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book review

Queyras plunders the canon to write about griefStephanie Fysh

The lush vehemence of Sina Queyras's new poetry collection M x T is as in-your-face as its crazy-pink cover. These poems issue the high-voltage lyric force of mourning songs while bracing themselves against our shuddering in response. Each text is an analogue of how grief convulses through us but – and this is its strength – without any formula to fix grief. There ain't no cure for loss.

Queyras makes audible the basic lyric constraint for writing about grief: "Always use a tether when feeling in public." She also esteems the lyric poem's capacity for excess – one poem says, "I want the poem to unfurl like a thousand monks chanting inside me." To compose a mode of personal and collective mourning,M x T takes English literary canon as an ingenious recycling machine from which elegiac images are pillaged: "everywhere" is Coleridge's "water, water" and licks of Eliot's rolled trousers and "mermaids," except here, "we can hear all the dead ones singing."

Each of the book's five sections of lanky prose soliloquies and two sections of constrained-form poems begin with an instructional electronic diagram like something a 1960s Dad would draw on a napkin, except the labels wryly denote emotional circuit boards: F (feeling) is the product of M (memory) times T (time).

Queyras's scintillating trademark is to lob lyric homage and social critique on the same circuit board: "Frederick Seidel anoints me with the head of his penis./ It is soft as a chamois and spreads like egg across my scalp." She charges the line with skilled sonic leakage alongside a great pun: the constraining yoke of Western Poetry's heterosexist star system creeping in the loose "yolk" of poetic image. Simultaneously, she conveys that always-strange shared letdown after humans give or receive pleasure: we want passion but bear an enculturated humiliation about feeling anything, and are deluged in not feeling.

Other poems enact avant-garde procedures: Elegy Written in a City Cemetery is built from 50 footnoted source elegies, and the last section churns a catalogue of imagined memories using the photograph as the main metaphor.

On Twitter and in her amazing online poetics magazine Lemon Hound, Queyras's uberpresence is audacious,scrappy, intense, demanding and eerily sleepless. She insists upon the self's audibility, as if quieting down for a bit is dangerous to existence itself. And for writers, and those unrepresented in canon to date, the risk of suicide is intense.

With M x T, Queyras strategizes that, since image-rich, rhythmic poetry conjoins the poem's lament to mainstream readership and public memorial, beauty is still the best agitant for personal and collective presence in the face of all that depresses and depletes us. I heartily half-agree.

Though impressed by its fluid oratory and calibrated wit, I believe M x T could be charged with more cacophonous ghostrattling, say, of Acker, Celan, Baraka, Stein or Nichol. In the visual art world, critical reception has moved on to praising astonishing imagery. For example, sculptor David Altmejd's broken jutting mirrored girders with stagecrafty, taxidermied birds bearing vulvas on their faces: that's elegy letting itself admit mess and ugliness – Darwin on ketamine. So where is CanLit in all this? By extending the elegy's tradition to more multidirectional prosody, M x T would draw into its grief machine the spilled juice of other varieties of chant and upheaval: fewer monks perhaps, but more live wires. Still, Queyras unspools a collection of gorgeous and cantankerous poems that ask testy questions of all contemporary poets, and for this, the book is a must-read.