No, MY Ariel

An engagement with Sina Queyras's 'My Ariel'

February 5 [2018]

In the first poem of Sina Queyras’s poetry collection My Ariel, an I-speaker testifies that “A love procedure set me going like a big fat lie.” This line directly overwrites one of Plath’s most famous lines — “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” — often quoted to portray Sylvia’s personal experience of new motherhood on the occasion of her daughter Frieda’s birth. Beset by confessions of unreliability while seated at a digital “motherboard,” Queyras’s speaker specifies being costumed “in my men’s nightshirt.” The voice asks, to a “you” we recognize gradually as direct address to Plath, “Am I any more authentic than the account / That Tweets your verse?” The last stanza refrains another statement of inadequacy: “What is missing in me?”[1] The address is to self, not “you” at all — and for a moment I hear Sylvia’s absorption in that infant, I hear her “watching” that baby, in a way I’d never thought to take into the ubiquitous accounts of her suicide drive = maternal failure.

Queyras’s next four poems each contain direct references to the confessed lie that set us going: “Lies, emptiness, and grief: do your worst.” (9); “Do not lie / About love” (10); “Poetry / Is the big lie” (11). Then, a slippage from mendacity to physical passivity: “Don’t just lie there / And let it leak, / Don’t let him / Drink you in, sell your skin, / And buy her roses” (13–14). This poem is a Ta-Da, infilling commonly held Plath biography, him/Ted a.k.a. Dad-mirror conducting an affair with Assia Wevill while Plath was disappearing down the drain into a no-longer-mastered depression and will to die.

The next poem, however, turns on its heels with the line, “But it wasn’t a man / That knocked me down”; “She was mannish, / Chilled, flung / Her will across / Mine then laughed” (15), until by the poem’s end the speaker testifies “I am ill, I thought” (16). Queyras complicates both the gender of the first-person speaker and the identity of the perpetrator of power-over in the recapitulating scene of struggle against a domineering force. A “mannish” “she” pairs the wielding of masculine entitlement with an overwhelming Top, and the advice is “Don’t let him.” Dressed in her man’s nightshirt, this neo-mama figure rises into a real and virtual reproductive economy, and mangles any easy fit between cisgender woman and mother. Queyras makes us take into account dominant-submissive dynamics across many and perhaps simultaneous interiorized romantic and familial relations, both straight and queer. The poem flags how it isn’t only “Daddy” or a cisgender male who made you “lie” about the kinds of damage you feel at the moment of rising into maternal identity; suddenly, you are self-aware that the complex scourge repeats, goes viral, and vampirizes the self trying to un/re/learn what it is to care for others, especially the ones who just lie there — being infants, completely unarmored, entirely at the parent’s control. What is this love procedure, anyway? How logical is it? How driven?

Indeed, there is a Twitter account, @itssylviaplath, that, since January 2011 has issued posts as if Ye Olde Lady Lazarus is alive and with us. For example, “The American male does not think of woman as a friend and companion, but childishly as a combination of mother and sweetheart.” The tweet is time-indexed 4:07 p.m., October 24, 2017, and shows 465 retweets and 1.9K likes. Some of the early ones are biographical research links (“Sylvia Plath interviewed by Peter Orr, 1962,” June 20, 2011) and traces of Plath in popular culture (“Rory Gilmore reads Sylvia Plath in Gilmore Girls,” August 31, 2011). Could these (to-date) 3,106 tweets comprise a “love procedure” performed by a ghostwriter-detective circulating actual sentences from Plath’s diaries or letters, and/or musings by an insomniac Plath avatar? Might Queyras be outing her own brilliant stick-to-it-iveness by writing the account’s birth announcement into My Ariel: “my first bald Tweet slid into the feed” (8). Is she-I tempestuously lying far beyond the book? (And did I only now notice a flitty rearrangement of “lie” within the very word Ariel?)

Both writers and mothers dress themselves in imposter syndrome. Is it easier to feel inadequate than to identify one’s vulnerability to the other (the text/the infant) as entire? A huge open mouth, the labial mouth that split wide open and the adult mouth that’s suddenly filled with the raw fact of an ongoing wail: Me/Ma/Maw/Waah. For the issue (poem, child) is also its own zombie-mother, especially in the digital universe of social media, where a poetics of confession builds its gaudiest funhouse. Queyras sets us ticking. Twitching.

