I imagine what it was like to read Adrienne Rich’s books as she published them. Every two or three years, a new collection of poetry; and those salad days of the late 1970s and 1980s when prose collections and non-fiction books fed the soul in alternating years. Of Woman Born. Blood, Bread, and Poetry. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. I read Rich first in collected form: The Fact of a Doorframe. Then I read backward, greedily, all the way to her 1951 award-winning collection, A Change of World. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, I read her collections as they published, but I always wondered, what was it like to read The Dream of a Common Language in its first printing? What was it like to read those poems as they were just beginning to circulate in the world? What was it like to read The Will to Change in 1971 when so many women were affirming their own will to change and declaring the need for our society to change with them?
I may have missed reading Rich as her life work unfolded, but I have the pleasure of reading Sina Queyras as her work unfolds, collection by collection, with, so far, one prose punctuation. Sina Queyras is a poet of extraordinary talent with the same wide-ranging literary interests and the same principled commitments to public life as Rich. If you are not yet reading Queyras, I invite you to join me and read her work with delight and wonder.
Queyras’s sixth collection, M x T meditates on the nature of grief marked indelibly by modernity and technology, two of Queyras’s persistent concerns. The title, M x T, is a mathematical equation, though one not standard to algebra or physics. M stands for memory, T for time. One of the conceits that Queyras explores throughout this collection is how quantify grief. She considers both mathematical statements, as in the title, and diagrams of mechanization, in the frontispieces of each of the eight sections in M x T. Through these diagrams, Queyras considers the mechanics of emotions and the physics of both the physical and the metaphysical. For instance, in the second section, Queyras explains that “Direct Mourning” is “the gold standard of consumer grief. . . .With direct mourning there are no surges of feeling, no outbursts; it is unidirectional, a consistent, even, unconscious current.”(17) This is one way to quantify emotions. In the fourth section, “Emotional Overload Sensor Circuit,” Queyras offers another; she recreates a drawing of an electrical circuit with an “emotion buffer” and “memory detector.” She explains, “The circuit diagram shows how an emotional overload indicator can be built.” The final section of the collection is “Solenoid,” which she defines as “a long strand of memories that wrap around a static core that produces a uniform emotional field in a given pool of space where feeling is carried out.” By the conclusion, the desire for a “uniform emotional field” feels like folly, but, with Queyras, we yearn for the orderliness of mechanization to provide us with a “pool of space where feeling is carried out.” These eight visual poems frame sections within the book. Each section asks provocative questions about grief and modernity. Why do we grieve? Can grief be captured and regulated by a machine? Can mechanization guide us to grieve faster, harder? Can mechanization make grief more manageable? Can a formula guide us through grief in a more efficient way? Queyras invites all of these questions—and more—through the drawing and equations that she proffers in M x T and through the poems.
Yet M x T is not exclusively a book about mechanization, nor about making connections among the brain, human emotions, and electrical circuitry. M x T is a collection of poems, and Queyras demonstrates her formidable poetic talents throughout the collection. In M x T, Queyras affirms her ability to work conceptually, as she did in her previous two collections, Expressway and Unleashed, which explore questions of urban modernity and life mediated by computing, respectively. Like these earlier books, M x T has a central conceptual apparatus that Queyras deftly deploys. She also works effectively as a conceptual poet in individual poems. For example, in poems like “Two Elegies for Grief as Jackson Pollock” and “Elegy for Agnes Martin,” Queyras composes poems that verbally and visually pay homage to artists. The Pollock poem employs tools to invite thinking about the nature of words on the page while the Martin poem uses language and printing techniques to evoke Martin’s abstract artwork. Like the central conceptual apparatus, Queyras is smart and insightful in her work to expand and challenge the nature of language and poetry.
