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Otherhood: Sina Queyras, Sylvia Plath and Negation

I haven’t received my print copy of this month’s issue of Poetryyet, but I have been reading around in the on-line issue. I’m caught by a new poem by Sina Queyras, “Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath.” It’s a remarkable poem, not least for its gutsiness in taking on the fraught legacy of Sylvia Plath, responding to the difficulty of her poetic, to what feels like Plath’s inassimilable otherness. Queyras makes a poem out of Plath’s refusal to be remade, out of her recalcitrant inapprehensibility. That refusal for me is also a version – though in a very different idiom – of Paul Celan’s practice of Widerruf (which means something like revocation, cancellation or retraction), which is itself I think a poetic version of Hegelian sublation, Aufhebung: the repeal, the resolution through negation. I’m not prepared, and I may never be, for a careful philosophical interrogation of these concepts, but I am fine about invoking them as tropes, as resonant elements of a poetic toolkit. “Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath” strikes me – given the come-and-go controversy around negative reviewing in which Queyras has been participating over the last year or so, mostly as a provocateur – as a kind of negative review of Plath’s poetry (and really of one poem in particular, “Tulips” from Ariel), but “negative” in a much more complex and nuanced sense than you might think. The poem, after all, functions at least on first reading as both tribute and celebration, as affirmative. But what it also does, and does very well, is revise Plath – that is, re-see her words – by conversing and debating with her poetry as poetry. It’s not composed, despite the circularity of the title, in anything like the critical meta-language of the review. Rather, it recasts the decidedly patriarchal lineage of the Widerruf (a lineage that might be heard as Oedipal contestation in, for instance, Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence) as what Queyras, in her mini sonnet sequence published in this same issue of Poetry, calls “otherhood,” a portmanteau of otherness and motherhood. Queyras takes up and takes on Plath, I want to suggest, not to wrestle her way elegiacally past a predecessor (like Milton on Shakespeare, for instance, or Ashbery on, say, Stevens), but to address Plath’s own challenging relationship to canonization and patriarchy, and to reframe what it means, in Queyras’s terms, to be a “bad / Mother.”
         Here is what Freida Hughes says about her own difficult mother in the foreword to the “restored edition” of Ariel, published in 2004:
Since she died my mother has been dissected, analyzed, reinterpreted, reinvented, fictionalized, and in some cases completely fabricated. It comes down to this: her own words her best, her ever-changing moods defining the way she viewed her world and the manner in which she pinned down her subjects with a merciless eye.
As Plath seems to predict in “Tulips,” written in 1961 but carried forward to posthumous publication in Ariel, Plath sees herself as subject to both vivisection and autopsy, and not only as subject (patient, body, even victim) but also as her own surgeon, wielding a merciless scalpel. Plath, that is, casts herself as both mother and mothered, other and othering. “Nothing, not even death,” says Queyras’s poem, “frees mothers from the cutting board.” Her “Sylvia Plath,” though, is much less visual and much more tactile, more textural, than Plath herself tends to be. In “Tulips,” Plath’s reflexives, the negations, are characteristically optic: “Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.” Plath depicts herself, on a hospital bed with her head sandwiched between two pillows, as the “stupid pupil” of an eye “between two white lids that will not shut.” Queyras’s Plath, by contrast, is sculptural, material, rife with aesthesis, wanting to “feel the tulip’s skin, . . . the soft gravel / Of childhood under cheek,” her words given kinetic dimension, corporeal space and thickness as they are made to writhe “Across the page . . . ass / High as any downward dog and cutlass arms / Lashing any mother who tries to pass.” Echoes of barely suppressed violence seethe and twist through Queyras’s lines, much as they do through Plath’s; notice how the “firm rhyme” here around “ass” – hardly an instance of poetical diction, though Plath was often fond in her late poems of shocking sensibilities, of lashing out at her reader “lightly,” a little – is drawn off-centre, away from the line-ends of any ersatz “hard couplet.” Plath’s offspring, if that’s what these lines are, want to shred neatnesses, prying cracks in their verbal containers.
