Congratulations to Vallum contributor Sina Queyras on winning the Quebec Writers Foundation’s 2018 A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry for her most recent book, My Ariel!
How Do You Dare to Publish a Problem?: Sina Queyras’ MY ARIEL
(Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, $19.95, 88 pages)
Sina Queyras’ new collection of poetry, My Ariel, is not obsessed with suicide and death in the way you might expect a book titled after Sylvia Plath’s 1965 Ariel to be. Instead, the obsessions Queyras picks up on in Ariel are those of circularity, rebirth, and repetition: the mythical cycles we find in poetry and in life. The collection is rife with narrative memories and moments that return cast in new light, superstitious circles that we later learn are more like vortexes
The infamous adage goes that Ted Hughes rearranged the ordering of Ariel after his wife’s death, ending the collection with “Words” and leaving the reader on the moment of: “From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars / Govern a life.” Conversely, Plath’s last arrangement of the collection starts with “[l]ove set you going like a fat gold watch” and ends with “[t]he bees are flying. They taste the spring.” The renewal implied by spring and the pollination cycle is what we might call a tone shift from Hughes’ choice of the dark well. Likewise, My Ariel is a cycle, albeit a dark one: stirring, powerfully affecting, and at times violent, if only as a consideration. Yet, like the collection’s namesake, the upswing always comes: the children, the better years, the shoulders straightening underneath the men’s suit. Even in the darkest turns of the collection there is always a way out, and in the brightest moments a shadow. Like the original Ariel, Queyras’ take is not a death wish, nor is it empowering or positive in its resilience—it is more like a circle: phases, seasons of a life, and of the shifting imagined future:
As flanks; steps
Of joy that, like the hours,
We master and release.
My Ariel’s premise may be that it is a playful rewrite of an infamous collection more known for its writer than for its contents, but the collection is an outstretched hand, not a closed one. Queyras emulates Plath in her skillful equation of the outside world and its drama—environmentalism, gender, sexism, aging, death, poverty, privilege—with the microcosm of her family history. Put another way, the speaker returns to herself, her parents, her children, while also considering the larger cultural and historical tides she’s caught in.
If every female poet has had their obsession with Plath, Queyras is the outlier. Her engagement does not read as a personal investment, a devotion to Plath, or as a quest to solve her like a dead mystery. Her engagement with Ariel is more like a conversation, a dialogue, the sparks of glee and relief when one smart, busy, overdrawn woman speaks to another, checking their watch (their iPhone) for when to come home to the children. Given Queyras’ earlier collections Expressway (2009), which draws on the peripatetic Grasmere Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, and MxT (2014), which uses diagrams and formulas to quantify grief, Queyras’ framing of her own book, quite literally, with Plath’s seems to me another one of her genius and labour intensive conceptual framings. With Plath, though, Queyras is encountering a conceptual framework unlike any other. The world of Plath criticism is bat shit crazy. Given the rabbit hole of the world of Plath studies—a genre which I can most concisely explain by saying that there is a book about books about Plath—there is no way My Ariel wouldn’t in some ways be about the way the public and the academy engages with the confessional or lyric work of female writers. Queyras’ twist is that she adds to the already engaging frame—questions like, what if Plath wasn’t straight, what if she didn’t have a husband, what if she could tweet? These conceptual thoughts alone could make a compelling book and this was the book I was expecting—but Queyras moves to wider ground, penning work about parenting, careers, aging, love, and commitment. If the book feels sprawling and like it is shooting in several different directions all at once that’s because it is—which I don’t mean in a negative way. Rather, I read it as a sharply aware reflection of the conditions of the time—how can a book simply react to another one fifty-two years its senior without including all that has changed, all that we have lost: “I am not a historian but I / bind myself with history, not just my own.”
Another adage goes that Plath’s short story “The Fifty-Ninth Bear”— about an embittered wife seeing her husband get eaten by a bear on a camping trip— was clearly a secret death wish for Hughes. Recently, critics have picked up on Plath’s interest in ecology, environmentalism, and how human interference has decimated national parks. The focus on Plath’s personal drama obscured an interest in nature and preservation, meaning we only got the ecological reading of the story maybe 40 years after it was published. Likewise, on first read My Ariel is a complicated engagement of one life with Plath’s mythos, a triumph of lyricism by a darkly funny and sharp speaker. Yet on second read I realize how I was only seeing the bear eat Hughes: Queyras’ speaker is looking out. Gender is an undercurrent that will make younger readers ask how our contemporary generation is experiencing visibility in a way older generations did not, about how queer parenting is pushed into binary heteronormative boxes, and how men have made writing, teaching, and learning unstable rooms for us all.
The most disappointing and pervasive reading of Ariel has always been that it is just a suicide note. That it is the key to figuring Plath out, a way to get to the real Plath, Sylvia, Sivvy. Put a poem in a tunnel like that, and it will never come out. Likewise, to read My Ariel as simply a rewrite of Ariel is to miss the half dozen other tracks Queyras takes her readers on. Though it is a book communicated through the “I” of the speaker, My Ariel is an empathetic and outreaching movement for Queyras. It is a dialogue with Plath that invites readers to the table too. For the Plath fans, there are plenty of Easter eggs. The enigmatic “The Night Dances, Very Fine is Very Cold: A Sequence in an Old Way” reads like a call and response for the savvy reader, as Queyras drops the first names of Plath scholars alongside now immortalised friends, relatives, and confidantes: Anne Stevenson, Janet Malcolm, W. S. and Dido Merwin, Olywn Hughes. For those who catch her drift, these moments are gleeful and fun, smoothly integrated and rewarding like riddles. Yet, for certain and prolonged moments, Plath doesn’t seem to matter much at all. These poems are strong and sure of themselves in their muscular movement and sturdy grounding, even when sparse they punch you in the gut: “The body knows what it needs to burn, and will.” With My Ariel Queyras has written poems which—despite giving you so much—have the rare gift of still seeming to leave so much unsaid, unanswered, unspoken.
Karissa LaRocque likes to read and sometimes writes about reading. Her work has appeared MUSE Medusa, LOR Journal, The Dalhousie Review, GUTS Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter (@_karissy) or Instagram (@2punk2die).
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