January 21

Some argue great poets are editors. A fine poem is shaped, reshaped, considered from above itself, from its insides, from the day after the midnight it felt finished, from depth to shore, repeat, revise, to shore.

In Plath’s day, let’s say the mid-twentieth century, British and American poetry had been fully professionalized as a vocation with mainstream quotability worthy of BBC interviews and publishers’ society launches. A public was expected to receive books of poetry, written by poets, and then read the reviews they garnered (the way we now consider iPhone updates). Discussion with highballs rippled outward, in waves of elite-rary status updates.

There was a balloon and inside of it went on a privileged literary transmission and critical reception cosmos. The inside of that balloon was a privileged patch of Anglo+American fog. A smear of whiteness smearing all the sheep within it. The Best of Canon. It must have been hard not to crave it.

January 28

What does it mean to claim a book written by another author as your property? Did Ted Hughes consume Plath’s left-behind “Ariel” manuscript into His Ariel? Egregiously, yes. Does Sina Queyras yank it back for you, Sylvia, or for her own flight, to become a vehicle of her own voice, in the context of other women writers, and/or are those acts and effects simultaneous? Sure, and this is meant to be visible and audible — it’s not tricksterism. It’s a way of building and rebuilding. And there are all the glosses and reassemblages Queyras performs in earlier books, borrowing canonical poetic form and overwriting the voice and image field with her own content, centos built of many poets’ lines, and here in My Ariel a poem like “Tulips” constructed of lines gleaned from other poets’ lines about tulips — a tracery Queyras acknowledges in the Notes.

January 22

Homage is one kind of attention but this is homage plus biography plus autopsy. This is autobiopsy.

Yeah I think that’s right on it.

                        The dictionary defines biopsy as
“An examination of tissue removed from a living body to
discover the presence, cause, or extent of a disease.”

Said endeavor, done on the self, with comparison to the other, over waves of time. 

       And then what comes out at the other shore? 
       Will it have been “master[d] and release[d]”? (153)

What is it to survive?

January 19 January 20

This will be a text I write and erase, repeatedly. This will be a miracle labor to get on the page. Don’t forget about all of the lines I snare from you, SQ, even if they are not on the surface of this text; I become a plagiarist mirroring you mirroring her. All of us rippling off each other. Kind of a new-retro sort of poetry couture. Wear your precursors. I like it.

Never go in alone.

January 23

Funnily enough, the “confessional” lyric poem written by the likes of its mid-twentieth century progenitors enacted its opposite: whatever the spill, it was an artful withholding. A redaction. It was mask. Lowell, Sexton. Content was messy. Form was controlled. Plath was a master. A masker.

A mask doesn’t cover the face; it amplifies and personifies it. The confession does not strip the confessor; it ornaments and illuminates. Plath’s poems may have beckoned toward a romance with an iconography of suicide but they were the inverse of the suicide note. They were greased (fat) and radiant (gold), flushed with artistic passion, fully astir and alive (like a ticking watch, like love, like a hive of lies, like the internet). They also aspired to and expected and were overwhelmed by readership, if that is possible. Is that possible?

January 22

I say they expected readership because of where, at the beginning of her writing life, Plath was located, at Smith College, in the academic humanities. The writing was already meant for competition. This is no Dickinson writing for decades in a cupboard. And then Plath had her mirror in Hughes. Whatever many identify as his oppressive vampiric effects, she described him as her engaged reader who valorized the work as belonging in a top-tier poetry conversation. She deserved it, but then again, what if she hadn’t found her early route into that level of editorial reception? Would she have managed a creative life without mirroring? Could she have borne the silence that so many poets face so utterly? [Insert quivering echo chamber HERE.] After her crawlspace suicide effort when she was twenty, she lived through several years of mental illness, and the chaotic intimacy and betrayal by Ted.

Then within three years, she birthed two children — a vastly different kind of external possession. Many of us who have raised children throb with all the knowing that comes with inhabiting the maternal cauldron of merged rage, panic, fear, uncertainty, fatigue, doubt, and solitude. (Not to mention the particular bother of children to poets, the pullings at the body they do, yanking us from the poem’s work. [I was in a chat with Christine and she reminded me of this.] Ultimately, if this scene continues, the poem begins to look very different.)

