Scorching Air

Reviewed by Myra Bloom

Poets Catherine Owen and Sina Queyras conjure literary spirits in their new collections.

The comma in Owen’s title Dear Ghost, registers the phrase’s provenance in a line by the late great John Ashbery, the book’s patron saint: “Dear ghost, what shelter / in the noonday crowd?” Though its final section explicitly comprises “Poems that veer into the freakish and may echo John Ashbery,” the latter’s influence can be felt in the peripatetic, expressionist qualities of the collection as a whole. Meandering through locales ranging from the far-flung (the sinister streets of Istanbul; the misty lakes of Michoacán, Mexico) to the domestic (the subway; the bathtub), Owen goes on a corresponding interior voyage. “Sometimes life is just a series of events / with filaments less than more connecting,” she muses in “Little Note on Passing By.”

If the filaments of Dear Ghost, don’t always connect, the poems nonetheless offer a compelling succession of vignettes, by turns poignant and humorous. The section “Poems that Work in the TV world” is an ironic behind-the-scenes look at Vancouver’s film industry. In “The Deceased BGs,” extras in monster makeup “tilt on chairs, texting the living, not quite / zombies but more the recently deceased with their inability to recognize / boundaries.” Later, the phone of a hanged man rings mid-dangle, announcing the birth of his child: “the crew gathers around the killed man, / applauding again and again, the juxtaposition, the miracle.” This poem attests to Owen’s mastery of ironic juxtaposition, a technique infusing her existential musings with revivifying whimsy.

Montreal-based poet and professor Sina Queyras is also “looking for role models,” as she affirms in her latest collection, My Ariel. Like generations of women before her, Queyras finds inspiration in Sylvia Plath, whose lyrical self-excavations shattered norms of propriety and prosody. Plath’s 1965 Ariel—published under the curatorial auspices of her estranged husband Ted Hughes two years after her suicide—is widely recognized as one of the most important collections of the twentieth century and as an exemplar of confessional poetry. In My Ariel, Queyras intersperses rewritings of the Ariel poems with original compositions, joining her voice with Plath’s to interrogate intersections of gender, motherhood, and art.

Like many contemporary cultural products (including Owen’s Dear Ghost,), the collection oscillates between irony and sincerity, simultaneously inhabiting and critiquing the confessional mode. Queyras boldly unclosets skeletons of her past (her brother’s death; her mother’s rape) and lays bare her deepest anxieties in the present (“I am a very bad mother. A bad / partner. A bad poet.”). At the same time, she registers the coercive pressures of self-disclosure, which have become particularly acute in this era of social media, epitomized here by retweets: “RTs, RTs, RTs have their reason,” she riffs on the closing line of Plath’s “The Couriers” (“Affirmation, affirmation, affirmation is the season”).

Though Queyras initially frames the desire for validation as a product of digital culture, she goes on to connect it to the female artist’s struggle for recognition. In the masterful sequence “Years,” Queyras juxtaposes self-censoring lines from Plath’s diary (“DO NOT SHOW TED. He is genius. I his wife”) with the sexist dismissal of literary critics (“Her mind claws along”; “she wasn’t / My physical type”). These voices form a chorus of patriarchal naysaying, which Queyras supplements with descriptions of her own experience:

I have been writing a book about grief, which is also childhood.

The director of the program has told me the novel is indulgent.

I’ve thrown away the story – in his estimation, it’s overwrought.

In this same poem, she summarizes the double-bind to which female writers are subject:

We are either victims of our imagination or our lack

Of imagination: either way, with or without

Adequate containment, we appear to be victims.

Throughout My Ariel, Queyras draws in the voices of feminist and queer writers—an intellectual inheritance Dana Ward and Maggie Nelson have called “the many-gendered mothers of my heart”—to shore a fortress of female artistry against the ruinous stereotype of the compulsively confessional woman. The closing lines of “I Am No Lady, Lazarus” are the book’s manifesto, as well as a warrior cry of intellectual sovereignty:

I want my poems and babies too. I want to have my sex

And eat it too. Is that too much? You men, you have it all

And raw. They say the only gold left to pan is buried

Deep in shit. I will relish you right up inside me

And at my leisure. I will take the baby teeth and songs

Of happiness. I am no lady. I am scorching air.

You can eat my genius, rare.

This review “Scorching Air” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 173-175.

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