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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.

Breakfast, Nearly, with Pharoah Sanders

I think I’m more than a fan, much more than a fan, of what people in my various small circles of friends and fellow listeners would call The Music. Not just music, but The, with a capital T. What my colleagues and I usually mean to indicate with this definitive and emphatic article is a certain lineage or a set of lineages in recent jazz, lineages that can trace their origins to consciousness-raising performances and recordings in the mid 1960s around the civil rights movement and the emergence of Black cultural nationalism in the United States. I am neither Black nor American, but I know that I have had a powerful personal investment in this music since my mid-teenage years, when, and I have no idea how to explain this objectively, my friends and I started buying jazz records. The Music has – again, powerfully – helped to shape who I feel I have become, who I think I am and how I think. For some reason, across a number of tangible cultural and social boundaries, this music came to speak to me: it’s an experience that’s not unique to me, but it does seem a bit strange that this feeling of connection occurred in small-town Nova Scotia in the late 1970s, in a place that still feels remote from the contexts out of which this music came. The Music was not in the air very much, at least not where I come from. But that’s not exactly true, either: there were people around us who knew things, there were kids like me who wanted to know, and there was the odd record that arrived in the bins of Kelly’s Stereo Mart that we could buy. The first jazz-like record I ever bought – copying what my friend had done – was The Vibration Continues, an Atlantic two-fer that appeared in 1979 two years after the death of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was an album that would change everything for me, or at least cause as much change as any one record can. The sense of tradition as well as of extemporaneous experimentation that vitally energize the tracks on that compilation epitomize what Mr. Kirk called “Black Classical Music,” and help me to consider the collisions and intersections of the creative and the critical, of music and poetry, of history and innovation, that seem to me to make cultural performances of all types come to matter.
         Listening to Rahsaan and to Miles Davis and others soon led me outward – tracing the networks of connections and sidemen they deployed – to John Coltrane, of course, and especially to his later, more tumultuous post-1964 music: recordings that had become established, by the time I could have encountered them, as touchstones of The Music, fierce beautiful classics. In the summer when I was seventeen, I bought a copy of Meditations. The opening track on that album, “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” with the stuttering, surging and entwined tenor saxophone lines of Mr. Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, was transformative for me, at once devastating and profoundly moving. I don’t know how many times I have played that first side over; I can hear it in my mind’s ear even now. There is nothing like it. I think I read an interview some years ago with Carlos Santana, where he said that he tries to listen to Coltrane every day – for “spiritual nourishment” – and he mentions “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” in particular. I know what he meant, what he means.
         I have been in Guelph, Ontario, for the past week, attending at the university there an academic colloquium about, among other things, The Music. The colloquium is tied to an ongoing research initiative called “Improvisation, Community and Social Practice,” and to a yearly Jazz Festival, programmed for twenty years now by Ajay Heble, who is both its Artistic Director and the Principal Investigator for the grant-funded academic initiative. Because of the relatively small size of Guelph, many out-of-town attendees end up staying at the Delta hotel there, which is where most of the musicians playing the festival stay, too. So you tend sometimes to cross paths. This year, the festival headliners included Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, performing a scaled-down version of his Pulitzer-nominated suite Ten Freedom Summers, and Pharoah Sanders, collaborating with an amalgam of Rob Mazurek’s Chicago and Sao Paulo Undergrounds. (I’ll say something about these performances in another piece.) I was returning alone to the hotel by taxi after a wonderful concert by the Indigo Trio on Thursday night. As I came through the sliding glass doors into the lobby, there in front of me, leaning over the front desk trying to check in, was Pharoah Sanders. I knew him immediately, from photos on LP jackets I had poured over and scrutinized while I listened, headphones on, in front of the stereo downstairs in my parents’ house years ago. It was Pharoah Sanders. And for a moment, I had no idea what to do.
         Of course, I didn’t have to do anything. I felt as if I ought to approach him, ought to say something. I have been immersed in his music for decades, and feel a kinship, because of the effect that it has had on me over those years, that of course he couldn’t have shared. He has no idea who I am, or how his music has changed my life, the way Rilke once said all great art ought to do. My impulse was to try to walk up and tell him something then and there about my own story, the story of my love for his music. But, it would have been pretty rude to bother Mr. Sanders while he was trying to sort out his arrival. So I got into the elevator, went up to my room, and put up an excited jazz-nerd blurb on Facebook and Twitter about having just passed The Pharoah Sanders in the lobby.
