Drive down a freeway through typical North American urban sprawl – whether it be Toronto, New Jersey, Houston or L.A. – and you will encounter a cluttered yet relentlessly vacuous landscape. In her latest collection, Expressway, Sina Queyras takes that landscape as an extended metaphor for our contemporary world: a world of blurring speeds, heavy freight, fast food, exhaust, collision, gridlock, a dream of freedom gone totally awry.
More than two centuries after the English Romantic poets celebrated the harmony of nature and the human imagination, nature has been almost wholly subverted, yet animated in new and surprising ways: a “land bunching, ruffling” with “the joy of onward, the joy of forward, the endless fuel.” Enlivened by references to cellphones, DVDs and text messages, Queyras’ work becomes a critique of a peculiarly modern paradox: as transport and communications reduce distances and draw us together, so they also isolate us and compound an ever more profound loneliness.
The poem that most masterfully encapsulates these themes is the opening one, fittingly called “Solitary.” Here a female persona wanders near an expressway, past its various flotsam and detritus, questioning “what sympathy of sounds” is to be found there – all the while considering the “multiple pathways” of history and an uncertain future as she tries desperately to call home to resolve an unspecified personal grief. Her crimson cellphone ends the inquiry with the force of a slamming door.
She snaps her cellphone closed: no one. Alone.
The century is elsewhere. She turns her back,
Swallows her words. She will do anything for home.
Thenceforth Queyras’ project is to thoroughly explore the manifold dimensions of her central metaphor. The reference to the Romantics is not an idle one: not only is imagery from Shelley and Wordsworth reframed; the entire collection is modeled on Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lyrical and manifesto-like poems alternate with surreal and ironical prose poems that she, like Blake before her, calls “Memorable Fancies.” After “Crash,” a ferocious pastiche of expressway deaths collaged together from Google searches, Queyras inserts a quaint and peaceful interlude crafted from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals, highlighting the very serenity we have lost. The collection concludes with a take-off on Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, which while more subdued than the fiery visionary, frequently crackles with insight and deadpan humour: “The body sublime, the heart SUV.” “Drive your car on the bones of the dead.” “Once thought filled immensity: now it purchases goods.”
Queyras’ predominant tone in relation to the expressway is one of restrained anger, punctuated by moments of ambivalence, where the irresistible “slide of modernity” is also “beautiful.” There are delightfully coy and sensual moments like this one: “She lifts the expressway’s veil. Hardly modest but, still, a crevice here and there to slip into.”
At times, however, Queyras’ project becomes laboured. Except for the odd arresting verse or phrase, a six-section poem in the middle entitled “Endless Interstates” seems a needlessly obscure slog. Nevertheless, Queyras succeeds in creating a powerful gestalt, where dull, violent and intensely lyrical notes blend together into the expressway’s unending hum.
Expressway is nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award in the poetry category. Winners will be named on Nov. 17.
Brian Campbell’s second poetry collection, Passenger Flight, was recently released by Signature Editions.