As might be surmised from my recent posts, I have been kind of submerged in my old poetry, trying to get the best of it up on the blog. This will probably continue through Feb., and I won't have nearly as much time for reviewing. Also, at the moment I am reading more books on the theme of "the road trip," and naturally more of these books are by Americans. In general, I've kind of gorged myself on others' poetry over the past 6 months and am kind of tired of it. I think I have 1 more collection by W.H. New and 3.5 books by Sharon Olds to go, and, after that, I think I will be done with poetry for quite a while.
In any event, I did want to get to this review before the end of the year. Mortal Arguments by Sue Sinclair is one of the best collections I've come across in the last couple of years. The collection kind of grew on me slowly. The collection is divided into five sections: Abundance, Private Lives in Public Places, Heed, Ways of Leaving and Patience.
On rereading the collection there are fewer poems than I remembered that seem to be about transcendence and the difficulty of putting words to sublime (typically religious) phenomena. In fact, sublime itself is an overused word; I prefer ineffable. There are a few of these, primarily in the third section Heed.
"Sympathy" may be the most "explicit" about the paucity of language, and indeed human experience: "The blindness of perception, what we seek / never quite available, reflections skimmed / off the surface. / ... the abundance of the hidden."
"Witness II" has some lines along the same lines: "the elocution of the stars,/ unpronouncable, perfect syllables. God encrypted / in the world."
Other poems consider other aspects of reconciling a personal deity with the infinite universe that science has revealed to us ("Bounty" and "Prayer II"). I found the same kind of general tension in Mary Oliver's earlier collections (sometimes the tension was more between faith and wanting to live in the modern world), though her later work has taken Oliver down an uninteresting path leading to (more or less) unquestioning faith. And certainly I do think that Breaker (Sinclair's next collection) is less interesting than this one for various reasons. But as I said, there is less overt religiosity in these two overall collections than in those of Oliver.
If the religious tension had been the only thing going for the poems, I wouldn't have been that interested, but I find her use of metaphor quite interesting and challenging. She doesn't always go for the obvious one, which leads one to ponder what she had in mind longer. Having to work a bit harder (but not too hard) is a feature of the better Metaphysical poems and some of the earlier work of the Modernist poets (T.S. Eliot in particular but not Pound by the time of The Cantos).
Here are some, more or less selected at random:
"Vacation": "The ocean roams / like a stray dog"
"Dreamlife of Houses": "Your sheets like the skin of another animal"
"Days in Between I": "The day is a cruise ship"
"Calgary": "The city, a glass bottle left / upright in the middle of the prairie."
"Prairie": "the sun has parked its car / in front of your door / and refuses to move."
"Night Fare": "Taxis float like water lilies / on the slick tarmac."
"Night Fare" is probably my favourite in the collection, though I also like the streetcar poem "From Spadina Station." In both cases, the modes of transport are anthropomorphized to some extent and they are eagerly awaiting passengers.
In "Night Fare," the poet proclaims "they [the taxis] know too much about you, / the shine of each door a warning. / You won't give them the satisfaction." And the reader walks home. In some ways the tone (and certainly the use of the imperative) reminds me a bit of my own A Gradual Slipping Out of Circle.
In "From Spadina Station" the poet stays home, trying to sleep, while it is the streetcar pushing on through the night that is her surrogate. Her dreams then take the form of a cat pacing in her apartment. In some ways, there may be just a bit too much going on in this poem, though I did appreciate that it wasn't a straight-forward "dream poem," as those are pretty boring in general.
In general these poems reward second and third readings, since they are just slightly askew and the obvious choice in language and/or metaphor is rarely taken.