|A Review of: Mortal Arguments
by Brian Bartlett
When Emerson writes-in one of his greatest essays, "Experience",
from 1844-"I know better than to claim any completeness for
my picture. I am a fragment, and this is a fragment of me,"
he's talking in part about his own essay, his own art. "Like
a bird which alights anywhere," he continues, trying out another
metaphor, "but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the
Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment
speaks from this one, and for another moment from that one.".
When Emerson's "power" alights on the bough of Sinclair's
poetry, it's winged with metaphor. In her second collection, Mortal
Arguments, she is a poet for whom metaphor (including simile) is
primary. "Under your very nose," says one of her poems,
"a thing becomes itself / by changing into another." It's
hard to think of another Canadian poet for whom metaphor is more
pervasive and essential; we might cite other books that spark as
many memorable metaphors, but Sinclair's metaphors stand out as the
major mode of perception and expression. One of Sinclair's mentors,
Don McKay, is as metaphorically inspired, but his canvasses are
broader in that he more often mixes metaphors with anecdote,
quotation, allusion, sudden shifts into slang, abrupt switches in
tone, and changes in person. (Sinclair's book shows a definite
preference for "we" and "you", with only the
rarest "I".) Most of the poems in the book, with exceptions
such as "Legacy: 1943" and "Extinction", avoid
biographical detail and layering of social references. What Sinclair
gains through her exclusions, her resistance to rambling and
relaxation, is great economy and a consistently intense pitch.
In Mortal Arguments, metaphor has a much greater presence than
argument, but Sinclair-stretching the meanings of the second word
in her title-may think of metaphor as a sort of argument, one that
shakes our consciousness with the force of tropes rather than any
process of logic. Also, in discussions of poetry, little has been
written about how metaphor and emotion can be interwoven. The 1958
liner notes to Miles Davis's recording Milestones includes the
following: "Miles has developed an unusual beauty of tone that
gives warmth even to his most restrained, understated choruses. His
play has never lacked emotion but the emotion has usually been
contained-he doesn't slap emotions at the listener." That can
serve as a handy description of Sue Sinclair's poems, which to an
unusual degree pack their emotion not into first-person expressiveness
but into metaphor.
A celebration of Sinclair's book could begin by citing metaphors
that catch in the mind and don't go away: "as if life were a
hive of bees / you dare not disturb," or "The ocean roams
/ like a stray dog, whose name // no one knows." But out-of-context
quoting can't convey the impact of Sinclair's metaphors within their
poems. A few of her metaphors might loosely be called surreal in
their oddity-children learning to swim "snapping their legs
together / like mousetraps," "The sky an old, overstuffed
/ armchair in which no one lounges"-but more of them are
characterized by uncluttered plainness, not obvious strangeness.
Often they suggest naturalness rather than contrivance: "light
drops from the ceiling like a bird, / stunned," or the ocean
leaving "a thin / film on the sand / like a slug's trail."
Metaphor of course is always contrived to some extent (I don't mean
the adjective pejoratively), but the aptness of Sinclair's metaphors,
the way they seem to direct attention away from themselves to a
larger world, is reminiscent of Emerson again: "poetry is in
Nature just as much as carbon is: love and wonder and the delight
in suddenly-seen analogy exist as necessarily as space, or heat,
or Canada thistles" (Journal, April 1859).
One key characteristic of Sinclair's metaphors is how often they
can send our minds deep and far beyond the surface of the poem, how
rarely they're only localized and minor in their effects. Examples
of her decent minor metaphors include "raccoons, thugs / with
deft hands" or, more surprisingly, "Taxis float like water
lilies/ on the slick tarmac." Metaphors like those-and some
lesser poets only use metaphors of that sort-are less typical of
the book than, say, "the stars shine / like a cure that won't
be discovered / for years" (a metaphor I find unusually moving
in how it connects astronomical fact to human sickness and yearning
for more control over mortality). Another metaphor of sickness,
"the silence is an / operating room," seems to expand and
expand after its utterance, suggesting how silence isn't just a
place of healing but also a place of active work in the cause of
rescue. The sublime, an opening to the macrocosm and sense of great
spaciousness, arises from many of Sinclair's metaphors. They have
a generosity like that she speaks of light having: "Light says
we should redistribute / the wealth, touches every surface."
