Apr/May 2010 Reviews & Interviews

Before the Threshold

Sue Sinclair.
Brick Books. 2008. 96 pp.
ISBN 978-1-894078-66-5.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! Sue Sinclair is always

coming upon the world at moments during which it is unusually poised. In the poem "Vanity," from her present volume Breaker, there is a nymph of sorts:

So beautiful it can afford to be careless,
the tree has dropped handfuls of white petals
and now leans down to admire itself
in the fragrant pool.

It leans down "now" because it has become human at the moment she looks at it. Not just human for the nonce, though, for the moment she looks at it a human past spreads out behind it, beginning with its "dropped handfuls of white petals," and the presumption of a future before it.

Still outwardly a tree, its seeming act of bending over has made it the receptacle of a rich interior life such as Sinclair reads into every inanimate object that, as her eyes fall upon it, is a moment pregnable. The suggestion is that Sinclair's own interior world is bursting with the desire for release. The least intimation of correlation and all of the complex of interior emotions and experiences implied in a gesture are instantly mapped onto the object.

As for animate objects, they tend to serve much the same purpose for lurking internal states. The animate hasn't the innocence of the inanimate, it is less explicable and is therefore more expressive of less explicable emotions. In this aspect of Sinclair's Breaker the received hierarchy of symbols is observed: the more primitive the creature, the deeper, the more elemental and fundamentally unnamable the emotion.

At times, this received symbolic menagerie is put to surprisingly new effects. In the poem "Fifth View of Bell Island," for example:

The Raelians say
they have cloned a child.
The soul becomes lonelier.

Snow thick in the air now.

In the harbor, a seal bobs up—
its dark eyes see
another seal buried deep
inside you.

The seal, momentarily up from the depths, its kind as threatened as the soul, its being unfolding itself within a medium foreign to us, uniquely corresponds to something that momentarily surfaces within us.

In the poem "Injured Swan," on the other hand, the swan, having an ineluctable history as symbol, is a more familiar mystery. The metaphor bridges a shorter distance:

The part of us that is swan trembles
before a panic so well-kept. Your pain
is stashed in a vault somewhere inside you,
a document no one dares claim.

The poem is better lighted. In this fashion, the subconscious is given layers.

Sue Sinclair has frequently been compared to (among other poets) Rainer Maria Rilke and the comparison continues to offer fruitful insights. Rilke spent decades writing poems the beauty of which too often depended upon avoiding closure. After this fashion he achieved a sense of suspension, a sense of bringing the reader before a door that only he or she could open for themselves.

Rilke admitted, to his closest confidants, that he himself had not yet been able to open those doors. He yearned, as much as his readers, to go to the other side of them and that shared longing gave the poems their effect. Even as late as the New Poems, in which the poet gave us such memorable poems as "The Panther" and the "Archaic Torso of Apollo," he had not yet managed to enter in. His sense of incompleteness was palpable.

As the rule, the stronger poems in Sue Sinclair's volume Breaker draw back from closure. They define the extent of her range and her desire to find her way beyond it and that is everything. Her more mainstream poems often effloresce strangely, for a few stunning lines, by virtue of the growing interiority gleaned from writing the less mainstream and that fact alone justifies the effort.

At this point in her writing life, she clearly is not seeking the density Rilke achieved even in his earlier volumes. In fact, she is avoiding it. She is pleased to write her poems in the second person or first person plural, when person is called for, thereby avoiding any first person claim to ego or transcendence while inviting the reader to invest her- or himself in the experiences describe in the poems.

Her relationship with God or gods (and, one assumes, angels), is decidedly un-Rilkean suggesting where the two part ways. Already, in her second volume, Mortal Arguments, there is reason to believe that the God that inhabits Sue Sinclair's poetry is often present as a rebuttal to the earlier poet's:

God's lesson, his absence—that's
what we feel now. Religious vertigo,
dizziness that is the same
as being empty,
that is not the same as doubt
or belief.

God suddenly appears, here and there, throughout the volume, by virtue of his absence or the disappointment he engenders or her immigrant grandmother's worship of her grandfather (now a touching memory and unwelcome legacy).

That ironic presence persists in Breaker. By the end of the poem "St. Phillip's, Rain," she is less velleitiously [Coinage warning! See "velleity."] hoping and still being disappointed. The "ascetic" rain "doesn't / want to go anywhere," as opposed to:

...the rest of us sick with longing for a god
we no longer believe in, our faces
like spoons, plain and hungry.

The implication, suddenly, would seem to be that God's absence leaves us lacking something vital to our individuality, to full personhood. But too little groundwork has been laid to be sure of such a reading. There is reason to question whether she actually finds us "sick with longing" or is simply pleased to have found an image that contrasts so effectively with otherness of the "rail-thin" rain and that delivers us effectively to the curious hint at closure in the final two lines.

Later, in the poem "Portugal Cove, Night," however, Sinclair's God need not be longed for. This is a very different deity and he is present:

This is the form in which he is most terrifying—
his pupil has opened so wide he can see
everything at once, just as it is, the sum of his will.
He will take what he chooses. You look as far
into his eye as you can bear, try to seem unafraid.


This is not the god you dreamed of.

One is tempted to see in this the signs of an evolution of the poet's God-image, moving toward the Rilkean in the closeness and power it attributes to deity but not in the equation of God with nature-tooth-and-claw.

A reader might be tempted to dismiss these references to deity, in a contemporary poetry, as no more than a persistent metaphor that must, in some ways, always be poorly chosen. From such a perspective, Sue Sinclair's God is merely an outdated trope and all inconsistencies are explained by the fact.

But there are hints everywhere that Sue Sinclair is impressed by her smallness, her vulnerability, and at least one hint that, in moments yet too vague to find their place in her poetry, she feels called upon to write poems much too big for her. "In your dreams," she writes, in the poem "Waiting":

you hear the trees rustle and whisper and hiss
their disappointment. For you are not

the serum, not the powerful, Herculean,
mythical, myth bearing creature they need.

[] they're waiting for someone.
And you're not that someone.

She is, of course, once again mapping her own disappointment onto those trees so disappointed with her. Her longing for a God image, in spite of her determination to live and write a magical beauty into decidedly mainstream, quotidian boundaries, is as sincere and shockingly contradictory as this sense that she is called upon to be the "myth bearing creature" that those around her need. Both likely arise from a single desire, a desire about which she is deeply conflicted.

All of this said, the poems of Sue Sinclair's Breaker are overwhelmingly concerned with the magic that suffuses our daily lives. It is there, in the quotidian, where no cosmic issues are being resolved, where no gods or great myths press too closely upon the living, where light has traveled such enormous distances to illumine a simple flower, that she unfolds her remarkable heart to the reader. And it is there, it would seem, that she must go beyond the poetry that began with Mortal Arguments in order to write her own New Poems.

While Sue Sinclair's Breaker may not be quite up to the level of Mortal Arguments, it is still a book to make most others look like so many bound tenure applications or narcissistic forays. As for the promise of the earlier book it remains the promise of the latter. The magic of Sue Sinclair's images makes it clear that she stands before a threshold that few poets can approach. She transports her readers to that threshold time and again leaving them standing there. From time to time a few wistful lines tell them of her desire to cross over. It is a desire that they share.


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