         “Tulips,” from which I’ve been suggesting that Queyras draws much of her raw material for this poem, was written after Plath underwent an appendectomy, following a miscarriage. The red tulips, presumably flowers sent to her in hospital, suggest both vitality and woundedness. Plath refuses remedy, the distant “health” at her poem’s close, choosing instead to worry metaphorically at her incisions, to use poetry to pull at her sutures. Craving the blankness of anesthesia (“I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty”), she nonetheless builds and weaves text from her own troubled persistence; poetry consists in the refusal of her self-awareness to let go: “And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes / Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.” Queyras picks up on the irresolution with which Plath’s poem contingently finishes:
                           The tulips were never warm
                  My loves, they never smelled of spring,
                  They never marked the path out of loneliness,
                  Never led me home, nor to me, nor away
                  From what spring, or red, or tulips
                  Could never be.
Performing their hiatus, these lines neither empathize with Plath nor refuse her. Despite the entitlement Plath’s readers’ often feel – our dogged identification with her cultural predicament as a woman caught between domestic codependency and urbane independence, between love and loneliness – this Plath settles for neither home nor escape, but produces, reproduces herself negatively, by refusing either option.
Hers is an idiom of ingrained melancholia, of resolute infelicity. Metaphor – consisting simultaneously of semantic slippage and connective bridgework – emerges from the roiling fractures of that refusal. In “Tulips,” Plath’s metaphors (falling into intemperate simile, for example) suggest both likeness and unlikeness, motherly bond and otherly dehiscence:
The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
That disavowal, that sublation, is also enacted syntactically in Plath’s comma splices, which suture her open sentences together, like loose stitches, gating without cinching her red salt flow of words. Queyras picks up on this stylistic tic, as the set of run-ons that close her poem, which I have cited above, suggest. But Queyras also distances herself formally from Plath’s poem. The couplets, or perhaps the two-line bunches, that shape Queyras’s poem recall not “Tulips” but “Berck-Plage,” which also uses comma splices to create a sense of spontaneous overflow, of fractal rush. Plath’s texts hover between the immediacy of rough spontaneity (most of the poems in Ariel tend to speak, as manuscripts demonstrate, in a holographic present tense, as if addressing the moments of their own composition) and the considered formal mediations of obsessive revision, of the reflex of craft. The writing self, which in Plath often manifests as a cascade of first-person pronouns, is in Queyras’s text further withheld, suspended in an indeterminate second person for at least the first half of the poem: “If you can’t feel love in life you won’t feel it in death, nor / Will you feel the tulip’s skin . . . .” Any empathic connection to Plath, feeling as if you might feel what she might have felt, reaching imaginatively across the absolute barrier of her death (though “not how you imagine it will,” writes Queyras) to draw her voice, liminally, back into the living frame of your own poem, is also impeded – negated – by the mythopeic work of Plath’s posthumous dissection and monstrous reassembly as an icon of fraught womanhood, of otherhood. She refuses to be caught. “The vivid tulips,” as Plath herself proleptically puts it, “eat my oxygen.” The tropes will always digest their own maker, her vitality. “Let’s be frank,” says Queyras, but candour in a poem about Plath isn’t a matter of re-casting details from her biography, or reshaping lines and fragments from her poetry. Rather, it seems to consist in facing up to the cancellations and refusals that shape her voice and her sense of self, of self-elegy. And self in Plath isn’t something that, Yeats-like, you must remake. Rather, self comes to consist in the work of revision, in the negatives through which those rewritten poems emerged, and, in moments such as those of Queyras’s poem, still emerge.