The fiction about maternal satisfaction and equilibrium is one of patriarchy’s most sustained and unadmitted damages. How about a #metoo movement for mothers to admit how hard it is, and how crazed and situated at the brim of sanity is mothering? Parenting needs to be utterly reorganized, into a collaboration of equally caregiving coparents who share the work and the psychological extremities of parenting. (One might essentialize, would a double-mother household help? Might that alone improve things?)

January 23 January 25

Then again, some mothers fail the test. Some are unable to perform a parental capacity to focus upon their children’s needs. That kind of mother can make you fear you are crazy. In the most heart-rending and courageously shaped way, My Ariel talks about that kind of mother, a problematic, glamorous, frightening, dazzling kind, a terrifyingly inconsistent narcissist, a substance abuser, a lost one, a violent and violating one. An outrageously obliterating mother that infests her children’s early years and adolescence, who competes for space and consciousness (and, also, who often drives the survivor of such parenting to writing and other forms of artmaking).

The inner voice has to survive, and can do so with brilliance. The more brill the voice, the higher the stakes.

If Ariel is the thing that survives Plath’s death and becomes transtemporal, My Ariel is this to Queyras’s writerly possession by intergenerational family trauma. As well as a procedural performance that rocks the boundaries of the published form of lyric-confessional poetry, it is the manuscript that is sent up to survive the ritual burial through these poems of her internalized mother-bitch, on the occasion of having herself transformed into a mother, while acknowledging how complex it is to also be the “daddy-mama” (152) in a lesbian partnership. Bye bye Mom, if only to protect the next gen. “[N]o, you will not take root in my babies; / You will not come back for more” (139). This mother strives to become a fierce protector of her children, a barricade against passing on mental illness based in childhood trauma at the hands of the mother. The real and virtual dance in a lethal tango.

Plath wasn’t that kind of infiltrative and erasing mother, not that I can see in her poems. She woke in the very early morning, a striking act of self-discipline and artistic survivorship, so she could write around the banks of mothering. This lasted less than three years, but she did try. She knew the days would not allow it; the children required her body and her mind. After Ted was banished for his betrayal with Assia, Sylvia had a window of solitary writing mind, so long as the children were asleep. She made a place for writing to happen (from 3 or 4 am to dawn, apparently; she must have been lunatic with fatigue.). She didn’t kill her children; she killed herself.

I’m not romanticizing her; I’ve recognized in Queyras’s invocation to the living Plath, that Plath for a brief interval handled this, in her mid-twenty-something steely aspiration for creative bearing. Even earlier as a young woman, Plath strikes me as utterly substantive; imagine finding the time to write 696 letters home to your mother once you left her place of residence. Getting the envelopes into the post even. That’s an act of family service, and another tether, a daughter’s soliloquy despite the semblance of detachment we might assume of awful (so people say) Aurelia.

Then again Sylvia was a mother for less than three years. Death was her next shore. One of my students, in her early twenties, calls out Queyras for the section title “Motherhood is a Young Woman’s Game.” Here the exhaustion and utter self-erasure that ensues with portraying the mental and physical health stakes of being a mother of twins in her late forties jangle against the reality that Plath was a young mother who, wait a second, KILLED herself.

Well. Queyras is addressing not Plath per se, but Sylvia’s poetry, which survives her, which is the Lazarus we all cleave to in literature to prove about the human soul. We last in our poems, whether or not we last in our bodies. So we can imagine Sylvia as a venerable old contemporary bitch of eighty-five years, to date, exhilaratingly nowhere near silence. Instead of disgust at magazines promoting the young white female poet in a swimming suit, we can roam and rove over her youthful embodiment that same way we might scan and feed off of the rare photographs we have of our own mothers and grandmothers in their youthful, visible bodies. This retrieval animates and subjectifies. It’s sentimental I suppose, and also deeply involved in a negotiation with time, with the little time we recognize we have, at all those moments of frightening candor. Time is ticking. Death is inevitable.

