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book review

The Girls with Stone Faces

My Ariel

By Sina Queyras

Coach House Books, 160 pages, $19.95

The Girls with Stone Faces

By Arleen Paré

Brick Books, 104 pages, $20

I did exactly what thousands of readers did when first encountering Sylvia Plath's Ariel as a teenager – I combed over her diaries, her Letters Home and multiple biographies like an investigator at a crime scene. I didn't question the intensity of my attention to Plath's consummate poetics and how it quickly flamed out to her life, her marriage and her early suicide in a way that I've rarely experienced since. My Ariel is Sina Queyras's renewal and, in a sense, repurposing of Plath's monumental work.

What happens when we read and parse a woman's life and turn its touchstones into metaphor, especially when Plath herself tended toward myth-making? My Ariel uncoils chains of questions that implicate us. What lessons have we learned from vicariously viewing Plath's life and work, and what are we looking for? Queyras admits: "I am looking for role models. I cannot trust the model inside myself."

Few poets are better equipped than Queyras to plunge into the examination of the figure of Plath as a prototype for female genius. With honesty, humour and passionate attention, she lays bare the gendered conventions that circumscribed Plath's life and how they are still, in new guises, determining her own life as well as that of her female students. The critique in My Ariel is multifold, encompassing the relative privilege of white, well-educated women, the double bind of woman's creative life and the sexual politics embodied by the godlike icons of Plath and husband Ted Hughes. Yet Queyras's masterful collection does not stay in the shadow of Plath's work. Its mix of scholarship, dramatic monologue, persona-adopting and elegy could give rise to a multipronged new genre: the auto-poetic-bio-epic.

Stepping into Plath's titles as though they were shed garments, Queyras makes room in each poem for her own relentless voice and queer body. Readers may find her adoption of Plath's stylistic traits – the clipped consonants, the Anglo-Saxon, animalistic diction and the menacing imagery – both mesmerizing and off-putting. In I Am No Lady, Lazarus, the speaker announces: "I tower over you a difficult woman, my cut/Wrists diamonding your pond with my tin beak. I am all/The wrong intensity. I am off script. Your bad feminism needs/A good slap. I like a direct hit as long as it's abstract. Come,/Come into my pink bath, I am floating, my ambition is not pretty."

Lines such as these disconcert even as they invite in the reader with tender irony. Queyras deliberately maximizes our discomfort and, like Plath, employs aggressive rhymes to increase the drama. Queyras has a different purpose – to implicate our own complicity as spectators in a social-media age and as consumers of the drama of Plath's life. Some poems slip into Gertrude Stein-like wordplay. Others adopt the rhythms of Plath's speech from interview clips, holding up the tragic masks that consume the self. Yet I was most moved by the long poem Years and the book's final section that explores motherhood – Queyras admits that she did not turn to Plath's work until becoming a mother. Here lines stream – stark, vulnerable and confrontational: "For the longest time I kept thinking I had to do more./The way a dancer looks away from the camera./I wanted to be a direct leap, not a hesitation." Queyras admits to being a "terrific thief," and if so, then we have benefited from her spoils.

Arleen Paré's second collection, The Girls with Stone Faces, honours the lives of two female artists in a way that is much more restrained but that also makes urgent arguments. Using the elegiac and ekphrastic modes, Paré evokes the shared lives of Florence Wyle and Frances Loring. Although they are two of Canada's most significant sculptors, their names and stories have faded from national consciousness. The Girls with Stone Faces pays homage to their contribution and to their fierce individuality. While she does not overtly claim to be searching for queer female role models, Paré's suites of poems centre on Wyle's and Loring's creative partnership and the support they offered each other. In doing so, she offers us a more provocative and up-to-date view of the figure of the artist, especially that of a solitary Canadian artist in the wilderness.

Feeling her way into their lives through the remnants left behind, The Girls with Stone Faces is replete with lush textures. Her language is both tactile and slippery, as in Torso 1: The History of Art, which responds to Wyle's 1930 marble Torso: "There is absence: arms, head, legs. No feet/and no hands. There is/what the world calls beauty./Everything isosceles. You/are the code, how beauty is branded." There's a feeling of light and airiness, owing to the swivelling lines, the loose spacing of her prose poems and pared-away free verse, and the meandering narratives.

Paré makes us aware that we can only know one part of the story, and she excels at evoking absences and silences. The poems offer glimpses into the women's intimate daily routines, circling what can and cannot be accessed. I'm always conscious of that distance between my gaze and their lives and work on display. It's as though Paré herself has stepped back, letting the reader form their own impressions.

When Paré does make claims, they are forceful. On the gender politics of the day: "Just because you wear factory men's shoes does not mean/you are men. Does not mean you will be afforded/the tricks, treats of men." On how modernism eclipsed the neo-classical style of Wyle and Loring: "It's Henry Moore,/the holes he sculpts inside their minds, their bodies, art,/their peace. The way his art will leave theirs behind." These lines insert a seething tension that builds as a crescendo in the book's last section, where Paré announces: "I tell you this/they were gods/ nor would they allow the term sculptress/ as in less the gendered hierarchical split/they did not accept less," and neither should we when encountering these women who cast their lives into uncompromising shapes.

Phoebe Wang's debut collection of poetry, Admission Requirements, was published earlier this year.

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