These Poems, She Said: Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst

Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst read together at Green College, at the University of British Columbia, on Wednesday, March 20, in the late afternoon: the last event in this year’s Play Chthonics series. I was set to introduce them to the 40-odd people who had come to hear them in the Graham House fireside lounge – a capacity crowd for a poetry reading, for that intimate space – and Jan reminded me about one of the first times we had met, which was in a two-term graduate seminar led by Don McKay at Western in the fall-winter of 1986-87. She was teaching philosophy at Waterloo, I think, but would come weekly down to London to audit the Monday evening class; her Wittgenstein Elegies had been published by Brick Books earlier that year. I was a master’s student, and was just getting underway writing what would turn out to be a thesis on the poetry and poetics of Robert Bringhurst, which McKay was supervising. The seminar was called “Poetry After 1945,” if I am remembering right, and each week was focused on a different book, a different poet – chosen, I’m pretty sure, not for any particular thematic or ideological reason, but because Don was interested in them, and he thought that theirs were poems that we ought at the very least to know about, to know: Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and For the Union Dead, Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, John Ashbery’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ted Hughes’s Crow, Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies, and selected poems from Denise Levertov, Daphne Marlatt, Seamus Heaney, Charles Olson, others. One guy in the seminar was keen to do something with Sylvia Plath. (I remember also discovering, through Don, Charles Wright’s The Other Side of the River that year.)  And, near the end of term, Don had put on Robert Bringhurst’s The Beauty of the Weapons.
I don’t know what had drawn or what was drawing me into Bringhurst’s work at the time, whether I had picked it out from McKay’s syllabus, or found it on my own and then taken the seminar to hear more about it and to encounter those poems more fully. There was something that spoke to me quite forcefully and seriously in those days, from Bringhurst’s writing, something important. And he was also one of the few poets I had discovered who had a rigorous interest in philosophy, in thinking. What caught my ear was that Bringhurst didn’t ever merely namecheck Heidegger or Levinasor the Pre-Socratics, never merely rehearsed  Zen traditions (via Gary Snyder) or First Nations mythtelling; he took these inheritances up with a keenness, a self-awareness and a deliberateness that I had never met before, and he did it not simply in but through poems, as poetry. Bringhurst aimed to have his work converse, materially and essentially, with what Kinnell called(in his brief “Prayer”) “whatever what is is.” Later poems would make this conversation more formally explicit – his “Blue Roofs of Japan” had just appeared in Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, Bringhurst’s just-issued collection from McClelland and Stewart. The way I remember, it was this kind of poetically-informed conversation to which I hoped that seminar aspired.
By the start of second term, after I had been working at Bringhurst’s books for some time and with the in-class discussion of his poetry fast approaching, I was certainly aware that both McKay and Zwicky had been somehow more directly and closely implicated in his writing than I might have realized at first (although I knew McKay knew Bringhurst personally, and had sent him a few questions on my behalf about sources for poems). “Sunday Morning,” from Pieces of Map, is dedicated to them both, and suggests a kinship of thought and approach – around listening, around wilderness, around alterity and ontology – that Bringhurst characterizes as an interest, an inter-esse, in “the musical density of being.” Their poetry, in many and various registers, aspires to sing, to attain the condition of song. They were concerned, in the late 1980s, to reactivate a particular trajectory of the lyric, its noetic intensities.
So, what happened in the seminar was: one of the assignments involved presenting a close reading of a poem. I had chosen to examine Bringhurst’s “These Poems, She Said,” partly in response to an emergent line of questioning in the class around gender politics. Bringhurst placed the poem first in his selected, to enact a distancing irony, and to suggest a self-awareness about the contingency of the seemingly sculptural monumentality, the mythic reach, of the texts that followed:
         These poems, these poems,
         these poems, she said, are poems
                  with no love in them. These are the poems of a man
                  who would leave his wife and child because
                  they made noise in his study.