Except through writing. Jesus, let us find a way to write. Although it feels like being trapped in an MRI machine. (Maybe, I haven’t been in one.) Simile: It feels like flame. Like possessing and being possessed.

January 27

Vintage confession: I was born in July of 1962; my mother was almost thirty-one. I have this general timeline in common with Sina Queyras, who was born in 1963 to a mother who was thirty-two. [In high school I wore my mom’s little cashmere sweaters and her pearl strings as an expression of my evolving inner artiste: spin and re-spin.] Spooky for Queyras (and for me), Plath died at thirty, in February of 1963, when her mother Aurelia was fifty-six — and she (incredibly) stayed alive until March of 1994. Sylvia’s daughter Frieda, not even three when Sylvia committed suicide, is now fifty-seven, approximately the age of Queyras (and me). Sylvia’s son Nicholas hung himself at the age of forty-six.

Why all the dates? In My Ariel, Queyras closely reads Plath’s writing and directly addresses Plath’s biography, interleaving her soliloquy with an equally driven inquiry into her relationship with her own mother and more recently her experience as a nonbiological mother of boy/girl twins (where the social construction of gendering is an ongoing watch), taking possession of the many symmetries and resonances, mapping the divergences, writing with candor. She sustains a poetic absorption into a temporality of thick thought that spans decades, especially back to (unchilded) Virginia Woolf, and which shimmers forward to the text’s present with a daughter’s complex grief, disappointment, frustration, rage, and sense-seeking.

Confession and possession. Queyras determines to stage a personal and contemporary inquest into the codes of patriarchal femininity that delimit every forward movement of Plath’s survivorship. For beyond waves of grief and the void of loss Sylvia suffered during the brutal shock of her father’s early death, she went on to survive her own suicidal ideation through the two subsequent decades.

Queyras, through My Ariel, but also through M x T (2011) and in her novel Autobiography of Childhood (2014), bravely and tenaciously incarnates a survivor of intensely deluging fucked-up family chaos. This book both masks and unmasks the complex psychology of straining to emerge from her own mother’s “deep green quarry” — whether mania, narcissism, rage, depression, or grief at losing one of her children to accidental death: “It has taken me decades to / Climb out, to hear her voice and not detach” (44). Queyras addresses Plath as you, and her own mother as she.

One of the best metaphors I learned from years of feminist therapy was the kitestring. In order to soar out into the abyss of closely reading one’s past life experiences and not lose hold of the present moment, which can bring one dangerously close to drowning in the void of dislocation and/or the break of dissociation, one needs a rope, a line, a string, a cord. In My Ariel, instead of the author holding afloat the many balloons of Plath’s precarity, the brilliant poems of Plath’s astonishing survivorship are Queyras’s kitestrings. She acknowledges with more bluntness than in any of her previous poetry and fiction how placed upon the slippery edge of that deep green quarry of psychosis the poet can feel herself to be, as a woman, writer, daughter, sister, and mother.

These are all balloons inside balloons, not separate orbs bobbing into cloud.

January 23 January 29

“It’s a sad / fact Sylvia never read Stein” (78). Here Queyras addresses competition among women writers, wondering what might have happened if more “radical” modernists had been the gift of influence upon the one so canonically driven. We can always in hindsight wish a certain intertextual rub had occurred. For me it’s the wish that Brossard’s early work, like L’amer ou le Chapitre effrité (1977; translated 1983 by Barbara Godard as These Our Mothers: Or, The Disintegrating Chapter) or the open field poetics of Marlatt and Nichol via the Black Mountain School poets, had aerated Queyras’s prosody on the page. But that’s my own trajectory, my own influence-shores. Queyras’s craft builds with the lyric stanza, punctuation, and the new sentence, and often works in the prose poetic block, channeling Woolf. She wields syntactics. She exceeds what a sentence might hold and how it can be riven by breath and breathlessness. She never takes away the hurdles of grammar and punctuation. Her texts name Robertson and Spahr as tremendous reference points, but more than these two poets Queyras has demanded of herself an intense labor in the public symposia of social media over the last ten years, fielding, jockeying, galloping, defying all presumptions about poets cordoning themselves into local rooms of writing privacy, and refusing to be quiet, contained, or toppled. She topples all adversaries. Sometimes she has positioned her critics as adversaries, not as generous correspondents. (And yet, anyone who spends two weeks on a review is not an adversary, not in this climate or economy, not in poetry’s evacuation from the novel-led universe of public writing culture; no, this is an effort of close reading and thinking, an act of accompanying, listening, and being touched by the work. It also has a toll on the critic.)

