Lemon Hound by Sina Queyras. Coach House Books, $16.95.
Reviewed by Erin McFarland
From Sina Queyras’ third collection, Lemon Hound, spring forth six sections of contemporary prose poetry that activate the interplay between earth and cityscape, where tailored intellect meets the matter-of-fact. Laced with Virginia Woolf-inspired content, Queyras cultivates a rhythm that rocks the reader through a frontier map of the twenty-first century woman. Anything but still, the passages navigate the realities of urbanity, expectations of nature, and limits of feminine perspective in a world that has long since undermined the merits of modernism.
Playing with form, Queyras presents the dueling perspectives of old school and new school femininism, generating a conversation of rhythmic, repetitive phrases between various voices, each postulating the role of woman. Most evident in the first two sections, “A river by the moment” and “On the scent,” Queyras summons stock symbols of nature and industrialization, carving female identity from trees and concrete. Spanning the pages of the second section, she negotiates the unmitigated space between women who “toast veggie dogs” and “wear Birkenstocks” and “buy soy” with their counterparts, who “buy magazines and try new diets” and say “oh for Manolo Blahniks” and “consider law school” and “buy eye cream even if they love wrinkles.” The laundry list of juxtapositions continues throughout the work, engaging the reader in a steady, dichotomic conversation between high and low.
Charting the territories between generations of women, Queyras concludes the section “On the scent” with an exposé of the contemporary female, conceived as the lovechild of nature, the city, and her mother: “They are so done with political messages. They are so past any need to protest. They are so What’s your problem? They are so We’re fine with the way things are. They are so Get over it. They are so Accept it. They are so Anger is uncool. They are so Move out of our way rigid one, and let the beautiful ones sing.” For Queyras, the trouble of defining womanhood in a changing world manifests itself throughout Lemon Hound. She continuously reimagines the idea of the feminine yet reaches the same roadblock with each attempt: “If only what was feminine were firm.”
Inserting slices of Virginia Woolf into a matrix of feminism for 2006, Lemon Hound remains chock-full of allusions and even borrowed language, infusing the old school v. new school dispute with a modernist ethos. Perhaps this poses a problem for readers unfamiliar with Woolf, especially as Queyras admits in her acknowledgements that the text is a “direct response to and engagement with the work of Virginia Woolf.” However, when consulting the passages, readers need not apply a “What Would Woolf Do” logic to extract bits of significance. Rather, the references to Woolf, even while enriching, do not hinder Lemon Hound’s accessibility. In fact, when diving into the text, unaware of the collection’s trajectory, the reader will not even encounter Woolf’s name until the third section, titled “Virginia, Vanessa, the Strands.” Until Woolf, proper nouns like Microsoft, Bjork, Hilary, Prozac, Cosmo, Bloomingdale’s, Johnny Depp, Chekhov, Penn Station, Cate Blanchett, Good Housekeeping, Middle East, Chrysler, Twizzlers, and Clint Eastwood sprinkle the text, keeping the contemporary reader, as well as the Woolf scholar, within Queyras’ reins.
Lemon Hound’s dedication to Woolf unfolds as “Virginia, Vanessa, and the Strands” portray scenes of Woolf and her biological sister, Vanessa, after whom many of Woolf’s characters are assumed to be modeled. While an understanding of Woolf’s real-life relationship with Vanessa enhances the text, Queyras’ language provides sufficient insight into the sisterhood. As displayed in “The buzz, the croon, the smell, all seemed to press voluptuously against some membrane,” the sisters forge their own dichotomy: “Vanessa is impatient. Vanessa wants the poppies to unfold, she thumbs the slit and Virginia is appalled. Virginia understands something about holding back. Her presence does nothing to encourage.” In the piece, Vanessa desires to paint over the poppies, creating an immortal version of nature. Virginia, shocked by the immediacy for artifice, craves patient observation and reflection, perhaps revealed only later in her own writing. Regardless of familiarity with Woolf, the discrepancies between visual art and written art engage the reader. The unfeasible reconciliation between two minds, Virginia and Vanessa, similarly echoes the competing threads of femininity stranded throughout the text.
The final piece in the section “Meanwhile, Elsewhere, Otherwise,” titled “Or: another way of telling,” reinvents Woolf’s stock characters, from the Ramsays to Lily Briscoe. Reminiscent of “Time Passes,” the second section of To the Lighthouse, “Or: another way of telling” introduces the struggles of Lily as a painter while meditating on the association of nature and death. Evoking strong imagery and employing avant-garde sentence structures, Queyras writes: “Alone, Perished words wrote themselves all over the grey-green (as the waves) the immense pressure of his concentrated woe: she couldn’t paint couldn’t create words--no longer aware who originally spoke them.” Queyras describes the difficulty of the creative process, resistant until the artist internally and externally locates the perfect medium for form and content.
Beyond her affiliation with Woolf, Queyras’ alliance to Gertrude Stein proves more evident, as Stein’s presence pervades the pages of Lemon Hound. After all, she “tries Advil and Stein,” applying Stein’s repetitive form to her own style. Queyras crafts phrases with similar opening clauses while playing with voice, conjuring a rhythmic painting of her own. In true modernist fashion, Queyras adheres to a fragmented structure, jumping seamlessly from the Canadian frontier to the macadam of New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn. Queyras’ primary vehicle is the river, a gray area between nature and city, portrayed with strong imagery from the start: “The river is not confined to the town. The river is townless, yet the river is town, for without the river there is no town . . . Without the river there are no bridges . . . Without the river foundations crack.” For her, the river provides a constant exchange of form and content and old school and new school feminism. Similar to a river, Queyras’ prose poetry seeks constant mobility in short phrases that both lull and shake, while adopting a unique voice for each individual poem, ranging from “she” to “it” to “he” to “they.”
Playing further with the tensions of nature and cityscape, the poem “Our Lady of Bark” describes the manner in which nature and city would one day speak to one another: “Given time she would weave trees into skin. Given time trees would sprout feet and enter Manhattan. All the granite from Vermont would call out for a reunion. There are stranger things. We pass by daily. There is a place for bark, she says, and it is tender.” Queyras’ prose poetry evokes the return to the city, a contemporary hub of art and culture, yet in the scheme of natural language plagued with modernity. Recurring images include women as salmon, swimming upstream, while plugged into a contrived lifestyle, their hearts running out of batteries, feeding off artifice. The frequent image of the female on a bridge indicates a desire for reconciliation, and plays out in Vanessa and Virginia, yet remains problematic when Queyras points out the irony of women who “carry their laptops into gardens.”
Even as Lemon Hound may struggle to define the feminine amidst generation gaps and the ambiguities of locale and artistry, Queyras dares to inform readers what they will not find in her collection, including a woman who “might feel naturally quite content with herself, see the city as a pleasant backdrop” as noted in her poem “Some other poet in the city.” And, true to her claims, the text neither praises the city nor is self-aggrandizing. She does not “couplet,” and her poems are neither “tidy” nor “sestina.” In fact, veering from convention is what makes her collection. Queyras’ content, the ambiguities that accompany the philosophical-banal intersection, could not assemble so well in another form. Lemon Hound’s unique rhythms provide immediate gratification while its layered substance affords greater fulfillment with each reading.