A Life Parallel: A Review of Sina Queyras’s My Ariel

by Kasia van Schaik

Kasia van Schaik is a doctoral student at McGill University. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Best Canadian Poetry (2015), Prism International, CBC Books, and elsewhere. Kasia teaches creative writing in McGill’s Continuing Studies Department and lives in Montreal. @kasiajuno

My Ariel
Sina Queyras
Coach House Books, 2017.
$19.95, 160 pages.

 

“Judging your mother is like throwing a boomerang.” This quote by the late Quebec novelist Nelly Arcan serves as the nerve centre of Sina Queyras’s new poetry collection, My Ariel. This “boomerang effect” propels the narrative structure of the book; it motivates the voices that, refracted by the frustration and exhaustion that so often accompany female ambition, reverberate between communities of women writers and their predecessors. As a writer and a new mother, the speaker acknowledges that she is “looking for role models. I cannot trust the model inside myself.” In this search, the speaker confronts her own mother, and analyzes her position in the family, with her partner and their newborn children. The speaker considers how becoming a mother prompted her to turn to Sylvia Plath, the “mother” of future generations of confessional poets and women writers—whether they like it or not.

The merging of Plath’s notorious archive with feminist inquiry, testimony, speculative queries, and elegy make up what Phoebe Wang calls “a multipronged new genre: the auto-poetic-bio-epic.” This genre covers terrain similar to that of Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, in which the speaker, visiting her mother after the breakdown of a relationship, imagines her life intersecting with the lonely, ecstatic life of Emily Bronte. On a formal level, the fluid mixture of prose poetry and verse, the interlocking of personal history and theoretical questions, and the alternation between vulnerability and righteousness, put me in mind of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets or Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In fact, Carson and Rankine’s names come up in My Ariel, along with other contemporary poets—Lisa Robertson, Adrienne Rich, NourbeSe Philip—all writers who, at one point in their lives, might have encountered Plath and shaped their work in confluence or contrast to her legacy.

What is Plath’s legacy? How do contemporary writers—women writers, writers experimenting with the confessional mode—come to terms with the uneasy inheritance she leaves us? These are some of the questions My Ariel asks. For Plath’s biography, her turbulent marriage to poet Ted Hughes and her ultimate suicide and abandonment of her children are inseparable from her fame as a poet. Like other female writers who also succumbed to suicide—Virginia Woolf and Nelly Arcan are two addressed in My Ariel—Plath’s oeuvre is read through her biography. Such a reading is a common for female authors, especially those whose lives have met with tragedy. In the cultural reception of her work, Plath’s poetry is ultimately connected to her body and its radical refusal to comply with a life she did not choose.

In My Ariel, Plath’s life and work operate as a dark twin to the speaker’s own biography and artistic practice. Plath’s stunted sense of her possibility in the world, her wild creativity, and her vulnerability intersect with the speaker’s own questions surrounding motherhood, intimacy, and writing. The speaker in My Ariel grapples with the challenges of motherhood; her partner has given birth to twins, and both parents feel the isolation, frustration, and immense joy of parenthood. The speaker questions what it means to maintain equal partnership within the queer family—how one resists the patriarchal structures of family so present in Plath’s experience of motherhood.

What is Plath’s legacy? How do contemporary writers—women writers, writers experimenting with the confessional mode—come to terms with the uneasy inheritance she leaves us?

Within the questions surrounding birth, ambivalent mothers, and parenthood in Queyras’s “auto-poetic bio-epic,” we glimpse Plath’s relationship with her own mother. The speaker recounts the “fake happiness” in Plath’s 696 letters to her mother, who, despite their tension-filled relationship, was her “most willing ear.” Plath’s vulnerability in her marriage, and in her public image—which oscillated between “good girl” and “bitch”—is evident in her diaries, letters, and poems. Queyras skillfully agitates, re-writes, and re-interprets these texts throughout her collection. And there is, of course, Plath’s loneliness and her deep insecurities, her private life made public by Hughes’s womanizing. “One lover, you learn, is pregnant,” recalls the speaker, addressing Plath directly:

The other wants you to all meet and draw a plan to share
Your man. It will be a lifetime of women lapping at his feet.

We readers share the frustrations of Plath’s publisher, who speculates over her tendency to negate her artistic autonomy in order to stay proximate this man: “Do not imagine that your whole being hangs on this one / Man [. . .] Keep him out of your bed.” We mourn her devotion to this symbol of male attention and approval through the excessive expenditure of female labour and time. Like the speaker, we want to yell, He’s not worth it, Sylvia! Become an Art Monster!

But, can women become “art monsters”?
At what cost?

These are perhaps the central questions of the book. Yet, as Jenny Offill reminds us in her auto-fictional novel, Dept. of Speculation, “Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

At its heart, My Ariel is about what it means to be a woman writing, and how those two words, “woman” and “writing,” so often come into conflict—no, are forced into conflict—under our cultural conceptions of what it means to be an artist and what it means to be a mother within the confines of a patriarchal society.

