Reviewed by Jessi MacEachern
MxT. Coach House, 2014.
The pink is startling, not only on the first encounter but also on every encounter after that. Upon completion of the moving collection, the reader discovers that the immense grief inside its flagrantly pink cover has spread from the neat confines and circuitry of the poetic structure in order to warp the surprising colour into something more sinister than comforting. MxT, the latest from the fierce and prolific writer and critic Sina Queyras, is a deft but unforgiving treatment of loss.
Queyras has previously written about losing a loved one in her first novel, Autobiography of Childhood (2011). This new collection, freed of the novel’s need for narrative arc, seeks to resolve the question of how to contain grief through recourse through the arts and, when that proves insufficient, beyond into the somehow comforting equations provided by technology and engineering. Between sections, graphs of electrical charges and diagrams of circuit breakers, like those most readers will have last encountered in their high school science classes, are modified for the purposes of emotion and memory. These read, for the most part, like avant-garde instruction manuals and they serve as way stations for the emotionally overwhelmed subject.
Inside the poems themselves, yet more way stations have been provided in the form of names of artists and thinkers. These signposts of poetry, theory and photography transform the hoarse cry of the grieving subject into intellectually recognizable matter. Queyras’s foremost achievement in this collection is the smoothness with which the lines navigate both an interior emotional bareness and an exterior critical sophistication. Of course, these elements are not inherently separate. The opening poem, “Water, Water Everywhere,” submerges the reader under water with the speaker’s “dead ones” (9) and refuses recourse to theoreticians of grief: “I am not interested in what Bourdieu, or Kristeva, has to say” (10). Slowly, with the speaker represented as both hollow and bursting, fellow artists arrive to frame the discourse: “I see you in Carolee Schneemann, banging the floor with a broom. I see you in the black, stacked shapes of Louise Nevelson, I see you in Andrea Zittel’s Escape Vehicle, we are floating from island to island” (13). Yet neither form of way station can wholly contain the grief. By the final sections of the book, after the reader has passed the “Emotional Circuit Breaker” wherein implosion is a definite risk, no frame is sufficient for the experience of loss: “The goal of art is seeing. I am seeing until my eyes bleed. I am seeing colour that is very textured. It is aggressive. I am so angry the lights burn around me” (67).
After the initial submergence with the dead ones, each section begins with an intimate letter addressed “Dear One.” These addresses are alternately brimming with personal struggle, replete with contemporary concerns about hashtags, and rooted in Mother Nature and the erotic body. The “Emotional Circuit Breaker” puts a halt to this achingly intimate pattern, however, in favour of the speaker’s desire to “Write all the names” (61). The poem that follows, “Over to You,” is an unflinching examination of the pain involved in the production of art. For Queyras, this pain is gendered: “I see now that a woman has to frame herself or be framed. / I have not wanted myself in the frame badly enough. I did not want to share my pain. / What is a woman’s art without pain?” (63-64). Aside from grief, this sensitive examination of the place for the woman in art is the uniting concern of the poems, whether they are written in prose blocks or sonnet sequences, whether they are reproducing the artist’s gaze or producing a cascading tumult of images. Alongside and amidst the grief is a tireless love, fear, and admiration for the woman artist.
This is an unflinching collection of intimate addresses to grief itself, that unflagging and untiring ghost within the elegiac mode, and to the women who attend to the dead ones and the left behind. Queyras has earned her place in the “biography of death” (58), though this is a disconcerting place for a poet to write from, with this wrenchingly urgent text.
Jessi MacEachern is a PhD student at the Université de Montréal, where she is writing on the influence of Anglo-American women modernists on contemporary Canadian feminist poetry. She has previously been published in CV2, Matrix, and Lemon Hound.
Click here to return to the current issue