Whirling dervish in verse
Dislocation reigns but calm replaces frenzy in second collection
Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music by Asher Ghaffar (ECW Press)
Breaker by Sue Sinclair (Brick Books)
“Metaphysics can be tiring,” Asher Ghaffar writes at one point in Wasps in a Golden Dream Hum a Strange Music, his first collection. There are times a bemused reader, immersed in this whirling dervish of a book, might agree, although Ghaffar’s passion and razzle-dazzle inventiveness are also compelling.
Ghaffar is a Canadian-born Muslim who is pursuing a doctorate in social and political thought at York University, but his family roots are in Pakistan. In 2003 he was stopped at Wagah, the border post between Pakistan and India (“I felt myself trapped at the precise place where / my family crossed, did not cross, after the division of the two countries in 1947”).
The experience started him musing about the nature of political divisions (“The languages that had been lost. The history that had been stolen”) and the sense of being divided within himself as the son of immigrants (“A trace of me was always boarding and unboarding a plane”). His meditations become, in effect, a quest to figure out where he fits in by considering his parents’ past and the culture of their homeland (“when one looks back, the eyes falter with the feet and / language slips incessantly into undiscovered rooms that pound on the / head”).
Ghaffar relies on “a language of debris” and “broken scattered images” that make his feeling of dislocation palpable in the form of the poems themselves. His aim is to “Weave words as one weaves the strings of a broken instrument along steel frets. The scrambled rib cage of lost music.” He also invokes a dizzyingly wide range of references, from the French poet Edmund JabPs to Hindu mythology.
The poems are dense, often convoluted and influenced by concepts drawn from science, philosophy and literary theory. But Ghaffar’s inspired lyrical wordplay (“Everything somehow / became metaphorical in the furnace of my mind”) and fervent willingness to shake things up make this an auspicious debut.
A sense of dislocation and longing also peeks out from Sue Sinclair’s Breaker, her fourth collection. But hers is a much calmer (and more conventional) lyric voice. The tension in her work is less about a divided self than it is about trying to get beyond “the surface of what you know.” As she puts it evocatively in one poem, “we sleep side-by-side with eternity, and never touch.”
Sinclair grew up in Newfoundland but now lives in Toronto, and her work is distinguished by its sumptuous lyricism and richness of metaphor. She’s a pensive poet who looks searchingly at her surroundings for what they say about the nature of beauty, meaning and life itself. Even the commonly overlooked is fertile ground: an ordinary rainfall “rail-thin / beyond being this or that but still falling” spurs reflections on our need “to do more than merely exist.”
“We roam the visible,” she writes in one poem; and Sinclair herself has quite a captivating way of laying claim to surfaces. Such is the steadfast clarity of her images that it’s as if there’s a gleaming halo around them. “Vanity” opens with the description of a tree: “So beautiful it can afford to be careless, / the tree has dropped handfuls of white petals / and now leans down to admire itself / in the fragrant pool.”
She regards her penchant for reading landscapes for their metaphorical and metaphysical associations with good-humoured irony: “Nature has shifted into your blind spot, / no longer a vision, no longer your ego / revealed to itself.”
Sinclair may joke about it, but for the most part Breaker really is the work of a poet who looks long and hard at the world to draw existential meaning. Her studious gaze is insightful, even – dare I say it in this secular age – soulful.
Toronto poet Barbara Carey appears monthly.