Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Sina Queyras' Lemon Hound

I remember being taken very much with expatriate Canadian poet Sina Queyras' first trade collection, Slip (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2001) when it appeared [see my brief review of it here]. I know a couple of people who disagree with me, but I loved the collusion of couplets, and the dissonant flow. I loved the movement of what could only be described as bourbon on gravel; she already had a clear and comfortable sense of her stance, and I was looking forward to her slow and steady climb into further books and a further maturity. I liked the geographic shifts that were as subtle in the lines as they were spoken on the page.


Woke in a sweat, tears, longing, hung over, maudlin.
Repentant I will escort you, in due course return unmoved

to my camping futon, the grey cat sleeping there.
Footfalls overhead: from desk to bed each move

a lightening bolt, and lust-stung, benumbed — I cannot
leave my bed. My doubled-heart a throbbing, open sore

and tears for wanting what I cannot, in good faith, have.
It's fun, L. says, you need to have. And if my diversions

are not alone, my longest lasting love? Some questions
better left unasked. (p 23, from "Four Steps," Slip)

Her second collection, Teethmarks (Roberts Creek BC: Nightwood Editions, 2004) also played with the prose sections, but also worked more in a series of shorter lined pieces than the poems in her first, playing more on the line break and visual disconnect, which felt somehow less effective in Queyras writing than the longer fluid line. Where she was most effective was in the longer flow, such as the first poem in the collection, the first third of the piece "Three Songs for Jersey," that writes:

Welcome to the hourglass. Doormat or
escape hatch, depending on what side
of the Hudson you call home. Verdant
once was state of industry and strip clubs,
nail shops and roadways, soprano land cum back door
of America. Birthplace of Ginsberg and Williams. Slim
remembrance of Whitman in ginkgo leaves and crumpled
Budweisers; in rusted pumps along Route 1 all the way to Camden;
in the three-legged dog who wanders up the turnpike; the rain
silky and thick as liquid detergent; the egret who poses
by the sunken tires, or the turtles who sun on rubber-filled ponds.
Welcome to the state of hearts: the black man
at the New Brusnswick station who tips his hat, the beautiful,
thick-jawed, high-haired women who stand waiting at the train;
the wide-hipped, smart-mouthed waitresses of the Bagel Dish,
the saucy women waiting on Route 27 for the Atlantic City bus.
I can give you the insides of books, take you through the shelves
of the New York Public Library or I can take you to the train,
smelling enchiladas and Starbucks, oh I am composing this
while walking, listening to Lucinda Williams in the rain. (p 11)

What was but an element of structure in her first collection, Slip, moves to the forefront in her third trade collection Lemon Hound (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2006), with Queyras writing prose pieces that reference Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Lisa Robertson and Anne Carson. Why is it that so many younger writers these days are referencing Stein and/or Woolf, with Stein references all through Stephen Cain and Rob Budde, and Woolf pushing its way through Suzanne Zelaso's first poetry collection Parlance (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2003) [see my review of it here]? Budde's long poem, "software tracks," originally self-published as a Wink Books chapbook, is subtitled "‘a cubist ct scan of the american body’ and is a series of Stein-like (Tender Buttons) sections each titled with a bodily affliction (‘lung cancer,’ ‘apathy,’ ‘depression,’ ‘obesity,’ etc). It is a book written out of fear but into issues of language politics not overt politics. Chomsky, Roy, Moore, and Nader have done enough in that area–there’s only so much Adbusters can take.” In her collection, too, Zelazo writes a whole section based upon a Woolf novel, both titled THROUGH THE LIGHTHOUSE., as Zelazo writes, "emotion of / the page hoped to recall sympathy / mother half turning rain of words // that absurd circle needed" (p 50). For Queyras' own take, it scatters through the collection in bits and sparks, instead of any particular focus, moving into more of a cumulative effect of the whole collection. As Queyras writes in her Acknowledgments, "This book is, among other things, a direct response to and engagement with the work of Virginia Woolf, but my reading of her texts was radically altered by other writers, including Lisa Robertson, Anne Caron and Gertrude Stein, as well as by general discussion at the Thirteenth Annual Virginia Woolf Conference at Smith College." (p 106). Without knowing much of the works of Woolf, it is still interesting to track the differences in prose between Queyras' Slip and Lemon Hound, such as these two, from her first and third collections, respectively:

