Review of Breaker
From Bonnie Hughes , Journal of Canadian Poetry: The Poetry Review (Vol 25), 2008

Breaker by Sue Sinclair

Reviews of Breaker by Sue Sinclair and Cypress by Barbara Klar

Barbara Klar’s and Sue Sinclair’s compilations engage with the natural world and explore its power to impact people in a profound way. Klar celebrates the vibrancy of the Cypress Hills in southwestern Saskatchewan and illustrates how the land is able to provide both comfort and opportunity for contemplation, while Sinclair suggests that the natural world is ultimately intangible and evanescent.

Klar’s collection explores and praises a specific locale, and as she examines the landscape of the Cypress Hills, she also challenges and reworks stereotypical views of the prairies, portraying an aesthetically and historically rich region. She brings both the past and the beauty of the landscape alive in poems such as “Cattle” which melds an earlier time with the present. The poem depicts a night scene where a herd of cattle and their cowboy haunt a plateau: the cattle are fragmented and ghostly, their “Angus faces twinkling in the lodgepoles, / now you see them, now you don’t” and “their cowboy, / the first cowboy, cowboy / of the dusk with his grey bandana / wanders with them, his eyeless horse / rounding up the dead.” While the images in the poem are rather macabre, they establish connections between the Aboriginal people of the area, the early settlers, and the present; as well as hiding behind lodgepoles, the cattle “carry horns like headdresses, heavy / and ornate.” The focus upon cattle creates a link with current times, as ranching is still an important livelihood in the region, and several other poems sustain this focus. “Haiku for Texas Gates,” for instance, is a clever poem, portraying the metal gates [1] as devouring the cattle: “The fences are eating / the animals. An opening — / the ground eats my hooves.” Klar’s ability to present the realistic details of ranch life with elegance and reverence demonstrates her deep respect for her subject matter.

The personification of the landscape emerges in several other poems, giving the land a range of characteristics. In “South Benson Trail, The Stone Road,” the hills become alive as the speaker walks along a path: “Stones are the vertebrae of hills” and “stones are eyes with moss lids.” The rocks guide the speaker by acting as markers for the journey uphill, since “Stones distract from the work of climbing, show you / their pace.” Nature also has the capability to communicate directly, as in “Not Speaking for One Week,” where the forest has its own dialect: “Wind is Pine for listen. / Snap means wait.” The language of the wilderness travels across the land, “the word leaning west, west, growing vertical / against the wind’s disorder,” and ultimately arrives in the speaker’s mouth: “the word is here / and blooming and I carry my mouth / on my shoulders.” The language of the land is able to replace human speech completely, making a mouth an unnecessary burden. These renderings of nature are captivating, and Klar’s poems reveal the beauty and history of the Cypress Hills, demonstrating the inner power of the landscape and its ability to transform.

Sinclair’s collection is a philosophical examination of perception and she centres her work around the topics of vision and interpretation. Her preoccupation with seeing and re-examining emerges early in Breaker through a handful of poems which take photographs by two well-known American photographers, Nan Goldin and Edward Weston, as their subjects. “Pawel Laughing on the Beach” is based upon one of Goldin’s photographs and Sinclair begins the poem with a description of the picture: “Pawel has just come out of the freezing winter sea, has put on his / pants and stands, chest bare, in a warm reddish light. His arms are / crossed protectively over his chest, but his head’s thrown back.” After recreating the photograph of Pawel, Sinclair expands Goldin’s image by using the cycle of the tide to explore the tenuous links between “This life and the one afterward”; she writes, “We can / feel them trembling […] / feel the tug as they strain to come together and are forced apart.” Pawel fully embodies the paradox of life and the afterlife colliding, for “he has opened his heart to the / blood of its next existence even as it pumps in his chest. Somehow / he has stepped into another life, straddles them both. And he’s aglee, getting away with this for even a split second.” Sinclair’s analysis of the photograph is both playful and incisive and suggests there is much to explore even in static images.

The theme of perception is revisited several times and many of the poems explore dichotomies such as presence and absence, awareness and obliviousness. The collection probes how the mind struggles to make sense of the world, as in “Clearing” which depicts the speaker walking a cliff in a heavily-forested area. The speaker sees spider webs among the trees and these delicate constructions lead the speaker to think about their intangible nature: “The threads glint, hint at disappearance, a vanishing / going on before our very eyes.” The speaker then moves to the edge of the cliff: “Look down the cliff / to the blue-green swirl, / the ocean’s rumbling stomach: / it seems too vivid, somehow, / too solid to be true.” Here Sinclair plays with the notions of visibility and invisibility, allowing her speaker to consider what exists beyond the obvious while also not fully trusting the reality of the natural world.

Sinclair shows that mediation upon the physical environment offers the chance to see beyond the splendour of nature. In “Garden,” a flower bed in blooms transforms into “a ship being pulled slowly / under the earth.” One of the flowers in the garden becomes the centre of the poem, as it “lets us peer through it / into nothing. Sign of its own disappearance, / it draws everything in.” The flower is both nothing and everything, an incongruity Sinclair uses to explore the nuances of experience and understanding.

The final line of the last poem, “Asleep,” reads “We sleep side-by-side with eternity, and never touch,” and the line encapsulates the heart of Breaker, for the poems offer an intriguing examination of how various notions and understandings of world exist alongside one another and briefly overlap, providing fleeting glimpses of alternate existences. The collection is meditative, compelling and thought-provoking.

[1] A Texas gate is a metal grid placed over a ditch or hollowed out space in the ground which allows a vehicle to pass through and also prevents animals from leaving an enclosure because they will not step on the gate as their feet would fall through the gaps in the gate.

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