The title of Sina Queyras’s new collection suggests an equation for measuring grief – “memory x time” – while parodying the reduction of human emotions to algebraic formulae. This pataphysical play continues in the form of various graphical figures, which include graphs measuring “direct mourning” and a diagram of an “emotional overload sensor circuit.” The majority of the book is structured as a diagram followed by a short prose piece addressed to a “Dear One,” itself followed by a series of (mostly) prose poems ruminating on death and its attendant questions.
Queyras frequently deploys the first person plural, and the book reads less like a private lyric lament than a public, collective mourning, an approach most appropriate to elegy. The writing is comparable to that of Lisa Robertson: the rigorous presentation of a genre in the process of questioning and transforming itself; the ignoring of any distinction between theory and practice; the enigmatic references; the questions delicately poised between the interrogative and the rhetorical. “We want to know how to be women artists in the world,” the speaker declares in “Of the Hollow,” and M x T resonates with names of writers and artists such as Mary Oliver, Diane Arbus, and Daphne Marlatt, “with her words a peak of foam.”
The closing sections depart from the structure described above by presenting a series of explicit elegies. It is here that we encounter Queyras’s range and virtuosity: her play with enjambment in “Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath,” with mathematical equations in “Elegy for My Father’s Labour,” with anagrammatic permutations in “Two Elegies for Grief as Jackson Pollock,” with typography in “Elegy for Agnes Martin.” Queyras constructs her “Elegy Written in a City Cemetery” out of citations from, echoes of, riffs on, and responses to lines from famous elegies in the Western tradition.
The book ends with “Elegy for Photographs Not Taken,” a rapid cataloguing of images, presumably from childhood. The equation suggested by the book’s title seems paradoxical. Rather than memory, and thus mourning, diminishing with time (as common wisdom has it), M x T suggests it multiplies.