Queyras also has equal facility with poetry that is narrative and lyrical. She works with attention to both big ideas and individual words, demonstrating her poetic prowess at the level of the book, the poem, and individual poetic lines. One section of the book, a single sequence of seven sonnets, titled “Like a Jet,” reveals Queyras’s mastery of form. The first sonnet captures the intensity of grief, opening, “A hole in the sky where softness hung, / A crater where the world was,” and then concluding with this couplet: “The body is fluid: I am leaking, / I no longer care who sees me leak.” Queyras’s turn to form to contain and express grief dialogues powerfully with the larger poetic tradition of the sonnet, and Queyras animates these conversations about sonnets and grief with the dialogues about mechanization. M x T is a rich text for thinking about poetry and emotions in traditional and non-traditional modes.
Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of encountering Queyras’s work is her wide-ranging allusions and homages to other poets. Queyras is a formidable intellect and in dialogue with a host of other poets, writers, artists, and thinkers. Never narrow or myopic, Queyras is ecumenical and expansive in her reading and poetic engagements. I delight in her dialogic relationship with poets like Mary Oliver, Audre Lorde, and Julia Kristeva, but others may delight in her references to Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Frederick Seidel. The poems of M x T are smart in their conversations with poetry writ large.
One conversation where Queyras is a persistent and important voice is feminism. Queyras’s feminist commitments are evident throughout M x T, notably in how she situates women as referents. For instance, in the first poem of the collection, “Water, Water Everywhere,” Queyras balances French theorists Bourdieu and Kristeva in her references, then claims, “I don’t want a theory; I want a poem inside me” (10). She invites our eyes to see Carolee Schneemann and Louise Nevelson, and tells us “The emergency of women is the emergency of the world” (13). Queyras’s style of citation and allusion strategically places women in important conversations, and she is equally concerned with how to support women artists and public intellectuals. In “Of the Hollow,” Queyras writes:
We want to know how to be women artists in the world. We want to know beyond recipes for jam, beyond the thick brush strokes of pre-modernist canvases, we want fleeting and concrete. How to enter the mind of the world? How be a megaphone? How not to think in code? thinking in public terrifies us. We hide, so tentative we think the world might break our bones and yet we come to the clearing, we cannot contain our thoughts. (40)
Queyras asks questions about supporting women artists and draws attention to women artists to support them while simultaneously modeling how to be a woman artist in the world. The simultaneity and the depth and breadth of Queyras’s feminist commitments are breath-taking.
For readers who have not being reading Queyras as her work unfolds, there are two options for intensive communion with Queyras. Begin with Queyras’s beginning, Slip, or begin reading her backwards, starting with her 2011 lyrical novel, Autobiography of Childhood, continuing through the twinned books, Unleashed and Expressway, to her debut. Slip (2001) is an extraordinarily sexy book; inspired in part by Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Season, Slip narrates Queyras’s own story of love, seduction, and infidelity in a way that delight readers seeking smart erotic writing. Whether you begin with Queyras’s beginning or read backward, Lemon Hound sits in the middle, and for me Lemon Hound remains her masterpiece. Like M x T, Lemon Hound is exuberant in its literary references, and, like Slip, it celebrates lesbian life. It is also the book that inspired the website Lemon Hound; Lemon Hound began as Queyras’s blog, but now has evolved into a vibrant literary journal featuring the critical and creative work of a variety of contemporary writers.
M x T has a more sober narrator than the earlier voice in Slip or Lemon Hound. M x T is a book about loss and reconciliation, much like Queyras’s Autobiography of Childhood, which explores some similar elements of grief. In spite of the emotional gravitas of the collection, in spite of the loss and mourning that Queyras explores with care and passion, M x T is a book that fundamentally celebrates life and affirms the joy of interacting with the large world. In the sixth sonnet of “Like a Jet,” Queyras concludes:
Give me a woman with a lens
In her hand. Give me a woman with a will to read.
Give a woman a lost woman, an open vista, a stack of vellum.
Give me Time, give me swagger, give me your ears. (33)
Lend Queyras your ears, your minds, your hearts, your Time. She will reward you, repeatedly.