Eloquent Elegies

Reviewed by Catherine Owen

Selecteds are strange beasts indeed—especially those collected with particular mandates in mind that may have more to do with an editorial slant than with the poetry itself. Each volume in the Laurier Poetry Series, begun in 2004, presents thirty-five poems from across a poet’s “career,” attempting to provide a sense of range from book to book without exhaustively plumbing each text. Erin Wunker, the editor of Barking & Biting: The Poetry of Sina Queyras, introduces Queyras and her work to the reader as fusing the “traditional lyric” with “conceptualism,” a practice in which the “female subject is of central concern.” Wunker, using Barbara Godard’s term, describes Queyras as an “excentrique,” although it is not entirely clear why; Queyras is—to my mind—a well-recognized writer, thinker, and academic. If Canadian women have been “uncannily present” in the literary scene, as Wunker notes, it is also worth questioning why the sense of being equal and valued is still false, and the victimized female apparently still “abused, lost, replaced.” Queyras is more empowered than this introduction suggests, and her writing is sharply exploratory of submerged voices, swimming in a dizzying flood of intertextual interpolations. Until, that is, one arrives at her fifth and by far strongest volume, MxT, when feeling alchemizes influences to emerge as a purer poetry rather than an entangled poetics.

Excerpts from Queyras’ first four volumes feature list poems with anaphoric intensity: “If I slip now. / If my tongue is brash / if my thoughts betray.” As strong as some of the pieces are—particularly the cultural upheaving of “Jersey Fragments”—the predominant strain is of “othered” voices, whether Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, or Lisa Robertson. Important as such recuperative “rhythm-ing” is, when Queyras allows mourning to etch her own vocalizing, the poetry finally rises above her “project.” As Queyras herself writes: “I don’t want a theory. I want the poem inside me.” Thus, while allusions to influential writers and theorists continue to echo in her poetry, they do so now within a context of ruptured bonds that injects a stirring resonance. “Like a Jet,” “The Dead Ones,” and “Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath” are especially poignant in their level of what I call “emotional scholarship.” Queyras does more with language than just “bark” and “bite,” and when she melds tenderness with intellect, her poems become a true force for crafted feeling.

Speaking of craft, David McFadden’s latest collection explores not only material from his childhood inflected by the vagaries of a mind shifting its synapses with age, but the versatility and mutability of the sonnet form itself. Reminiscent of Robert Kroetsch’s last collection, Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait (2010), Abnormal Brain Sonnets returns to quirky memories, from McFadden’s first hockey stick and his grandmother, to Frank Forgy, his grade ten friend, who “could stare at a leaf for thirty minutes.” The first sonnet in the book to really move me was McFadden’s elegy for his mother, a poem whose tone commingles the child’s confusion regarding the afterlife with the adult’s awareness of loss: “It’s sad to see Father / struggling along without your loveliness.” At his best, McFadden combines a colloquial tone—“Why you funny little darling, I don’t know / who I’m talking about”—with allusions to authors he’s absorbed deeply, from Shakespeare to Christa Wolf, and with his often surreal images: “My eyes are like a truck full of pomegranates / or like a pair of rowboats on a pond.”

The sonnets don’t rely on a rhyme scheme, nor even, in most, the traditional “turn.” As a result, the poems at times become musically lax, more containers for banal content; or too personal, as in “Reverend Ratclaff,” to connect with the reader beyond their own, mostly closed, occasions. The collection concludes with a 2005 interview between McFadden and his champion, Stuart Ross, which vivifies the context for these sonnets, and also highlights the importance of bonds between older and younger poets for the promotion of neglected oeuvres. McFadden, like Joe Rosenblatt, has arrived at a time in his life where his formal challenges serve as a means to remember, commemorate, and enact an honesty towards the aging yet still awestruck realm of a unique mind.

This review “Eloquent Elegies” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 174-175.

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