My Ariel offers an intergenerational study of the tensions between motherhood, emotional labour, and artistic autonomy, distilled in the speaker’s relationship with her own mother. In “Years,” the vivid and beautiful prose poem at the centre of My Ariel, the speaker returns home to visit her mother who has been in bed, “done in [. . .] since 1969.” The doctors warn the speaker that her mother’s state has deteriorated. And yet, despite the urgency of the situation and the grief that attends the last visit with a parent, the speaker is quickly confronted by old patterns, ingrained irritations, and insecurities.

The silence of my mother’s bedroom
Is a deep green quarry. It has taken me decades to
Climb out

Still, she descends into the quarry to greet the “ghost woman, floating on a berg in a large / Green room.” The TV blaring in the background is “a waterfall she no longer needs to see.” We readers follow the speaker into this cold, liquid world; we submit to its dreamlike intrusions:

The air. The damp air silking in the window.
A kind of calm I always felt, a terrible sullen calm,
It was always like that, my mother and I on a boat,
The water is vast—Lake Winnipeg perhaps—and she
Is standing like a mast. Easy, I think, easy, as if
My staring at her will keep her still, upright.

Queyras explores the junctures between motherhood, depression, and emotional exhaustion, and the guilt that accompanies our failure to connect with those to whom we bear the closest ties.

In this fascinating section of the book, Queyras explores the junctures between motherhood, depression, and emotional exhaustion, and the guilt that accompanies our failure to connect with those to whom we bear the closest ties. Queyras’s speaker touches on an anxiety, perhaps universal, between mothers and daughters, or adult children and their aging parents: how to reconcile with a parent, how to accept the complexity of such a relationship, before it is too late for reconciliation and acceptance. In a moment of raw contemplation, the speaker asks:

How will I survive without her voice? What silence
Will invade the dark centre of my mind?

Underneath the disappointment, the feelings of rejection and frustration that so often haunt mother-daughter relationships, is a sense of deep admiration for the mother figure. The speaker recalls her mother intervening on the behalf of a woman she witnesses being violently abused by a police officer: “She had seen him toss a woman in the back seat, then slam / The door on her leg, slam again, slam.” The speaker describes how her mother left the car idling at a red light and, rushed across the parking lot to the aid of the woman:

She tucked the woman’s leg in,
Then dropped the officer’s arm between the car and door
And slammed several times yelling, How does that feel?
How does that feel?

Yet she is the same mother who cannot acknowledge her daughter’s success. When the speaker tells her of a poem that “won gold in a poetry contest [. . .] Because she likes to hear of winning things,” her mother responds, “if you can’t bite that award, / It isn’t really gold and if it really isn’t gold, / It certainly wasn’t worth the trouble.” This concept is what Elizabeth Bishop calls the “mother’s terrible power”—the power to give or deny approval, which in her estimation turns children into “self-pitiers” and sullen visitors. Bishop’s advice, recorded in My Ariel, is meant for Plath, but rings true for the speaker as well. In a sense, her warning is for all women artists: “Confine, confine [. . .] your willingness to let yourself fall so far into / Other people’s mercy.”

When the voice in My Ariel is on, it is magnetizing. “On” for me means when the voice is precise, unadorned, subtle, and, at the same time, ruthless. “Years” and the final section of the book stand out as unabashedly honest and sense-sharp explorations of motherhood and its relation to artistic practice. I found myself wanting to stay within this narrative space, to surrender my attention to the precise tone, the restrained movement between the personal and political. I wanted to linger in “Years” and think a little more about the green quarry of the sick room, home to all our “ghost mothers”—women exhausted by the weight of patriarchy.

The passages in “Years” recall a line from earlier in the collection, “[e]very hour we create our world.” It asks the question, what kind of world are we creating with our hours, with our limited years on this planet? How are we choosing to use our energy and attention? The speaker gestures towards these questions in the last lines of “Ariel,” the poem that closes the book. In these lines, she points to the importance of acknowledging one’s ancestors—poetical, biological, be they beloved or even despised—in order to enter into one’s craft:

I needle through the
Black eyes of my past,
Which must also be my

Future (you can’t
Create what you can’t
Imagine). My love hauls

Me up.

These lines evoke the ways in which the past boomerangs back as a tool for understanding the present and even the future. Despite rage and despair, despite conflicted relationships with kin, we are reminded that futures are shaped by words, by ideas. They are shaped by what we can imagine or almost imagine. Love, and particularly the love of language, hauls us up.

 


Kasia van Schaik is a doctoral student at McGill University. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Best Canadian Poetry (2015), Prism International, CBC Books, and elsewhere. Kasia teaches creative writing in McGill’s Continuing Studies Department and lives in Montreal. @kasiajuno

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