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Sina Queyras, MxT
Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014.

Sina Queyra’s MxT is an extended exploration of the artifice of grieving. Visceral, intellectual, distanced, irreverent, at times transgressively funny, MxT is a profoundly intimate, bold, and inventive exploration of the forms and language appropriate for grieving or, perhaps more appropriately, the broader notion of lamentation.

The nine parts of MxT are demarcated by repurposed circuit diagrams and technical drawings that illustrate the mechanisms of grief. Most of these concrete-like intermezzos use electrical analogies for the processing of grief. There are no overwrought analogies here: the mechanisms are presented, not described. They are self-evident machines for emotional processing. Of particular interest is the notion that grieving is not a quantity but a field that produces waves of emotion throughout the body/mind that change with time in the way a magnet creates lines of magnetic force in space. Queyras emphasizes the search for the machine that will suffice to process grief with the word and image as the means. Queyras distinguishes between the urbane prose poem—the most common form here—and riffs on more traditional lyric forms such as the sonnet. The image “Alternating Mourning” advances this distinction and complements the more important duality of mind/body beautifully articulated in the line “I am here with my flesh and my thoughts, trying to let go of you.”

Another important element of MxT is the extended scope of grief: the lamentation ranges from intimate grieving for family members to a more angry social lamentation for the losses revolutionary women have undergone to engage completely with the limits of their art. I’m simplifying the complexity of this range, but there’s a deep sense of indebtedness. Visual artists seem essential: the recuperated body-as-art installations and intertextual performance art of Carolee Schneemann (in particular the reading of a text that is pulled from a vagina), Diane Arbus’s photographs of the marginalized, “the freaks.” Of Lee Miller’s photographs of the dead at the end of WWII, Queyras wonders, “What image killed her will to see?”

A specific example of the particulars of grief and its representation is “Elegy for My Father’s Labour.” This is a wrenching piece, containing a cold litany of relations such as: “Wrench ≈ bouquet / Number of days present < early morning disappearances / Length of visits with children ÷ reciting of letters from home.” To what extent is it reasonable to expect a book about grief to explore the particular circumstances of grieving rather than the methods of representing it? It seems to me that Queyras is, at times, being deliberately subversive of the elegy genre. I found it useful to reflect on Samuel Johnson’s critique of “Lycidas,” one of the canonical elegies interestingly omitted from Queyras’s annotated collage “Elegy Written in a City Cemetery.” Johnson considered “Lycidas” vulgar for its incongruities and excessive artifice. Many of us would insist that Johnson was wrong—while it may be true, as Johnson wrote, that “where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief,” it also seems certain that artifice is the only means by which we can prolong mourning long enough to fully and willingly release our grief transformed.

 

Stephen Brockwell recently read excerpts from Declassified Nuclear Test Films (above/ground press, 2014) at Brickbat Books in Philadelphia, PA.

 

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