

Coach House Books

Feb 2010

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

Love thy neighbor, said the self-referential divinity, as thyself. This was commandment number two, the first being, naturally, the injunction to love the divinity itself with all one’s soul, heart and assorted parts. [1] Whereupon, seizing upon the ambiguity of the second commandment compared to the first, its highly contingent status, that is to say, recorded history began. I.e, war with a real track record. For, as another self-referential divinity has noted, “I want to be able to hate people.” [2] Rachel Zolf’s Neighbour Procedure [3] is a recombinatory injunction towards an open-minded version of the second commandment, one that leans on that as as both an inference of commonality and an ethics in kind.

This book has four sections: “Shoot & Weep,” “Book of Comparisons,” “Innocent Abroad,” and “L’éveil.” Each section engages a procedure and each procedure is relatively complex, as procedures go, and as described in the book’s “Afterthought.” For example, in a number of the “Innocent Abroad” poems, numbers are word values:

…in the online Blue Letter Bible concordance. For word values with consecutive repeated numbers (e.g., 7725), either the Hebrew letter or Arabic numeral for the repeated number is inserted and voiced. For word values that contain two of the same number, but non-consecutively (e.g., 5787), the Hebrew name for the repeated (Arabic) number is voiced (i.e., ‘five-seven-eight-sheva’). (Please see the Pronunciation Key on page 85.)

“Book of Comparisons” is composed of words taken from the work of an 11th century Andalusian Jewish scholar, who used linguistic comparisons between classical Arabic and Hebrew in his Biblical translation/exegesis. A source text ordering procedure is followed in the section, animated by a contemplation of Derrida’s statement on the similarity of the other as the ruin of pure ethics. The poems clustered in “Shoot & Weep” are a series of orchestral passages that address the unaddressed, including lists of names (“Grievable”) and ages (“Nominal”) of those unnamed and unactuarialized in another poem (“Did not participate in hostilities”); the section as a whole “emerges from numerous print and online sources of testimony, statistics, theory, fact and myth…”

Much of the work feels quite L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in its torquing determinations, such as the lingual-numeric visual embeds in “How to shape sacred time” (see “supra”) and the seeming straight-up language work of disjunction and allusion and a-subjectivity in “L’amiral cherche une maison à louer” (“Janco wore the Persian shaykh pants in the former mosque/Cum Café Voltaire, le geste gratuit/A protean state of mind where yes and no unsplit”). This langpo slant appears intentional, given the hyper-lingual basis of many of the procedures, and the excessive play of signifiers throughout the book, as well as Zolf’s working thesis that semiotics itself engages in a kind of neighbor procedure or at least can be used as a means of explicating otherness. (To put it formally: Semiotics = (We are (¬) family)}. [4] Too, as she again helpfully notes in her statement, she uses “the Lesbian rule,” so that “‘theory is accommodated to fact, and not fact to theory,'” (quoting Erasmus). And while I don’t think of Neighbor Procedure as a strictly conceptual work, for Zolf appears more interested in achieving a specific effect than in creating a text-based encounter, [5] I do think that the question here becomes in part whether the procedure employed in each piece is essential to that poem’s instantiation. As a general matter, procedural techniques seem well suited for political poetry because politics itself is mostly a matter of process, and war itself a mulch-making machine. [6] So langpo is then properly employed as a theoretical structure applied to the more concrete edifice of the “neighbour procedure.” The neighbor is textually complex, yet everyday available for deciphering and deconstructing—if one is willing to bust through the walls.

Still, my favorite pieces are those most materially transparent, yet conceptually elliptical:

Waiting Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Waiting/Interrogation Waiting Rest Waiting Interrogation Rest Waiting/Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Waiting Interrogation/Rest Waiting Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Waiting/Interrogation Rest Waiting Interrogation Waiting/Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Waiting Interrogation/Waiting Rest Waiting Interrogation Waiting Rest Waiting/Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Waiting Rest/Waiting Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Waiting/Interrogation Waiting Rest Waiting Interrogation Waiting/Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Waiting Interrogation/Rest Waiting Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Waiting/Interrogation Rest Waiting Interrogation Rest Waiting/Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Rest Waiting/Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Waiting Interrogation/Waiting Rest Waiting Interrogation Waiting Rest Waiting/Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Waiting Interrogation/Waiting Interrogation Waiting Interrogation Waiting Rest

The procedure replicating the essentially bureaucratic medium of torture. Or the coolly procedural the trace-erasures in Messenger, which background and mimic the slaughtering ghost-text that gives current murder meaning:

We took the covenant of the Children of Israel and sent them apostles./every time, there came to them an apostle with what they themselves/desired not—some (of these) they called imposters, and some they (go/so far as to) slay.