Aside from style, though, this poem seems like the trampoline of gas Plath’s mind was bouncing on that whole long last night. Each little sentence a shallow inhale, leading to “Be byebyegones” (78). Devastating.

February 1

“Traumatic moments orbit me sweetly” (53–4). Writing a collapsed autobiography (that overtly translates the fiction of her novel Autobiography of Childhood to the fiction of memoir) as she sits by her dying mother’s real or virtual (true or symbolic) bed, Queyras gleans irony as she moves past Plath’s famous demise.

[…]I have good aim, shot a BB gun at eight,
A rifle at ten, a .45 Magnum at fifteen, at twenty-six
My ex-partner said, ‘Every hour we create our world,
And you are creating a nightmare.’ Am I now?
[…] At twenty-eight […]
[…] At twenty-nine […]
At thirty […] At thirty-one
I showed myself again, and at thirty-two I shut it
Firmly as I left, for the last time, or so I thought;
Survival is a French farce. At forty-eight, waiting
For my partner to give birth, I realized I was always
Going to have those guns in me, how could I not
Pass them on? (53–54)

A narrative of lucid self-tasking, managed by the part of self that’s managed to survive the problematic mother’s mortal exeunt. Doesn’t mean the influence mill goes quiet. No — here’s where the real theatre digs in. For after the mother dies: “What silence / will invade the dark centre of my mind?” (55).

January 29

The back cover of the book prompts, “Do you remember where you were when you first read Ariel?” No. I bought a Lowell book in 1987 (on my way to fuck a very bad-boy lover), I think that led me to Plath. Then, no. That’s a total lie. In 1983 I was recorded reading “Daddy” for my-then partner’s electronic music project. He translated my voice into the voice of a young girl. It was fucking spooky. It put me inside Sylvia, into an invective against the father that felt utterly taboo. All of my feminist fury was Electra-arrayed against my artist-mother; my father was beloved.

I do recall though how Ariel demanded to be read aloud. No quiet café reading. It was at home, in a kitchen, no one else in the house: READ IT. And then I went to The Bell Jar — I was ravenous for the mask of female dissemblage. At the same time I was introduced to Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations, which pirates Dickens in service of autopsying gender and power relations. The layers for me as a young feminist female reader at age twenty were pluralistic, and thick, where Plath, as well as daring, was also holding a certain venerated canopy of Anglo-American poetry aloft. She seemed to say something about my mother’s generation, and helped me to comprehend how daring my own mother’s crossover was, in her fifties, to becoming the visual artist she’d always wanted to be. The poetics of feminist confession had become largely about outing the heteropatriarchal inner scripts that when cemented into political discourse remain untended, unadmitted. In my apprenticeship, a multiplied lesbian-anchored subject that turns back and within as a concept of self became the position to be re/writing from. Plath’s point of view seemed remarkably unitary, and her performance of poetic authority highly invested.

Her bubbles, the balloons, were meant to float, not pop.

January 24

A full page filled with an all-cap testimonial invoking a teenaged “I” confessing an unconscious going-along-with sexual apprenticeship to an abusive male, possibly paternal figure: “WILL YOU / KNEEL AS HE LAYS HIMSELF LIKE A TONGUE DEPRESSOR / INTO YOUR CLEAN YOUNG MOUTH? WILL YOU EAT IT?” (79). If I read the “you” as SP, who is the dramatis persona of much of the book, what is Plath being asked to perform, accept, admit, enact? If I’m supposed to picture Sylvia here on her juvenile knees fellating, or if I’m to carry the wave of this imagery over to the references to a fifteen-year-old being sexually abused in a hotel room which occur at numerous points in My Ariel, then does it assist the conscious calling out of this damage to have me visually imagine the scene? Or is the all-caps trope a vocal-affective signifier to build association with an Acker porn-appropriating turn, a Holzer NY eighties feminist anticapitalist trope, using and inhabiting public commodity signifiers instead of staying safely and denyingly inside their doors? I like the drawing into this book of the Judy Chicago Dinner Party era of rebellious specifically feminist-identified influence. It also reminds me of Robertson’s typographic excursions in Debbie; An Epic and Rachel Zolf’s Janey’s Arcadia, which also pirates Acker. And its inclusion in a book that autobiopsies Plath works profoundly against type [sic], i.e. we can easily imagine DADDY told in all caps, fulfilling its affective extremity with concrete graphic typography.

