Reviewed by Patrick M. Pilarski
In her fourth collection of poetry, Breaker, Sue Sinclair proves she is willing to take on huge themes, and unflinching, “punch [her] hand through / the window to rescue whatever it is that, / trapped inside, haunts the corridors” (“Breaker” 41). Through the book’s four sections, “Faith,” “Work,” “Leisure,” and “Sleep,” Sinclair shares a deeply personal exploration of the mind and its relationship with numerous, and at times painful, facets of the world. Though it takes a few pages to build up energy and engage the reader, Breaker comes to a powerful conclusion and leaves a trail of memorable poems in its wake.
My perceptions of Breaker changed dramatically as I read the collection. In the first sections of the book, it almost seems that Sinclair’s expansive themes are let down by a stylistic choice that emphasizes statements over a more intuitive presentation of images:
[…] We hope for strength,
something to go on then to give up
even that crutch. However sputtering,
leaky, convulsive, we want to dwell in the world
without condition, even as it ends. […]
(“We Hope it Will be Quick” 15)
A choice like this risks leaving little room for readers to make their own inferences and thus reflect the poems back on their own experience. It also seems to intellectualize many of the poems. This may detract from some readers’ ability to connect with the earlier sections of the book. For readers who are put off by this, it is important to note that there are some true poetic gems in the earlier sections, such as “St Philip’s, Rain” (24), “Wheel Turning” (26), “Control” (39), and “Drought” (29), with very direct and powerful images: “And overhead, the birds: / chips of bone in the sky, remnants, / fact of the world’s brokenness (“Drought” 29).
At its heart, the book hinges on philosophy, especially the relationship between perception and its underlying truth. Breaker is also characterized by a tendency for long lines and heavy stanzas, and the dominant use of first and second person narrative. These trends are evident in passages like these two from the book’s third section, “Leisure”:
Who can say what goes on in the darkened room
from which these idle green days emerge; for all we know
being here might be another kind of absence, a hole
in another world. […]
[…] We want so much
from this life but can only glimpse it.
We wander from room to echoing room,
always only on the surface of what we seek:
Sinclair’s unique voice takes several different forms throughout the collection, with the effectiveness and resonance of each depending heavily on the preferences of the reader. Often Sinclair chooses second person narrative. Some examples of this aim to deliver experience directly to the reader, filtered through the eyes of the poet or the poem’s subject:
that you’re afraid, not exactly.
But it shines straight into your eyes.
And though the heart is small
and cramped, barely large enough for
your own wants, you retreat into a corner,
make do with less. […]
In many cases, Sinclair uses this mode to explicate or declare experiences and feelings; take for instance the inner state of a bird in “Injured Swan” (34). At other times, Sinclair’s voice takes on a mode of recollection, with the subject of the poem being more clearly defined as someone observed (or remembered) by the poet:
You almost tripped over them: blunt scissors
left to rust in the thick, upholstered lawn.
The scissors were both tool and unalloyed consequence.
You dropped them, not quite ready.
Sinclair also uses an inclusive “we” to relate events and place context on observations. In some cases, it feels like this is an attempt to generalize or elicit empathy: “Now we just want another chance, / want to retrieve the something beautiful we sank / in them years ago” (“Devotion” 37). At other times it brings the reader along as a silent observer, left to make his or her own conclusions. “Winter Morning” (40) is a good example of this style choice; it leaves a large amount of space for the reader:
A block away we stand on the corner,
waiting for the bus.
Still as deer in the snow.
We lean into the silence.
(“Winter Morning” 40)
I found that Breaker grew in strength as it progressed, with the last two sections containing numerous examples of finely crafted and extremely precise poetic narrative. In the final section, “Sleep”, there is a set of spectacular moments that draw the reader into the poems and convey nothing less than a sense of awe. The book builds like the wave in its title poem:
You stand back and watch as the inevitable
takes over: green recess
of the wave collapses, the light buckles,
the depths recover what was owed.
When Breaker crests, it does so without reservation and continues until the end with a barrage of challenging and high-impact images, as found in poems such as “Tell it to the Night” (72), “Driving North” (78), “Waiting” (80), “Waiting for the Forks” (81), “Closure” (84), and “Sixth View of Bell Island” (91). One of the most powerful and engaging poems in the book, “Portugal Cove, Night” (93), occurs on the second last page: “The dories lie open on the wharf, white bodies like / split shells. The cliffs darken until they cannot be seen. / This is not the god you dreamed of (“Portugal Cove, Night” 93).
Breaker is a solid collection of poems. Is it the best collection published by Brick Books? Arguably not. Is it worth reading? Definitely. Some of these poems will stay with the reader long after Breaker has been returned to its shelf. Through a set of precise images and detailed poetic observations about the world, Sinclair lets us stare through her eyes at a cascade of massive themes, and in the process, reflect on our own smallness.
Patrick M. Pilarski lives in Edmonton, and is the co-editor of the international short-form journal DailyHaiku. His work has appeared and is forthcoming in publications across North America, Europe, and Japan, recently including PRISM international, The Antigonish Review, Literary Review of Canada, and Modern Haiku. His first full-length collection, Huge Blue (2009), is forthcoming from Leaf Press, and he is the author of one experimental short-form chapbook: Five Weeks (2007).