And while I’m not sure that Zolf intended the graph on page 74 (signaling the “L’éveil” section) to function independently as a poem, the simplicity of a latitude and longitude served up as crosshairs was as bold and irrefutable as Beckett’s 35-second Breath. Too, the not-said here became more flatly chilling than the subsequent poetic maneuvers of “Day Two, Day Three,” which have the good occupation grace to phase out—though commendably—on the line: “it’s in the DNA.” And like a genetic code, when the procedure works, the work does the work itself.

It should be noted, however, that all procedures are not created equal (“Innocent Abroad” feels fairly ham-fisted in its polemics, though arguably that’s what politics—and poetry—is often all about) and that each procedure comes out as sort of the same: war, especially between neighbors, is a rotten mashup of besidedness. The back-cover blurbs uniformly herald the polyvocality of Zolf’s treatments, and rightly so. However, Neighbour Procedure fumbles to the degree Zolf feels the need to explicate, to state directly rather than relying on the procedure itself as the polemic of the statement. [7] The list of names in “Grievable” is enough. I don’t actually need or want Butler’s epigrammatic “…feel compelled to learn how to say these names?” First, because the predicate of her question as a question has been clipped, thereby turning it to a statement, [8] and second, because it is that thing said out of a misplaced fear of not saying. And is the thing which absolutely does not need to be said. And the thing, which, once said, betrays its own truth: only the latent racist insists that humans are “equal.” Only them with a knack for oblivion would imagine oblivion. At the risk of offense, never again never again.

For all its glottal gymnastics, Neighbour Procedure left me with the spooked feeling that Zolf forgot that the commandment itself is the declaration against the neighbor. [9] (After all, we don’t expect the foreigner to understand, and disappointment is brother to desire.) So that the alignment of alphabets serves not a proof of a radical kinship but rather as the very reason for annihilation. To stop another from speaking, particularly when that other’s speech could be mistaken for one’s own, is the categorical imperative—this is how Eichmann correctly claimed himself a Kantian.

Judith Butler’s back-cover blurb included this statement: “There is mourning, rage and some brave and difficult effort to speak across traditions, languages, to avow loss, to expose the colder rationalities of occupation and war, and a linguistic fathoming of the ethics of proximity.” Butler’s blurb is right as reign, but rightness is not what’s wanted. What’s wanted is the willingness to be wrong. And to have been wronged. That’s what makes good neighbors. That, and, as I recall, a tall fence. We must be allowed to hate our neighbor.

This, to me, is the larger point. For it is at the very moment when you are confronted in your very own back yard (or at least a communal turf) with what you find inappropriate, insensitive, inane, incomprehensible and just plain stupid, that tolerance becomes actually pertinent. After all, what could be funnier than the slapstick of perpetual internecine warfare? The reason we must be commanded to love our neighbor is not to reaffirm a general fondness of those close-not-kin to us but because we are naturally predisposed to hate that which lies next door. After all, they bear witness to the all too human of us—our fights, our fucks, our fuckups. They see us in our crapwear, hear us yelling at the children. They know when we knock off a bottle a night or if we dearly love to roast meat. So that the second commandment makes sense—for the other bastard we’ve got the low down on is us, yet we put up with ourselves, more or less. In that regard, the first divine injunction is still the best, for it commands unconditional adoration of the neighborhood’s most brutally incomprehensible presence, the supreme motherfucker rumored responsible.


[1] Matthew 22:36-40

[2] Žižek, in one of his running remarks. (See e.g.,

[3] The title refers to an entry technique deployed by Israeli soldiers in which Palestinians are forced to break the walls inside their neighbor’s houses, allowing the soldiers to move laterally between houses. (Nb: This is also how mini-malls are picked off in Los Angeles: first, find the empty store for rent. Break in there.) I am putting the actual crux of the book’s predicate conflict (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) in a footnote because either the site-specificity of the hostilities is important, or it’s not. If it is, as Zolf’s procedures insist, then you should be able to deduce the players by their signifiers. If it isn’t, as Zolf’s politics seem to suggest, then it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Israel-Palestine, the troubles in Darfur, or the third Balkan war. This posits a larger ethical/aesthetic point: do we want historical precision in poetry, or is it enough to have the historical footnote as part of the poetic frame? The latter is the more common approach, predicated as it is on the idea that the poem will carry the day even if the Light Brigade does not. Thus, the universalizing/minimalizing of the “neighbor procedure.” On the other hand, can a poetry that leads with its politics stand to have the political marginalized? As an aside, is the footnote the textual equivalent of the psychoanalytic joke—that which betrays the entire mechanism of signification.

