Review of Breaker
From M. Travis Lane , The Fiddlehead, No. 239 (Spring 2009)

Locating the Author

feria: a poempark, Oana Avasilichioaei. Wolsak and Wynn, 2008.

Cypress, Barbara Klar. Brick Books, 2008;

Breaker, Sue Sinclair. Brick Books, 2008.

Each of these deeply intelligent books of poetry is well worth reading on its own, but when we read these works together our attention is drawn to the different ways each of the poets asks and answers for us (a primary philosophic concern): How does the human fit into the flow of time/reality? The question is not who or what are we, but, rather, what is our context? In all three books it is the context, however variously defined, that attracts the poet’s attention. There is no self-portrayal, almost no dramatization, no “performance.”

Two of the poets, Avasilichioaei and Klar, are primarily interested in our relationship to what exists outside and around us: our human, natural, and historical context. Avasilichioaei emphasizes our role as maker, gardener, arti­ficer; her subject, as her title indicates, is what we make out of the natural: the garden, the park, the fair, the feria. Klar does not represent the human as maker, gardener, or author. Instead, immersed in the almost-wilderness, Klar’s poetic authority stems from her presentation of her self as an awareness, as an animal, an integral part of nature, not changing nature, and not alien from it. For both poets the past is a residual portion of the present, fading, but vital. Both are poets of place: Vancouver’s Hastings Park, Saskatchewan’s Cypress Hills.

Sinclair, on the other hand, is a poet of displacement. Her protagonist is not at home in nature or in history, about neither of which she is sure. Her poems are the record of the experiences of a mind for whom fundamentalist definitions of “soul,” “god,” or “religion” are meaningless, but for whom the psychological experience she records (v. James, Huxley, etc. on the “religious” experience) is intensely real.

That the location of poetic authority can be problematic becomes particu­larly clear when we compare these authors’ different use of pronouns. Both Avasilichioaei and Klar use “I” for the poetic speaker, “we” when speaking as part of a community or group, and “you” when addressing either an imagined particular person or when addressing the reader. Klar also occasionally uses “you” as we do in contemporary conversation, to replace the French “on,” for which the English “one” is no longer, outside academic discourse, usable.

Sinclair almost never uses “I.” In most of the poems in her collection there is no first-person pronoun and no third-person pronoun. In nearly all of the poems in Breaker, the actor is not the speaker. The author is absent, uncharac­terized, silent. Sinclair uses the pronoun “you” pervasively, but “you” is never the reader, and only once or twice a person or thing. “You” is the protagonist of Sinclair’s poems. Sinclair’s “you” seems to be a form of self-address, but without the authority of Alice in Wonderland whose dialogues with self con­tain both objective and subjective forms of the first-person singular pronoun. Author, poetic speaker — authority — are missing. Sinclair’s disowning of authority comports with her poetry’s representation of the alienation of the poetic sensibility. “I” has no place.

I like Avasilichioaei’s term “poempark:” a collection of poems that can be read as a place in which the reader can roam, visiting “little theatres” (Moure’s term for lyric or narrative verse, or little “gardens” of philosophy. feria: a poem­park is a stylistic tour de force. The style in each section of the collection reflects the aspect of the poempark presently arrived at: “Origins, or the Book of Questions,” and “The Spirit of the West” — recognizing the disparate beginnings, imaginings, dreams, and the often neglected or shabbily recorded historical records (and the gradual vanishing from the park makers’ cultural consciousness of the Indian past) — use broken lines and interrupted quota­tions à la Pound and Williams. The 1912 Exhibition is recollected in bits and pieces as if we were reading about it on disintegrating newspaper. With the more recent influx of European immigrants, Avasilichioaei’s style becomes more coherent, more anecdotal, and moderates into the language of a child’s recollections and imaginings. She reminds us that place, wherever it is, is the effect in nature of imagination.

A beacon. Grandmother’s house.
A house on stilts
birdlike afloat over the imagined village

. . .

