While on a week-long trip to Humboldt County along the northern coast of California, I brought along with me a book of nature meditations that I thought might restore my desire to apprehend nature as it is captured on the page in the poem. Sue Sinclair’s Breaker is a book that is long on rapturous imagery and interesting metaphor. Her work is curious and intoxicating in the way it relentlessly takes on markers in the landscape and reflects on them. What it finds in them is that nature is a reflecting pool. Sinclair wrestles with the philosophical implications of simultaneously being in the world and thinking about it.
And overhead, the birds:
chips of bone in the sky, remnants,
fact of the world’s brokenness.
You look up, asking to be forgiven for a crime
you’re still trying to locate. You know it’s out there,
stare toward the edge of the marsh, the welt of bright water
shrinking before your eyes. A sky of pre-worldly clarity
only confirms your guilt, an inherent misalignment
that keeps you from knowing even a fraction
of what you see.
You cross the heat-ridden ground, the sweet brittle scent
of sage rising underfoot. So easy to pretend a single word
will occur to you, and that it will do all the good
anyone could hope. The earth is parched and lonely,
relies on dignity to protect it. Each thing hanging
by the thread of itself. Bleating crickets. Rustle of dry stalks.
The silence pushes you toward yourself:
it’s time to walk deep into the heart of what troubles you
Sometimes what is found is not so pleasant, just like in nature. Sometimes the discovery is troubling. One discovers one’s own deficiencies. It’s a cheap form of therapy. A hike into the woods and a tall conifer can be your analyst.
Many of the poems take a single subject and try to guess at the self through the subject. There is a poem about a pelican that issues thoughts on a vanquished will and the fear of the body and soul separating. A poem about a clearing speaks of a dark tunnel in things that we want to feel. Etc.
Sinclair is very much concerned with a mysterious undercurrent running through all of the subjects she focuses on, even through all of nature itself. It seems to be her self-appointed task to find that hidden vein in all that teems in the great outdoors. She explores this theme in many of the pieces, at times making it feel as though she is seeing all the way through to the back of the head of the animal she is gazing at.
Most of the poems work from “set pieces”. The author frames a scene and then thoroughly explores the intricacies of the scene the way one might observe a photograph by one of the Magnum photographers and look for the detailed elements that might explain more thoroughly what is going on . . . and more importantly, what is going on outside of the frame that is unseen. For this reason, it is no surprise that several of her pieces work off of photographs — Nan Goldin, Edward Weston. In these she explores the world within the snapshot. She gazes long and hard, thinking about them, then, in classic introspective philosophical manner, thinking about thinking about them. More often than not, she does manage to find a strain of the numinous — a Gaian animism.
As often as she does find some mysterious hidden otherworld behind this one that is visible, an elsewhere that beckons like a lost childhood. The speaker seems to long to place herself in that elsewhere “refusing all the blandishments” (as the book’s jacket blurb nicely puts it) of the scene the speaker is witnessing.
In Breaker Sinclair searches for the magic in a place (the way a fantasizing child might). In “Falling from a Great Height” Sinclair suggests that the desire to displace oneself is rooted in the way children want to displace themselves into the world of adults and adults want to go the other direction. The other realm is always luring us away.
Falling From a Great Height
A hardened, varnished afternoon.
Gulls pick at dumpsters
as boys ferry their basketball back and forth
over the centerline, stewards of the court.
Heat pours off the tarmac; they play deeply,
soulfully, until the day lopes off to the western
horizon and the game loses its appeal.
They go inside as darkness trembles
over the neighbourhood like an alcoholic’s hand.
A car passes; the sound of its engine wraps our minds
in its cocoon. We close our eyes, forget at last
what we’re made of and sink into the elsewhere
that cast its invisible shadow all day.
Heat drifts from room to room
not wanting to disturb anyone.
The garbage rots leisurely in the dumpster,
its rich odour attracting raccoons. Inside,
children and adults dream of changing places,
long for each other in the dark.
The world piles up its details as Sinclair antrhopomorphizes it to the point of animism. That “longing for each other in the dark” at the end of the piece is one of the inexplicable essential elements in Sinclair’s universe that defies any further definition. Other readers have noted a sense of brokenness in Breaker that invokes this sense of longing for the other (indeed Sinclair even refers to this occasionally and suggests it in the title). I also got this sense to a certain extent throughout the book. But what prevailed for me was the interest in the mysterious other not the disappointment that a prolonged connection could not be forged with it. Her aim at the mysterious soul of a place and its objects is remarkably true so I never felt like the speaker was overly self-consciousness of her missing that longed-for realm. Yet the speaker is insistent on the partition between the perceived world and its barely distinguishable flip side where mystery lingers.
So why does a poet insist on staring at the soul of a place? This is a fundamental existential question that I would have liked to see Sinclair engage with more fully. I wanted to know if there was some reason other than naked desire that she would send herself out into the landscape to hunt down its inner pulses of spirit. Why this obsession with the unknown/unseen lurking at the edge of her field of vision. Is this the kind of dance she does with a monstrous god when they decide to get it on?
Perhaps the answer to why the poet insists on staring into the beckoning abyss is that she finds it to be a way to be rescued by sleep. In the last piece in the book, “Asleep”, Sinclair’s speaker is tired of the world and sleep appears to be her only way of granting herself a vacation from it.
A wasp-like hum in the room,
the something-going-on that passes for silence
in these quarters, for we want to believe in silence,
that our repose leaves nothing behind, empties all the chambers,
takes the present into our dreams with us and leaves
a void that works like acid on all that was.
Car headlights on the wall mean nothing,
the cramped, ungrowing furniture, nothing,
the church spires, tired bells, nothing.
They are but the residue of the day, less than echoes,
the last creaking stair on the way out of perception.
We have come to an agreement: tired of the world
in its inalienable unlikeness, we will give up coaxing it out.
So the night darkens, the curtain drifts
out the window, the very lateness of the hour ceases.
We sleep side-by-side with eternity, and never touch.
The failure to connect at the end here again belies the anxiety of the speaker about prolonged contact with the ineffable, but what underscores this anxiety is the fatigue the speaker has with the visible world and the “residue of the day.” Sleep is the only thing that can rescue such a fatigued warrior of the philosophical assault on one’s own presence in the world. But even in this sleep, however, there is also distance. In this case, it is specifically with eternity, but there is also the hint of sleep without touch. I’ve never been good at falling asleep within the clutches of someone else. I suspect I’d be a very poor dog. Sinclair’s speaker apparently would be too.
The one aspect of the book that I find extremely heartening about Breaker is that it does not flinch in its discussion of philosophy in the poems. It does not wish to entertain as much as edify, prolong the great battle with a meaningful existence. This is what renders it, I suppose, as particularly Canadian. Canadian poets have not sacrificed their souls to the entertainment gods as much as American poets have, who understand that they better keep their readers lighthearted and lubricated with fun. The philosophical burdens that Sinclair bears are seen as an American excess or perhaps just bad form, some endeavor that losers take on when they aren’t up to moving fast enough. In America it’s do (see “JUST DO IT”) not be. But there is a third option to the age-old contest between doing and being, between stereotypical Americanism and stereotypical Canadianism. This third option is what Sinclair is poised to capitalize on when facing the mysterious, ineffable shadow world — do. be. learn.