[4] Though maybe not. In an interview in the excellent anthology (you really should get this one), Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics, ed. Kate Eichorn and Heather Milne (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2009), Zolf says that she “wanted to foreground the poems in ‘Shoot and Weep’ as lyrics.” (196)

[5] To be blunt, I think Zolf does very much believe there is a right way to read this work, and it’s not in furtherance of further hostilities. A strictly conceptual project would have to surrender this overt orchestration, allowing for all manner of effects, including the potentially despicable.

[6] It’s all about logistics, as Daddy would say.

[7] In the Prismatics interview, Zolf says that she finds psychoanalytic theory “hilarious.” In that spirit:
Who’s there?
Lacan who?
Lacan for whom the signifier is a unit in its very uniqueness, being the symbol only of an absence.

[8] When we don’t know, we ask. When we don’t know that we don’t know, do we ask rhetorically?

[9] In her Afterthought, Zolf quotes Lévinas as identifying “the neighbor” as “other” for the Israeli. According to Lévinas, the problem of alterity arises when the neighbor does something that may be unjust.

ADDENDUM (added 5/24/2010)
After the above was first posted, Rachel Zolf and I engaged in a short series of emails: she contested my reading of the text, I contested her contesting, and, in the end, we agreed there had been a good contest. Meaning that Zolf felt she had had not naively gestured towards some sort of contextual reconciliation, but rather exemplified the kernel of alterity that makes loving one’s neighbor not just a commandment, but an impossibility. Meaning that the clippings of raw content in NP pushed me into reading exactly that sort of harmonic gesture. Which then kicked up all sorts of other questions for me: was I wanting a totalizing reading because I was reading a book? Perhaps I had fallen for an imagined closure (like a shiny spot in the asphalt) because the thing before me came tucked in covers—or is a text always a kind of reconciliation? (Text qua text, as the frogs would say.) Or maybe the second commandment itself had wormed into the space behind my sockets and struck the need for narrative. And what about the second commandment? I went poking, and found, packed between my teeth, remnants of the notion that I’d been a bit cheap in my easy dismissal of Jesus’ injunction as played through NP’s poems. After all, it was a direct countermanding of the ten laws as originally delivered up on Sinai, and even if the second commandment comes straight from the horse’s mouth, isn’t there something essentially blasphemous in equating love of the unlovable next-door with love of oneself—the one who is the temple of the familiar, spiritually speaking. Or am I missing the point of that kernel: to love the neighbor is the only way to demonstrate the love that is otherwise the province of the divine. Loving God is nothing: God exists as perfection, even when it appears to us that He is a horse’s ass. I.e., re: God, what’s not to love? But insofar as the neighbor is other, ever other, and as other, is fundamentally unlovable—so that we cannot love the neighbor—the injunction to do so becomes the only path to human salvation. Because by loving the unlovable neighbor, we occupy and prove the place of the divinity just as the divinity proves itself by loving the unlovable us. So that hating the neighbor and loving him all the same—the penetration metaphor rears up nicely here—permits our individual redemption by way of the collective act (love of neighbor being inherently communal) just as Christ’s ultimate act was to redeem the lot of us despite our penchant for capital punishment. I’m speaking allegorically, of course, and this is not to be confused with truth, or even with immanence, but there is a line from the other to oneself via the divine which I’m a big enough man to say may be found in the ham-handed content traces in NP. (1) I.e., I am changing my mind: the polemics in Zolf’s book may be necessary because they push the point like a pin: hate the neighbor. The neighbor deserves to be hated. Just as yourself. And love the neighbor. Just as yourself. The two are not only not exclusive, they are necessarily tandem. I cannot truly love the neighbor unless I really hate him. The kernel is the hinge. As it turns out.

(1) I will state explicitly that the desire for salvation, which is silly, should not be confused with the desire for the desire for salvation, which is sad.

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2 Responses to “Neighbour Procedure”

  1. Barbara Maloutas Says:

    I have thought about “a neighborly way” until I couldn’t think about it any longer. It is sad and painful and not relieved in the least by the fact that “They are the Birds.”

    I hope that I haven’t tied the little book up so that it would be silly. If Ms. Place would like to read these 10 short shorts, I would be most appreciative. I have no thought to become her bough-mate, but I do respect her thinking.

  2. Thomas Reynolds Says:

    “they bear witness to the all too human of us—our fights, our f*cks, our f*ckups”

    That is classic. I think I’ll use that one to describe us people 🙂

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