This is the third book of poetry from the Toronto-based Sinclair, though the first one I've read. Or rather, immersed myself in, since I've read and reread it, set the book aside for a few months, and read it again. Poets are often advised to go deeper, to make space for more profound meaning to emerge. Sinclair's poems show me how far short of that goal I've fallen. They disturb and entrance me. They make me look at the things of this world in a new way.
In talking about the difference between design and art, Milton Glaser says “. . . the only purpose of art is that it is the most powerful instrument for survival—art is so persistent in all our cultures because it is a means of the culture to survive. And the reason for that, I believe, is that art, at its fullest capacity, makes us attentive.. . . if you look at a work of art, you can re-engage reality once again, and you see the distinction between what you thought things were and what they actually are. Because of that, it is a mechanism for the species to survive.”
Sinclair's poems are truly art, then. She makes her unusual images work, confounding my expectations and delighting my soul. In “The Garden”, for instance, she says:
As it flowers, the garden
sinks, a ship being pulled slowly
under the earth. The sail rises
as it goes down.
I stop to puzzle over this image, appreciating the rooted hull sinking ever deeper, while banks of flowers rise as though hoisted by invisible hands. I think about Timothy Findley writing Not Wanted on the Voyage, his engrossing novel from Mrs. Noah's point of view, in the old barn on his farm, an ancient structure that creaked and groaned in the wind like an ark upon the ocean.
I cannot imagine where Sinclair is going with her image, though, wondering what on earth ships and gardens have to do with each other. She goes on to the flower and how the flower holds the “Sign of its own disappearance” yet draws the light to it, making me think of Dylan Thomas's green fuse. Then we are back to the garden and the light and the “density below”. I don't want to ruin the ending, so will only say that Sinclair ties the poem together in a way that conveyed, to me at least, a truth completely new and yet so deeply familiar that it gave me chills even on a steamy August night.
And so with the rest of the poems in this startling collection. She takes the ordinary things of daily life, such as workmen headed into a railway tunnel, an abandoned mine, or people waiting for a bus in the snow, and finds a larger meaning. She rejoices in beauty without losing sight of its impermanence. In “Awe” she says: “Only in this life does beauty/pursue us, pounce on us” before moving in the second half of the poem to “these are savage times”. Her strong, active verbs and rough judgment brace and balance the lyricism of her images.
I am humbled and exhilerated at the same time. These poems make me pay attention and see something different, something deeper. Wonderful.