Along with Mr. Smith, he was doing a public interview the next morning, which I was going to attend, so I would get to see and hear him anyway. And I had my ticket to the concert the following night. Great.

Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders, after  the interview Friday morning, 6 September 2013
         At the interview Mr. Sanders wasn’t especially voluble. (A video recording of the interview ought to appear on the ICaSP website sometime in the near future.) What might appear as reticence in that interview could also be an after-effect of all of this public adulation and esteem, this spiritual fandom. Not that he shouldn’t be rightly and justly praised for what he has done, for the lives his music has affected, but he may have been a bit wary of the kinds of closeness that listeners like me seem to need to claim and to feel. It’s easy to forget to accord the person, the human being, the dignity and the respect, the personal space, that they deserve – and that every human being deserves. Listening, even as closely as many of us do, needs still to be kept at a remove from entitlement. And this distance, around historically significant and culturally transformative artists such as Mr. Sanders, can sometimes present a very difficult line to walk. (“He became his admirers,” says W. H. Auden of the passing of W. B. Yeats: such appropriations have a moribund aspect, I think. They objectify the living, and reify their creative energies, often without intending to, as real people get turned and admiringly calcified into their own self-representations, their myths.)
         There was another great concert Saturday morning, by KAZE. I was up a little later that morning, but still had some time, so I decided to treat myself to a warm breakfast in the hotel restaurant. As I stood by the please wait to be seated sign, waiting, Pharoah Sanders was suddenly there, coming out of the restaurant towards me; he had obviously been eating breakfast. Okay, I thought, now was my chance to say something, anything. “Mr. Sanders,” I said, “I’m a great admirer of your music.” And I held out my hand to shake his. “Thank you,” he said, and then put his own hands together in a gesture of prayer.
“My hands,” he said. “Of course,” I said, though I didn’t know exactly what he meant. (I have spoken with musicians and others who have to shake hands with strangers often when they’re on the road: they tell me that folding your hands this way is a good practice to keep from having viruses spread to you.) And then a waitress showed me to my single table, at an extended curved bench along the restaurant’s far wall.
Someone had been eating at the small single table next to me. I looked down at the menu, to figure out what I wanted to order, and then looked up again. Pharoah Sanders was coming back into the restaurant towards me. I had been seated beside his table. It turned out he hadn’t been leaving at all, but had been making a second visit to the breakfast buffet, which was located just the other side of the please wait to be seated sign. He sat back down next to me. I was becoming a little concerned he might think that somehow I was following him, so I didn’t want even to try to pester him with small talk. We ate side by side quietly at our separate tables, together. I took no photographs. I don’t know why it would even have occurred to me as something I could so, and it’s embarrassing to admit that I even considered it, so intrusive, so disrespectful of someone else’s space. When I left, I did manage to wish him a good day, and to say I was looking forward to his concert that evening. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
The concert was tremendous. As I said, I’ll post something more detailed about it soon. It ended around midnight, and I managed to flag a cab back to the hotel, amid what turned out to be masses of partying students newly arrived in town for the University’s boozy Frosh week. (None of them had anything to do with the music, with The Music. It’s a coincidence that the Jazz Festival and the academic colloquium happen simultaneously with the first week of classes.) I got back late, and went to bed.
Pharoah Sanders (and Chad Taylor) performing at Guelph on September 7, 2013
I had to be up early the next morning to catch a shuttle van to the Toronto airport. I came down to check out at 6 am, and the desk clerk asked if I had got the message that the shuttle was postponed until 6:30. (I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter.) The idea, it turned out, was to fill all seven seats on one shuttle, rather than have to send two vehicles. So, fine, I took my bags over to the hotel foyer, where coordinated brown and beige couches had been arranged to look something like a furniture showroom at The Bay.
As I sat down to wait, someone else appeared at the desk to check out. It was Pharoah Sanders. He did what he needed to do at the desk, and then came over to join me on the couches. I thought at this point that if he realized I was this same guy who kept appearing wherever he was, he might have started genuinely to worry. But he smiled and nodded at me, and started to chat. Like me, he was headed to the airport to catch a flight west. He asked where I was headed. He said he found it a bit cold in Guelph. He told me he’d had trouble with the air conditioner in his room, which kept coming on at night, and I told him I’d had exactly the same trouble, which was true.
