canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Secrets of Weather and Hope

by Sue Sinclair
Brick Books, 2001

Mortal Arguments
by Sue Sinclair
Brick Books, 2003

Reviewed by Gilbert W. Purdy

In November of 1920, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to the Princess Maria von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, from Schloss Berg, Switzerland, of his unexpected good fortune:

I live alone in the solid, centuries-old stone house, alone with a housekeeper who cares for me as silently as I silently let myself be cared for; a deserted park opening on the quiet landscape, no railway station in the neighborhood and for the present, furthermore, a lot of roads closed on account of foot-and-mouth disease – donc, retraite absolue [thus, a perfect retreat]. [1]

A dread outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease had struck the Berg.   He was stranded, quarantined.   The rare combination of solitude and surroundings he so constantly sought were forced upon him.

Throughout his adult life, Rilke wrote of his search for such retreats.  After World War I, during which time a return to live in his beloved Paris was impossible, due largely to unfavorable currency exchange rates, the search became more urgent.   The years were slipping away.   The grim experience of wartime Munich had collapsed into “a confusion of anonymous fragments which the individual finds himself unable to piece together.” [2]

Even after the chaos had subsided, he realized that the world had changed.  The change brought with it one effect, in particular, that oppressed him, as he confided again to the princess:

I believe that all aesthetic observation that is not immediate accomplishment will be impossible from now on, — basically impossible, for example, to “admire pictures” in a church, […]  You would not believe at all,[…] how different, how different the world has become, the point is to understand that.   Whoever thinks he can live from now on as he was “accustomed” to live, will find himself continually facing the sheerest repetition, the bare once-again and its whole desperate unfruitfulness. [3]

Life had become a continual round of daily maintenance.   There was no leisure, no opportunity for reflection, no time to appreciate art.  In the new world there was no provision for interiority.

The publishers of Sue Sinclair refer to the poetry of Mortal Changes as Rilkean.  While it is a dangerous comparison — suggesting the kind of hyperbole which belies the general condition of small press publishing — what is shocking here is the fact that it is not wholly inappropriate.  There is something here and there in these poems which suggests not only Rilke but the best of Rilke.

In retrospect, the signs were present in her first volume of poems, Secrets of Weather and Hope.  But only in retrospect.  Or perhaps in a few scattered lines, such as these from the poem “Springtime”, it was already manifestly on the page:

The day has given up trying to be
anything in particular, imagines itself
in another place and almost believes it.
The Clouds change shape quickly.   They don’t see
we can’t keep up, how much slower
our hearts are.

The strange animism — the strangeness of which, in Rilke, proceeds from an eccentricity cultivated in solitude — is there, although the use of “projection,” which will prove to be the signature trait of Sinclair’s better poems, is unabashed and far more common than in the earlier poet.

The projections in Secrets of Weather and Hope can be decidedly un-Rilkean.  There is a marked preference for still life — nature morte, as it is called by the French.  While there are portraits, and even the occasional tableau, they are not as well handled.   The title character of “Four Poems for Virginia Woolf” is generic, recognizable only by virtue of a few biographical details: a reference to Leonard Woolf, an epigraph from Vanessa Bell, etc.   “Learning to Waltz” could have been written by any number of poets not half so capable.

Only the society women of the poem “Lilies” fitfully come to life with the same sense of investment that we find, for example, in the poem “Red Pepper”:

Put your hand on it.  The size
of your heart.  Which may look
like this, abashed perhaps,
growing in ways you never

While this is an exceptional poem, in its own right, what is to the point here is all that it promises.  As Guy Davenport reminds us, in his delightful study Objects on a Table, the still life

has always served as a contemplative form useful for working out ideas, color schemes, opinions.  It has the same relation to larger, more ambitious paintings as the sonnet to the long poem. [4]

Surely, size or length do not have to be meant in the purely external sense.  The still life is a step along the way to painting more complete canvases.

To read Secrets of Weather and Hope before Mortal Arguments is to read a collection of poems somewhat better than most first volumes, with occasional moments of rare description.  There is little that marks it out as being particularly different.   After reading the latter collection, it is a book to go back to and to read again.  Suddenly the poet is discovered searching for something she knows is there but can’t quite find.

Still, most of the poems in Mortal Arguments are not readily distinguishable from the run of contemporary poetry.   The book is so considerable an advance over its predecessor by virtue of the greater number of poems that break out, by the surer touch that they evidence.  Yet there is a clear sense of the poet attempting so much that it can only come in fits and starts; filling the rest of the book with poems which, no matter how well written, by prevailing standards, can only be a disappointment to her.   Natures mortes of vegetables, clouds and other manifestations of weather are no longer sufficient places to look, are no longer sufficient containers for what the poems want to say.  What Sue Sinclair couldn’t quite find in her earlier work now begins to be located, even familiar. The heart remains. Light, also.  Nature is portrayed with the brief, deft brushstrokes appropriate to a larger canvas.  Now windows are everywhere.  There are houses, flowers, cars, traffic, a strange connectedness. All that she sought turns out to be the pieces of our daily lives. The same thing that everyone else is looking for but somehow she found them.

