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Friday, February 18, 2005

Light, Lilacs, Etc

Before work this evening I went to a doubleheader poetry reading, dreading, as I always do, what I might be subjecting myself to. You know this sort of feeling, it's the same one you get when you're watching a "B" horror movie and people just keep going places they shouldn't go and doing things they shouldn't do; and something bad, or at least something horribly cheesey, is going to happen to them any minute now. They know it and you know it, but they do it anyway, and you watch it anyway. Yeah. (Keep reading, I have positive things to say in a bit.)

So I went to this poetry reading tonight. I went for the same reason I always go. I went because sometimes instead of something I dread happening, something good happens; there's a damn good poet, or a damn good poem, and it's worth every excruciating moment ever spent in an audience of people stroking their chins or tilting their heads profoundly while listening to somebody calling themselves a Poet somehow sing-songing monotonally through their Poems in their Great Canadian Reading Voice. (Really, there's positive stuff coming up. I swear)

So I went to this doubleheader poetry reading tonight, and something good happened. One of the poets, Sue Sinclair, read some good poems, some poems with a lot of light and qualities of light working in them. And she didn't fall into that damn I'm Reading Poetry voice. I bought one of her books — her third one, I believe — The Drunken Lovely Bird. I chose that book because it has the following poem, which I like a lot:


For those who have lived
where lilacs bloom, who have lost
their immunity
              to idleness and wander through
doorway after doorway
when the lilac trees open their infinite
mauve rooms. For those
who give in and glide a little behind
their lives, a hand trailing
in the water
behind a rowboat.

Regret turns itself inside out,
like a glove
you've picked up after someone's
gone. Even the bees feel it,
sadly, sadly,
nose in the flowers,

a curtain pulled away
and there's no hand on your shoulder
to catch you before you lean too far
out the window.

A slow leak, something escaping
as soon as the petals open.
What's left grows twice
as heavy, pales,
sinks inside itself and stays
with you, a dream of which
there is not even enough left
to describe:

it is about to rain.
It is always about to rain.
These limp flowers.
I suppose there are a few reasons why I like that poem. I like lilacs; their scent is almost enough to convince me to quit smoking. Almost; but then I think about how strongly they affect me with my sense of smell as dull as it is, and wonder if I could survive their full strength. I like the poem, too, because it reminds me in its simplicity and clarity of some old, old chinese poems I've been surrounding myself with for the past year or so.

I like the poem, and the other poems in the book that I've read so far, because of the light and the qualities of light I mentioned earlier. That light in what I've read and heard of Sue Sinclair's poetry makes me think a thing which might seem like a kind of back-handed compliment but which I mean as pure praise: sometimes poets are poets because they somehow missed a window of opportunity that would have made them painters.


Cyn said...

And sometimes a painters are painters because they have missed the window of opportunity to become poets.

MackJohnny said...

T'anks, eh.

Cyn said...

No probs.

Anonymous said...

I've tried to read Sue Sinclair a few times because every now and then someone tells me how wonderful her poetry is, but every time I try I get brung up cold by High Poetic false notes. In the piece you quote, John, which has some interesting moments ("infinite / mauve rooms"), something like this kills it for me:

For those
who give in and glide a little behind
their lives, a hand trailing
in the water
behind a rowboat.

This feels to me like stock footage more than great painting. And so ponderous, insisting on its own metaphorical weight and importance.

And what about this mixed metaphor/simile combo:

Regret turns itself inside out,
like a glove
you've picked up after someone's

This kind of concretizing of abstract nouns is so par for the CanPo course (about as Chinese as most of the "Chinese food" you can buy in Halifax). Smother in batter; deep fry. Look how imprecise it is: how can a glove turn ITSELF inside out? What "someone"? And notice, later in the poem "something escaping."

Even if this poem was working for me, it would still feel pretty much like every other Sue Sinclair poem I've read, same tricks, different pile. And to me, her one mode is way too self-conscious and straining after profound insight--and yes, monotonal--to hook me.

It's all very deep. And very generic. Put this next to, say, an Anne Simpson poem or a Roo Borson poem and no one without prior knowledge would be able to say who wrote what.


GM said...

Haven't read the new book yet, but I became a Sinclair fan after Mortal Arguments, which I reviewed somewhere, and thought had more depth than people were giving it credit for. Working in a tight lyrics, recycling and making something new out of standard lyrical tricks and the language of SCWP (Standard Canadian Women's Poetry), subtle philosophical underpinnings. It had something that so much other work by poets her age doesn't. A vital life spent looking for SOMETHING. Rather than starting with important ideas and writing from there, she uses her work as a vehicle to seek and flesh out ideas.

It felt like that genre of art where people paint over existing work and peel back to create a palimpsest-like mess. So perfectly strewn it can only be nature or extreme intent. Some of it is parody, I swear.

Sure, it can seem quite young and in need of tuning in places, but she IS quite young, I think. I was pleasantly surprised.

MackJohnny said...

I don't know, Zach. I don't get my hands on much contemporary poetry. Books are damn expensive for my income, and I find my appetite mostly satisfiable through the shelves of second-hand bookstores. I do look through the new stuff on the shelves of other stores, though, and every very rare now and then I just have to buy one because it gets me.

From what I've seen and heard of Canadian poetry that's been published in the past couple or three years -- and, admittedly, I have probably only laid eyes or ears on less than half -- two books stand out from the rest: Aislinn Hunter's The Possible Past, and Sinclair's The Drunken Lovely Bird. There is also an unpublished manuscript by a fellow named David Hickey -- as far as I know, it's just sitting in Frederiction on Dave's desk -- which I'd say might expand that duo into a fine little trinity.

I'm not real sure how you get a sense of self-consciousness and strain from Sinclair's poetry (I haven't read her first two books). I don't get any sense of it being unsettled in any way. The poems are damn sure less strained and desperately earnest than some of the things I've found myself writing over the past year.

Nor do I get any sense that the book is attempting to be deep. On the contrary, I find it pretty damn playful in spots and content to be what it is; I imagine how deep it seeps is somewhat dependent upon the porosity of the ground on which it falls.

In the end, as the feller says, there's no accounting for taste (though I'll suggest that some things might be a little more palatable, taste less brown, say, if we took our heads out of our theoretical asses and either just enjoyed the damn poems we read, or shrugged and moved on until we found some we did enjoy).

MackJohnny said...

By the way, G, I meant to tell you that I liked what you had to say.

Gazetteer said...

Nothing profound to say.

Just fun to stumble on a thread by folks who are really into something that I know absolutely nothing about

(I come for the baseball which has a lot of stock footage but, if I'm not mistaken, always seems to have one point in every innings that generates something fleetingly new that may stick, may not).


MackJohnny said...

We know less than we think we do, Ross.

Damned if I can figure a way of calculating on-base percentage and slugging average for poets!

MackJohnny said...

What I mean to say is, the point you make does indeed apply to poetry.

Humble Servant said...

What, lovers can get to firt base but poets can't?

Not sure about the poem, but your post was great. I only note with sad puzzlement that you say "cheesy" as if it were a bad thing.

MackJohnny said...

Perhaps you'll let me argue that "cheesey" is the dark side of "cheesy?"

Humble Servant said...


Just so you let me argue "firt base" is on the dark underbelly of the diamond.

(I could explain that I did not notice how either you or I spelled chees_y, but that would be like questioning the dark fate I feel in re typos/non-typos; I feel I am now fated to look up the etymology of chees_y.)