Mortal Arguments

by Sue Sinclair
ISBN: 1894078292

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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 true
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."

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