Grandmother boils cornmeal, fries a freshly-cut chicken
looks to the east, sees a dirty river, looks to the west
breathes faint incense from the old church.
Such a woman
enlargens in the thicket.
Sea ripples and dims. Visions, forgets, visions again.
A beacon. The house gardened
afloat over the imagined village “In the villages” (48-49)

The third section of the poempark, “Il Giardino Italiano,” asserts the power of Art, of the Poet as creator. The voice is adult, European, high modernist, and recognizes that the makers of the poempark are immigrants, and that the material in which they work is not wholly malleable:

To immigrate this garden. We colonize
the soil’s darkness. We inconsolable
with its dark density. “Il Giardino Italiano” (53)

Notice too that the artist/gardener in the same poem speaks as a community:

Hinge the garden of we on the historical
:your palm briefs my cheek
anchors we to we (59)

The section concludes with self-discovery. The poet learns the importance of not being “nuclear,” singular, empty — but also discovers that the darkness of nature is not distinct from the darkness of the human:

I was nuclear, thus empty.
I was dangerous in my emptiness.
How I was fear’s will.

. . .

I took the soil into my soil.
I saw its dark density was my own dark.
Grass sprouted into my being and I believed in being once more.
I achieved tenderness.
To originate again. Porous.
To not stop originating. (61)

Style changes again in the next section of the poempark; “Momiji Garden,” abandons the Western individualism, the repetitive “I” of the European garden, and uses instead the short lines and intensely suggestive images from nature that we associate with Oriental verse. By this portion of the poem we have advanced in time, and Momiji Garden is encountered toward the end of World War II. The war has made the Oriental garden alien: “a bordered word nationing them/us” (“Momiji Garden” 68). But time and the garden continue, and the community attitudes change:

at the bottom of the pond
lives a building: culprit and hero.
there is a quest, a voyage to the
underworld, a war, and though in
the end peace is restored, herohood
is not. (76)

Imagination and time and the garden restore us: “us: simply/ pronouns” (83).

Avasilichioaei concludes her volume with poems reiterating the same themes. “The Haunted House” (91) urges us, as creators, to “excavate!”(which I read as similar to Melville’s demand that the imagination “dig a little deeper.”) In “One day in the life of a modern, populated fortress,” (99), we find our­selves kings and queens “crowned with rubies and grass” in the fortress of love and imagination — vulnerable and uncertain, of course, but splendid.

Klar’s record of time spent walking and camping, largely alone, in the Cypress Hills could be called “nature poetry.” Most women “nature poets” seem not to venture much beyond the farm or the countryside. Men “nature poets” tend to go further from civilization, but to read them is like taking a hike with a radio turned on. They charm, they inform, they philosophize, they demonstrate manliness: they draw attention to themselves. Their interest in “nature” may be spiritual, aesthetic, or taxonomic, but almost always they present themselves as Man Alone in Nature. But Klar, no.

She is not interested in presenting her self except as an awareness that re-cords, an “I” without egoism imaginatively immersed in a present that unites human, animal, vegetable, and mineral. She does not exaggerate her aloneness. What she is doing and more or less where she is, is known, even if she is temporarily out of radio contact; and she checks in with other people occasionally. Her book is not a demonstration of Wilderness Survival. What most interests her is the sense of the presence of nature and natural process and the ability to feel at one with the natural that is possible only to the solitary contemplative.

This is how
I rest, once, with the spine bone of a cow
who died of space below the tree
that grows from less, the bone bleached
ivory by the sky’s disease: the coyotes
shattered out of it and ran her down.
She is the hard bird entering my hand
between the third and fourth metacarpi,
flying my arm to the pumping rib to graze
the blood inside me. She is the angel
of why I walk the Gap. Long ago
when I had hooves my hunger passed
between two forests . . .               “Gap Road, the Last White Spruce” (45)

What I find refreshing in Klar’s poetry and particularly womanly is her treat­ment of fear. For her, as for all animals in the wild (and not all that uncom­monly for women in fairly normal circumstances) fear is a normal part of living: joy and vulnerability exist together. Typically, the poems about specific occasions of fear are not about heroism, nor is the fear, or the coping with the situation, unrealistic. “Night Tree,” one of many camping alone poems, speaks of her sleeping dog’s moment of apnea: has it died? She will have to go on without it. “The Meadow, Fear of Cattle” speaks of an encounter with a young bull. By clapping her hands suddenly she discourages its youthful aggression. Nothing glamorous; fear is normal, coping is also normal.

