Sina Queyras. M x T. (Coach House Books 2014).
How write elegy in the 21st Century? One way is to go back through all the layers of inscription to the beginnings (which in a way Ann Carson does), but the weight of eons of such works is heavy indeed. And perhaps individual loss has lost some of its lustre as we watch each day the thousands dying around the world. Yet both our sense of loss & outrage at death both personal & public invites the writer to respond. Sina Queyras accepts that to elegize one is, now, in some way to have to elegize all, past & present — the huge death toll of our world, our culture(s), our histories. So M x T speaks individually, yes, but as a floating ‘I,’ overseeing a vast graveyard, remembering, in a way, for the multitudes that ‘I,’ as written, contains. ‘Water, my dead ones, and you with your ravaged look.’
M x T is a complex & complexly organized book; no single review can cover all that its various pieces do. But even as many of those pieces, mostly prose, dig deep into the emotional dirt of grief, it also sets up baffles to mere sentiment, as one of the sly illustrations that seem to come from some postmodern How-To volume of machined grieving suggests. These arcane little documents, with their instructions (‘Direct Mourning is the gold standard of consumer grief. The first line above measures time, the second line measures current. With direct mourning there are no surges of feeling, no outbursts; it is unidirectional, a consistent, even, unconscious current.’), head each section of M x T, providing a bit of high tech ostranenie before the following poem explores an other aspect of loss & the grief attached.
The impersonal personal, then: Queyras finds so many ways to express deep emotion, to catch our breaths with the potency of elegiac speech; yet she never falls into confessional emotionalism. This is a high wire act carried out with great craft & sensibility. And as a woman artist, she speaks especially to honour other women artists, the dead, & those who, like us all, will die (perhaps most so in ‘Of the Hollow’ but elsewhere too). Not exclusively throughout, but still, when she writes of ‘The Dead Ones,’ for example, who assemble ‘in the centre of any city,’ & who are rather noisy — ‘The humming silence is their slow, methodical dance. The dead have no weight but they stomp nevertheless. They hold hands in long lines; they are determined to be heard, to be seen: look at me, they say, diving in and out of the earth like porpoises, look at me.’ — it is Lee Miller of whom she asks, ‘what city does she haunt?’
Each section begins with a page in italics that addresses the reader more directly on the matter at hand. As, for example, this: ‘I said, Write all the names, melancholy, primordial ecology, streams of echo, the affective fallacy is precise, not like memory, a chiasmus lit with electric eels, but memory doesn’t work that way, to remember is singular, breathes through wood. Under each rock a signature. Remember them one at a time but not in the same spot.‘ Here is a good example of the wide & wild palette Queyras draws on; one of the delights of M x T is its mastery of a myriad of styles, each suited to its particular place in the whole work. Toward the end, she does write a number of short elegies, but each one differs to match its titular figure, Sylvia Plath (elegizing herself), Jackson Pollock, Alice Martin (a grid of ‘whitewords’ for the painter of white grids), or the ‘Elegy Written in a City Cemetery,’ in which every phrase is footnoted to some earlier elegy.
There’s so much more one could say about the various darkling glories of M x T. Let’s just say it’s a brilliant & moving work that, in its contemporary exploration of the continuing power of the elegy, will repay repeated readings & should be on every reader’s bookshelf.