                  [. . .] These are the poems of a man
                  like Plato, she said, meaning something I did not
                  comprehend but which nevertheless
                  offended me. (Selected Poems 75)            
The gesture at Plato isn’t just a philosophy joke about an authoritarian metaphysian’s aversion to the erotic. (It’s worth comparing Zwicky’s recent Plato as Artist, which recuperates an alternative Plato.) Bringhurst creates a miniature Socratic elenchus, replete with self-deprecating irony. Uncharacteristically for Plato, however, the interlocutor in this poem is female; the text’s antithetical manoeuvres, shifting from iterated critique to discomfited reaction, both sustains the authority of the male poet’s voice – everything remains filtered through him, and he is the one who affirms, at the poem’s close, that the woman’s voice has spoken “rightly” – and also dismantles any grounds he might have, other than a kind of empty verbal aestheticism (“You are, he said,/ beautiful”), to claim argumentative high ground. He sounds like he wins, but he can win only by losing, since the love he craves entails receptive openness rather than the abstract and detached rhetorical management of a well-turned phrase or line. In the seminar, I think it was difficult for me to hear the conflictedness at the core of the poem, and instead I focused only its apparent claim to rightness, its mistaken feel of surety. This reading, as you can imagine, didn’t sit well with Jan, and she told me so. What she valued in the poem wasn’t any feint of attention or pretense of listening, but a deliberate, intentional disavowal of ego; the poem, for her, in the white space that slashes through its penultimate line on the page, opens itself to what remains otherwise, to its ungovernable outside. (As I write this, I don’t think those would have been Zwicky’s terms; this is me, I’m sure, re-casting her critique. But however she put it, her point was a good one.) She argued.
         What came out wasn’t just a corrective for me. More importantly, it was the sense that there were real stakes here, that something in this poetry mattered. And what mattered was the honing and the intensification and the acuity of thinking, of thought as an exacting, lyrical unknitting of selfishness, of self. That debate about poetics wasn’t just a remedial exercise, but an enactment of this rigorous openness, one that takes itself seriously. “Knowing, not owning” as Bringhurst puts in what he then called “Thirty Words,” which he would incorporate into his “credo” in later editions of his selected poems: “Praise of what is, / not of what flatters us / into mere pleasure” (Selected Poems 159). Neither Zwicky nor Bringhurst takes this demand lightly; poetry is careful, serious business, and since that evening seminar in 1987, I have tried to learn from and through their work – and I continue to do so – to correspond with, to be responsive to and responsible for, that care.
Robert Bringhurst Reading at Green College
         The Play Chthonics reading, for me, reactivated this commitment to a poetry that matters. Both Bringhurst and Zwicky presented principally new work, but their tactics and idioms were still closely and thoroughly enmeshed in the kinds of lyric thinking they have been practicing, in their distinctive ways, for decades, and for which I have, for decades, admired them. Bringhurst read from a set of what he called “language” poems, works that have little to do with idiomatic American experimentalism, but addressed themselves to the foundational becoming, the ontological pluralism, that he has pursued throughout his career. Zwicky’s poems, by contrast, focused elegiacally on the essential unknowability of things, on lost connections and on gaps and silences. But her poems also distill their music from that loss, a music that wants to draw out some of the human resonances with a world in which we are all implicated, to converse openly with the unvoiced plentitude of what we are not, which is also what we are. At different points, both she and Bringhurst coincidentally described encounters with a heron as an image of this attentive address.
         After the reading, I picked up a copy of a CD that Zwicky had recorded (in June 2011) called, simply, Jan Zwicky Reads. I have been listening to it off and on for the past month. As at the live reading, I find that as I listen certain of her lines seem to hang in the air, to resonate: “that bare light not yet sweet with birds.” Zwicky’s melopoeic technique, her mastery of the phonemic music of language, evident here in the audible meshwork of consonants and gently modulating vowels, is more than “sweet” craft; what inheres in these voicings – I’m sure that’s the right term for this lyric practice – is more than the mere pleasures of listening. Zwicky offers in small, in lines such as these, a musical elenchus, a negation (“not yet”) that highlights the hiatuses and epistemological uncertainties that poetry seeks to bridge, as metaphor, but also construes as its substance, as its inevitable shortfall, again as metaphor, as approximation, as asymptote: a version, I’d say, of what Bringhurst has called, translating Paul Celan, “the caught light’s closeness / to audibility” (Selected Poems 143). The sweetness Zwicky’s poetry seeks out is never the sugary or the saccharine, but is consistently a resonance, a harmonic sweet spot, where the disparate textures of an unclosed world can briefly, barely, touch and argue, catch and hum, collide and sing.