The authority of Klar is located in her sensibility; she makes no claims for art (although she is a considerable artist). What she values is what the hills have to tell her: “the forest, and the dead holding it to the sun” (“Endward” 94). Her poems are deeply spiritual, but neither pantheist nor transcendental­ist. Nature does not present the poet with messages to be deciphered or keys to other worlds. The spirits of the past, ghost grizzlies, or of the massacred Assiniboines, exist within the present situation as part of an imaginative and informed awareness of historical and natural context. Her approach has its code of ethics, the forester’s rule: leave nothing but footprints; take nothing but memories.

You have no right to be here. Must be here
lightly. Make your body small. Tiptoe
through the poplars and the leaves shatter
slowly, almost fooled into thinking you want
nothing from them. You want them
to stay autumn, whole and falling, to let you
belong and not be seen. But first lay down
your hurtling tools and language on the path
of the coyote descended from the coyote
who never heard gunshot. Take care of his deaths,
of the speed your crashing gives his feet, of the distance
from you where pulse cools, sundown, crimson in his voice,
cousins answering the dusk. Take care of his joy,
of your wanting. Almost die every day and live. You must take
care to take nothing: underlit clouds belong to the end
of words, leaves give themselves to the act
of the walk. Take care of their pieces like mirrors,
count the faces of your families, let night
erase your tracks. “Wish” (69)

Klar’s perceptions are not without religious parallels. The opening section of “Tower Road” reminds us of the roads taken toward visionary worlds, in Bunyan, in Baum, and in that great old hymn “The King’s Highway” (“I know not where the road may lead I follow every day.”) She follows the:

beauty line in the light
that knows, the way, yellow brick stairway
into evening, heaven, the road on no map.
Where it leads I have not asked. It climbs. (47)

“Initiation” speaks of the fallenness of human nature and of the necessity, and rite, of purification:

In the gallery of the damned
I belong. One of the fallen rolls
into a ball of light and drags me
back to the day. How my adrenaline calls
me worthless, how the clown pines call me
worthless, how my cold breath called me flawed
by wanting, good for no loveliness
and here to forget, to empty my weight
on the muscled hills beginning to lurch
below me, user, user, dropping oil cans
of fear, plastic loneliness pails,
my empty, heavy, rusting skin.
And still the fallen ghost who once was worthless
calls me humble, last offer in the winter light,
my blood washing through
to the slow drip of silence … (91)

In “A Letter to Stegner” (92), Klar speaks of a “last supper,” “the silver meal” of the wolf willow berry, which, if on one level is her last supper while still out in the field, is on another level of interpretation a cure for spiritual as well as actual thirst. The wolf willow berry is a “petrified tear,” and sucking it, she finds “the last weeping.” A eucharist.

Klar’s collection ends with “Cargo,” a magical poem which represents an imagined rite of remembrance, a celebration, a tribute, in the “churches” of the forest:

On my bear’s feet I walk through
the churches. I drag a great sled.
It is piled with the bodies.
I wrap them in the pieces of my skin.
I hang them in the branches. (97)

Avasilichioaei writes with the authority of the maker. Klar writes with the authority of the perceiver. Both are at home in time and place. But Sinclair generally writes as if not owning the experiences her poems recount: the pro­tagonist of nearly all of her poems is not the poetic speaker but “you,” and “you” is not at home in time or place. (Sinclair’s poems do not refer to history or the past in the way both Klar and Avasilichioaei do.)

It is possible that Sinclair’s distancing herself from her protagonist is related to the poems’ vision of life as deeply and almost constantly frightening. Fear in her poems is not the normal fearfulness of vulnerable animal or human exist­ence, but something more aggressively pervasive: what is frightening, mena­cing, violent, is the vitality of nature. The light of morning enters a room like an invasive horse before which “you” retreats. (“Surrender” 11). The sky is “a deadbolt slid firmly / into place” (“Quiet” 71). Spring “rages / like a fire in the house” (“Days without End” 17) Beauty pounces and is terrifying:

Only in this life does beauty
pursue us, pounce on us
with its gleaming eyes. We tremble
as it overtakes us …
these are savage times:

… small animals keep their eyes down,
afraid of the lovely shadow
that swoops down from the sky “Awe” (20)

Death, the lovely shadow, is the only “god” “you” can imagine, aggressive, monstrous, “a prowling animal laying claim to his territory” (“Portugal Cove, Night” 93).