Here’s another segment: “I WAS SO FAR INSIDE MYSELF THE ECHO OF MY / MOTHER’S DAUGHTER ROARED AT ME AND I KILLED HER / OFF” (79). In the era of disembodied social media, emphatic capitalization capitalizes on extreme affect. It refers to posters getting uppity and signaling their urgent utterances. It imbues the voice with the pitch of high protest, often lathed with indignation, self-bolstering, insistence, and an over-the-top confessionality. What we really mean; and being the loudest voice in the room. In general this goes on inside the head as we auralize into our own consciousness the tenor of someone else’s writing. What if Plath’s original Ariel was simply reset in all caps and republished in a HEADSTONE edition? That would be conceptual recyclage. Here in Queyras I think we are hearing an interjection that women carry this intensity of intergenerational maternal violence in our inner voices, screaming at ourselves, going into depths of loud fog that in many cases can be lethal. She is no small ghost to silence.

January 25

Today I notice a post on Facebook showing the time-lapsed map of seismic waves of a suboceanic earthquake rippling from northwest to southeast across the entire North American continent (Turtle Island). Sometimes I need a diagram, a bit of science, a poetics of the exemplar.

In My Ariel, one by one of each of Sylvia Plath’s original Ariel poems becomes a balloon that Queyras explodes, with often-incandescent detonation skills. It’s an air and light show. Or, the pop of the poem is an orgasm that pulses and palpitates in an ever-widening ring, yes, I do, mean to compare each of Queyras’s overpoems to female coming. Or, it’s a full womb, timeless sac popped by a live birth that pushes its way into the world, setting time ticking, waving, continuous.

For each, there is no single location or dissipation interval. You get to wait, feel, notice, and chart all the corollary, diasporic, subsequent shivers, and subterranean waves push up into and within numerous Queyras poems.

Add to this the obvious analogy of riding a horse whose gallop, gated inside a large circuit, is covering ground round and around with intention. As its rider you can hear, see, and sense it as a vibrational event, in the body. Rider; writer; reader. Heriel.

February 11 [fifty-five years later]

How well can one die? How well can writing be an act of overwriting the raw, real, and uncontested version of self? Do we really want to stop thought?

I have ended up writing this text over the first few weeks of winter 2018, spent in solitude in a private sublet cottage in Freezing Edmonton, a portion of my residency. My three children are now adults [HOW????], and although I hear their voices and Facebook videochat with them every week or so, I am utterly reconstructed by and through this eventual ample space to sustain me = writing. I don’t know how I got here from the difficult, haunted, often-headmad years of my early motherhood when in some ways similar to Queyras I also engaged procedural poetic writing efforts as both ambient and resistant defense against the interiorized violences shoved into my psyche by heteropatriarchal maternality and a wounded mother whose need for solitude was vehement and unmeetable, particularly by her children. This book by Queyras reminds me of what I recognize (with crashing and still-tender vibrancies); and, also, teaches me about how her hall of mirrors is subjectively particular, lesbian-epistemic, gender-scopic, scathingly body-bound and a sustained abyss-odyssey with endless torques and insurrections. None of this shit is easy, and it takes a divine warrior to survive it. “Refresh. Refresh.” (8) She writes in circles, she writes through circles.

Everything but the stories was lies. No, everything, especially the stories, was lies. No, everything but the feelings behind the stories, lies. No, everything, including the feelings, lies.
            Let feelings lie. (141)

“My survival is a bewilderment.” I think this is my favorite lie/line in Queyras’s wonderful, volatile, chaotic, insomniac, candid, harrowing, ascendant collection.   

1. Sina Queyras, My Ariel (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2017), 8.