I first came across the poems of Sina Queyras in New American Writing last year, where she was represented by among other pieces one called “The Meat Painter”: “There is a young man who paints meat,” it begins. Such a beginning might look for the world like it promises an ordinary jokey American prose poem, one that pays its mortgage on darkness by peddling light wisecracks. It does not.
One has to consider isolation, the quality of the cut. There is no backdrop. Steak is not political. It is best displayed against white. There is nothing alarming. He is not strictly into cows. Pork comes in six-packs.
The relentlessness of the rhythm got my attention, as did the sure switching back and forth between austere art-magazine commentary and, well, relaxed art-magazine commentary, from the distanced “One has to consider” to the matter of fact “not strictly into cows.” More than that, the poem was the first one I’d seen in a while to suggest a glimmer of the fun it would be if artists and poets were to share some common space again.
That’s a lot to put on any one person, of course, and Queyras’s interests in this her third collection have more to do with literary production and what used to be called the pleasure of the text than with cross-pollination among many arts. For example, the fourteen separate parts of “On the Scent” all use anaphora (or something like it) to build a comforting prose rhythm:
Here she is boxing and unboxing. Here she is moving stuff. Here she is deleting whole files, randomly. Here she is perplexed at the mounds of paper. Here, I tell you, here she is hiding under the Xerox machine. Here she is communing with the resonators. Here she is clucking the MRI tune.
This isn’t rhythm for rhythm’s sake, exactly; the real world of boredom and fear office and medical equipment inform are necessary to the equation. But once that equation is established, there’s really no limit to what variables can be plugged in (c.f. Lisa Jarnot’s recent work). What’s significant and attractive about Queyras’s repetitions is the incremental change in importance of the repeated words from piece to piece and how that change effects a physically-exciting crescendo. In the second section, the key phrase is there she is; in the third it’s the girls (the boys make a few guest appearances); the fourth is the women then simply they:
The women often unplug themselves. They penetrate. They let their hair grow. They find a good masseuse. They have never read Mary Daly. They go shopping for shoes. They are divided by shoes. They cannot get over shoes. The shoes corral them. The groups divide further.
The next sections see the mothers, years, yes alternating with some women, then yes on its Molly Bloom-via-Mrs. Dalloway own:
Yes in the pantry while the poker game peaked. Yes in stilettos. Yes in flats. Yes in pink plastic. Yes you do. Yes I will. Yes while there’s still time. Yes while I can. Yes whenever possible. Yes I’ll be a top. Yes I’ll be your bottom. Yes I’ll whomp your ass. Yes after shopping. Yes with chocolate. Yes now. Yes here. Yes even alone.
The author of these wry and personal histories comes from somewhere between John Ashbery’s poem “He” and the google-lovin’ poetry movement known as flarf; to be less obtuse, Queyras is one of many fine Canadian-born poets operating incognito in the US (Kevin Davies is another). In her acknowledgements to the Lemon Hound, she writes that the book is “among other things, a direct response to and engagement with the work of Virginia Woolf… radically altered by other writers, including Lisa Robertson, Anne Carson and Gertrude Stein.” If Lyn Hejinian’s masterpiece My Life uses Woolfian sentences as the unit to be put through Steinian recombinations (and I can already hear readers shouting It doesn’t), the formula here is to align similar kinds of Woolf-inspired phrasings. Even readers hardly expert in Hogarth house style will recognize a characteristic mood in “Virginia, Vanessa, The Strands”:
Has she seen a poppy before? She wants to reach out. Wants to press her nose, ears, back of her hand but she can’t bring herself to touch them. The poppies are not angry. They nod like pepper. They wink at the sun. They lean into each other. They are downcast. They are swollen eyed. There are pearls of water on them. They are raw and wanting. They peer out from shrouds of thorn. They pry the air. The sun is afraid of them; suddenly she is sure of this, panicked in the garden, frozen. Vanessa has come around. Vanessa says poppies are the eyes of chidlren. She says they contain real life. Virginia will not have it, but now she is lubricated once more, now she can move.
Queyras bears out the Woolf-contra-Flaubert citation she uses for the book’s epigraph: “As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simply matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.” One kind of reader will balk at the winking, swollen-eyed poppies, another will raise an eyebrow that relatively so much air time is given to beautiful, obsessive descriptions of flowers. As for this reader, “nod like pepper” and “Virginia will not have it” indicate that a sure hand is organizing this work, one it would be an honor to clasp in a handshake.