“You” identifies with the small, the victim, the feeble. “You” is “the little animal of the heart” which finds itself in a world

brimming with loneliness
and the sunlit premise of its demise. “Claimed” (14)

“How helpless you are” exclaims the title poem, “Breaker” (41).

Time itself is damaging: “Each of these long afternoons has taken some­thing from you” (“Homecoming” 58). The “cargo of mortality” (“Injured Swan” 34) accompanies “you” everywhere. Death, the vanishing, and losses about to happen, are rarely out of “you”’s thoughts. “To live is to carry forward / the weight of dying” (“Speak, Stones” 87).

Related to the themes of fear, death, and weakness are the many references to the feebleness of the world, the “fact of the world’s brokenness” (“Drought” 29). Even the stars are in poor shape:

The stars broken down in the sky, engines stalled,
shining, waiting for rescue. “Longing” (92)

In such a universe “you” can not be at home.

Take even a single flower . . .
. . . Like you, it wants the world
to be endless — headless and tailless. It wants to be repeated,
again and again, for despite its lustre and ghostly appeal,
despite the way its radiance is dispersed across
the field of light, it too is a stranger.
So badly does it want to regain the intimacy
before it knew to cry again that it tries
to drown out the rest of the world . . .
. . . And you don’t try to stop it . . .
for the impact is gentle compared
to the loneliness that grips you when you
look around and see the green, filtered light,
the matter-of-fact gravel, the slow but steady
differentiation of leaves,
thoughtful and private. Each thing so separate,
so painfully distant, that you begin to pin your hopes
on the impossible, praying that the flower-image
will find a way through, will destroy the masonry
and emerge from the cloud of plaster into another realm.
And you might follow, give up the apparatus of the mind
and step into a place where telling the difference between
this and that means nothing. You’d give almost anything
if you could find a place like that . . .
Where time falters. Where the eye
blinks and is done. “Vanity” (18-19)

The world’s “inalienable unlikeness” (“Asleep” 94) defies the human, “sick with longing” for a god no longer believed in (“St. Philip’s, Rain” 24). Fear, “the old mineral worry” creeps in everywhere: “Even the beloved is just a face / pressed under ice” (“Endurance” 51).

The reader tends to suspect that “you” is an aspect of Sinclair herself. Or more than one aspect; “Exposed” (61), speaks of “waiting to see who’d move first, you or the unknown / person inside you.” “Delay,” however, does use “I” as differentiated from that “unknown person” — and this “I” could have been “you” throughout. The poem presents would-be passengers waiting at the station for a train. A dog begins to howl:

How could anything suffer so long, so hopelessly?
Yet the sound doesn’t relent, and the faces
around me won’t let it register,
won’t so much as blink. I feel the indifference
on my own face and don’t know who I am anymore:
I’ve fled, but how, and to where?
I picture it, despite myself: the platform ahead, the ambulance,
and the altered faces of those who couldn’t stop
whoever it was. The howl becomes the sound
of the soul pushed to the edge of itself,
facing up to a world which it still, after all these years,
is not really convinced it must inhabit.
And because the crowd presses in on all sides
and I can’t see and so can’t even be sure
it’s a dog, I’m frightened, thinking the sound could
in a way be me, a voice from the part of me
I’ve tried not to know. “Delay” (48-49)

That Sinclair does know that voice is what makes her poetry so strong.

Each of these poets wonderfully speaks for us, showing us our place, our feelings, our context, whether we are recognizing our darknesses and our fears, or whether we are coping, or making, perceiving, or celebrating — and, too, for us in those blackest and most lonely of all moods where we don’t fit, and find even our selves alien.

M. Travis Lane
Fredericton, New Brunswick

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