It's fascinating how often a sense of magnitude and a prompting of
awe occur not when the subject is something small compared to
something vast, but vice versa, when something large is made more
vivid with a more literally modest, small-scale image: the mind as
"a cloud of insects behind glass," the night "shuff[ing]
its deck of cards, play[ing] with your subconscious," or
"the stars, like children, / ... strapped into their seats,
not knowing / when they'll arrive."
A sort of making-the-sublime-familial occurs elsewhere too: "The
poem is everybody's / mother, remembering what can't be found, /
remembering who you are," and "Our urges / are like
children, we will gather / them into our laps, soothe them, spend
quality / time together" (humour is rare in Sinclair's book,
but I find this metaphor amusing, capped with the clich "quality
time" in which Sinclair gently mocks a fashionable idiom).
Another familial metaphor, "The day serious, / like a child
learning to read," like the comparison between stars and an
undiscovered cure, goes on expanding. Her poems are more convincing
when they use such precise metaphors than when they opt for vaguer
phrasings like "Your heart becomes / the world's emptiness,"
"Vast distances in my heart," and "unknown monument
to unknown crisis."
Another feature of Sinclair's poetry is how frequently they personify.
Again and again, she imagines inanimate things with consciousness:
"the light confesses/ its impure thoughts," daisies give
"small advice...to admit / nothing," and stars
"pretend...they need only / to be left alone." Personification
appears often enough in the collection I can't avoid feeling some
resistance, such as when Sinclair writes: "leaves, stalks,
the old trellis...want to haul themselves / up onto the frame of
your mind, become more than they are." Do they? a voice in me
asks stubbornly, or is that just the "mind" talking? If
a pattern of personification grows too thick in the book, two other
such patterns are a fondness for one-word titles (such as
"Dreams", "Illusion", "Nocturne",
and, yes, "Poem" and "Untitled") and for
sentence fragments: "Inevitable pressure of the sun. The cows
/ on their knees. White gloss of seeds / absorbing indecision";
"Checking the world / like a mailbox, waiting for a message.
/ Watching through the screen door, a pixelated / landscape of
expectation." In themselves these are admirable passages, but
cumulatively the commonness of such phrasings without subject-verb
combinations made me wish for more riverine syntax. (Sinclair's
inclination toward fragments is shared by other Canadian poets of
the past decade, which raises the question of whether our newer
poetry would benefit from a stronger influence of the syntactical
athleticism of, say, Avison, Coles, Van Toorn, or Moritz.)
I've chosen to concentrate on Sinclair's metaphors, but in a longer
review I would've also offered detailed looks at several of her
poems. For now, consider the very first poem in the collection.
"Birthday" is one of those one-word titles, but here the
spare title provides something not present in the rest of the poem,
something that should radically affect our reading of the poem.
(Whose birthday is it? The poet's? The reader's? An addressee's?
Maybe all of those.) This astounding poem, introducing the metaphysical
strengths of Sinclair's vision right away, goes from an earth-affirming
description of us as "heaven's compost" to the passage:
. . . . We take in what heaven can't
or won't put up with: living and dying,
the incomplete virtues of strength and weakness. It's not
there is no fear in heaven: the gods keep
watch over us, are afraid of the losses
we hold, afraid to die. They don't trust
their own endlessness....
Those frightened gods are reminiscent of Wallace Stevens's heavenly
ghost in "A Large Red Man Reading" who enviously fingers
the book of reality. The poem says paradoxically, "You are the
natural outcome / of immortality's inability to conceive"
(pause to get your mind around the idea of a "natural outcome"
to an "inability to conceive"), and the final line describes
that inability as "The one thing [heaven] can't bear, which
is why it needs you." The poem is one of Sinclair's more
abstract meditations, but also profoundly emotional, and that title
combined with the final line hint at gratitude for the things that
are, including the existence of selves born within time. For other
poems combining metaphysical eloquence with emotional force, readers
should check out "Forever" and "Sympathy".
We're lucky to have Mortal Arguments. With its own brand of watching,
discipline, and channelling of language, it helps illustrate Emerson's
statement in his essay "The Poet" that "the quality
of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze." Sinclair
is a poet worthy of much praise, though as a younger poet her readers
are likely to wonder how her poetry will change and grow in the
future. When we read her, to go back again to Emerson's "The
Poet", we may feel "like persons who come out of a cave
or a cellar into the open air."