Avenue Laval

Flush with possibilities I move in to the basement suite in your brick
building, the only red on a block of lavish greystones trimmed in chalky
greens and Madame Caillaud in her wool suit welcomes me to the only
anglo fold. I tell myself it's because you're near that I wander up
to your flat; I tell myself it's because of Montreal that we lie
on your bed eating plum tomatoes; I tell myself it's because of Foucault
that I can't sleep; I tell myself I'm not falling in love, and yet late nights
reading Ginsberg until our tongues are tied in his long breathless lines. (p 14, Slip)

Ms. Forrest, ten years after

When I see you it is winter. You are pulling out of a
parking spot in your old English roadster ― blue, in
my dreams at least, a Blue Betty you say. I have never
seen you in winter. I know there is nothing winter
about you or where you live. Yet when I see you it is
through the windscreen, wipers pushing at the
heavy, wet snow. I come around the side of Betty,
laughing. There you are again, I say. A good winter? you
ask. Not too cold. What is it about you and winter, Ms.
Forrest? On Saltspring, where if it snows I am sure it
is only in prop-sized proportions. Why are you
always pulling out of that spot? Leaning your head
out to smile at me. Never stopping to spend time. (p 79, Lemon Hound)

Despite something being more prevalent in American poetry, there have been scant Canadians working within the form of the "prose poem" (sometimes called "postcard story" or "postcard fiction," depending on where you think you are starting from…), including Toronto poet Suzanne Zelaso in Parlance, and even Margaret Atwood, from her collection of "short fictions and prose poems," Murder in the Dark (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1983). Although longer than the less-than-a-page pieces by Queyras, and less lush than Queyras' liquid prose, there is an element of overlap to both collections:


I reach down and what do I come up with? Something early, a
small dry white flower. Everlasting, it was called. Picked by
the roadside, highway, near a rockface shot through with
quartz; on which the sun shone as it rose, lighting up the rock
like glass, like an entrance into light. Right then the world
was something you could walk through, into.

You could tent then, anywhere, just beside the road, any
wide place. The tents were heavy canvas and smelled of tar.
The others put the fire out. There were almost no cars; it was
because of the war. The war was happening somewhere, and
the devil's paintbrushes, red and orange, grew there in
clumps, purple vetch, daisies with their heavy smell, tiny
black ants on the petals. A stream too, the water brownish and

There was nothing to do, there was all that time, which did
not need to be filled. I knelt down, bare skin on the damp
ground, and reached into the absence of time and came up
with a handful of stems, on their ends the light reflecting from
the stream, the dry white flowers, already eternal. (p 60, Margaret Atwood, Murder in the Dark)

There is something absolutely elegant and lovely about the prose of Sina Queyras, flowing on the page as easily and deliberately as water.

On the way to the swimming hole

She passes the watch-repair shop with its grand-
father clock door. No one goes in or out but a dog
barks. She is sure the repairman has ever heard of
Dali. Buttercups wave and bob. They are so yellow
they shine a halo six inches around each pinky-sized
flower. They are so good she wants to eat them, but
they are singing, all along the roadside, and she
cannot eat anything that sings. (p 77, Lemon Hound)

(This version a slight variant from the one that appeared in her chapbook Still & Otherwise)

There is something about the pieces in Lemon Hound that seem far more sure of themselves than the pieces in her second trade collection, Teethmarks, easily making this the strongest of Queyras' works, and I very much would like to hear more of the constructions she played with, working her own sense of Woolf into play, and the play of other works that may have entered into it. How does she translate the flow?

What the river wants

The river wants to the town to hug her but the town has
an odour. The river wants to love the odour but it
can't. The river wants the town to know this. The river
wants the town to be invited. The river wants the
town to paint itself red. The river wants the town to
understand it. The river wants the town to talk softly.
The river wants the town to step inside. The river
wants the town to get over itself. The river wants the
town to make way. The river wants the town to hug
her without odour. The river wants the town to let
her hug it too. The river wants to flood the town with
anger. The river wants to fill its basements and
cellars. The river wants to dig up graves and twirl
them down Main Street. The river wants to flush out
pantries and libraries. The river wants to lap her way
through schools and courtrooms. The river wants to
swallow the town the way it swallows her. The river
wants the last gulp. (p 15, Lemon Hound)

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