Others arrived who were taking the same airport shuttle, all of them musicians who had performed the night before, including Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Davis, both of whom are indisputably major composers and performers in contemporary music. The shuttle arrived; I told Mr. Sanders it was here, and he went to stand over in front of the sliding glass doors at the hotel entrance.
The doors opened, and the shuttle driver, clipboard in hand, came through, and walked right up to Mr. Sanders. “Who are you?” he asked bluntly. Mr. Sanders gave his name. “Right,” said the driver, “one of the jazz musicians.” I thought, oh, maybe I’m not on this shuttle, so I went up and asked. It looked like there wasn’t going to be enough room. “Nope,” said the driver, “this is your shuttle too. You’re the one non-musician.”
He managed to load all the bags, and told us to climb in. I ended up in the front pair of passenger seats, sitting next to Pharoah Sanders, again. I hope he didn’t mind. There was some confusion about airlines and paperwork. Pearson airport has three terminals, each of them linked to different domestic and international carriers. The driver got in, turned around in his seat to face Mr. Sanders and the rest of us, and said: “Don’t worry. I have a master plan.” I thought I heard a few chuckles, though maybe not. I don’t think the driver was deliberately making a kind of joke – he genuinely had no idea that one of Pharoah Sanders’s most praised and beloved recordings is called “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” But in that moment, what started to emerge was a troubling irony, one that creative musicians such as these must have to confront on a fairly regular basis.
“Say,” the driver said, as he started the engine and pulled away, “I’ve got the radio tuned to the jazz station.”
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. “No music.” It was still really early, and no one had had more than a few hours of sleep.
“I thought you might want to hear some jazz,” the driver kept on. “You know, I like Billie Holiday.”
“We all like Billie Holiday,” said someone from the back of the shuttle. The driver tried to play the radio a little lower.
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. The driver finally obliged.
The 40-minute drive east along the 401, with a fine reddish sun emerging from the clouded horizon in front of us, was silent. Most people just dozed in their seats, the way people do.
When we arrived at the airport, the first three let out included Mr. Sanders. He said goodbye, and wished everyone and was wished a safe journey.  He smiled and waved, and that was it. When the driver climbed back into his seat, he turned around and asked those who remained – except for me, the one non-musician – what kind of music they played and what clubs in Guelph they’d been playing in. (I don’t even think Guelph has a jazz club: the downtown as I’ve experienced it seems to be full of bars catering to students.) “Clubs?” said Mr. Davis. “It’s been a while since I have played in a club.” “No clubs,” said Mr. Smith.
The driver seemed mildly surprised that their performance had taken place at the city’s opera-house style concert hall, the River Run Centre. I asked if they liked the venue, and both of them said yes, and talked a little about acoustic space, about spatial acoustics. Then it was my turn to go. I wished them a safe journey, too.
After we pulled up at the terminal, the driver came around to help me unload my bag. Out of earshot of the musicians, and feeling some kind of mistaken kinship with me, he told me: “I expected this trip to be more hilarious, more fun, with, you know, those kind of . . . jazz musicians.”
Why was it, I wondered, that he waited until we were both outside of the van to tell this to me, like some kind of secret. Like I might understand him.
And then realized I knew why.
And then I knew: when he said “non-musician,” I don’t think he was talking about music. He may not have known himself what he intended. But I think I hear it now.
Pharoah Sanders, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Davis, and the others who happened to be on that shuttle, are among the most forward-thinking and brilliant musical geniuses of their, of my, generation; they perform and compose, for those who want to hear, a life-altering, profoundly moving music, coalescing jazz, art music, folk, and other styles and practices into their own idioms and sound-worlds, but all drawing on the creative impetus of the wide African diaspora. “If you have to ask,” Louis Armstrong is purported to have said, “you don’t need to know.”
Maybe so. But at the end of their interview on the Friday morning, Wadada Leo Smith made a point of encouraging listeners, simply, to try to speak to our neighbours, to connect with other human beings. “Consider the fact,” he said, “that someone else is important, and make that work in your life.” And it’s hard work, for sure, to overcome even a few of the complex barriers presented by ignorance and, strangely, by adulation, and instead to try to find the human gesture, both besides and beside ourselves.