Time and again poets seek to portray the quotidian and rarely do they find the inherent magic that the best of these poems reveal. Sue Sinclair takes her own advice:

Loot your own heart, break the
windows, reach in and take everything
because you might not be back.

But this is not your average poetic smash-and-grab.  There are no paroxysms, no Dionysian binges.   Instead she scrutinizes the objects, turning them repeatedly in her hand until they become mirrors.

As a result, these are not confessional poems.  None of the standard categories quite describes them, at least not the best of them.  Sinclair is there in them, but we only catch a glimpse of her reflection — distorted, perhaps, or perhaps not.  If the reflection is the point, a distorted image is every bit as expressive or more, is every bit as real or more.  There is the eerie timelessness of having left the flesh behind for the image of flesh.   The vast majority of the poems are in the present tense.  There is a struggle to keep out the sudden heaviness of memory, its implication of time, its inherence in the entire idea of language.  Memory almost brings her back, at times, with its terrible gravity, but never quite.

Everything depends upon light.  Light carries her to her mirrors, carries her image back.   The less light the more she is Sue Sinclair peering into the empty darkness for a reflection.   It is almost as if when the image sleeps it dreams flesh.  The feeling is so foreign that she speaks to herself in the second person:

An ache in your limbs: you slept too little.

This life of the flesh is so unwieldy that the poems in which it intrudes are generally not among her better.  The best images are still of light.  Incandescent light, it is a wounded bird:

Flick the switch, and light drops from the ceiling like a bird,

Around it everything is heavy, solid, bathed in shadow. Familiar objects wait poised in stop-action for the next day to begin.

In such a poetry, passion threatens to get free of its restraints.   The poems dealing overtly with passion, however, also are not among the better poems in the book.   It is too easy to fall short in them.   There is so much that must not be in them.  Even the possibility of the flesh has a gravity that qualifies their desire.  The tiniest misstep is a glaring failure.  What remains is the evidence of something that is almost present, a promise.

But there is passion in Mortal Arguments in profusion: in a few perfect lines of a love poem, yes, but far more in the places where its is not sought for.  As might be expected in a world of images it is found in longing, in absence. Bereft of the flesh, desire is everywhere one looks:

The maples woo the car, its hood covered in pollen.




Pollen under the windshield wipers, in all the intimate corners.

Sue Sinclair goes about, like some sort of deranged Behavioralist, finding passion wherever she finds its gestures.

If Mortal Arguments does not quite lift Sue Sinclair into the first rank of poets writing in English today, it certainly places her among the most promising.  Rilke had written many slender volumes before he was ready to write The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.  He was 35 years old at the time of its publication.  While we appreciate many of the poems written before that time, it was only with the advent of Brigge that he became the Rilke we so cherish.

From the time he began the composition of Brigge until the completion of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus some 16 years were to pass.  The output of these years was so small, in part, because of the accidents of life.   Preternaturally sensitive to his environment, physical and emotional, he found it impossible to do original work during World War I.  After the war, Germany was a land of chaos and the poet eventually the target of an attack which unsettled him so much he moved to Switzerland.   He was more frequently ill, as he grew older, and this also had its effect.  The world was abandoning interiority as so much undesirable ballast on a ship that might otherwise bring more goods to market.  The normal processes of aging made him even more vulnerable to the effects.

But, equally to the point, he had come into sight of what he was capable of achieving.  All of those earlier volumes, delightful as they may be at times, had fallen well short of what was possible.  As he completed them he was aware of the fact.  He had to make his way through them, through World War I, and through a great many other experiences, before he could arrive at his writing desk prepared for the task.

The objects of Mortal Arguments only begin to be familiar to Sinclair.   Whether she will incorporate the accidents of her own life, and let them compel her to even more remarkable poetry, only time will tell.  As for the world around her, it is jealous of its prerogatives.  Patronage has been displaced by investment.   Solitude is not provided for at all.   Interior journeys, such as they are, are properly guided now, and guides know too well where they are going before the journey has begun. 

The letters of Rilke are filled with princesses and minor nobility, fine old homes made of stone, drawing rooms, private gardens, and, most of all, acts of patronage and shelter.  While he was, in his later work, a strangely modern poet, it was this milieu that nurtured him, that allowed him the solitude so essential for such an intense gathering of internal resources.

It remains to be seen whether the present poet will somehow be provisioned for her own journey.  Rilke suggests, in the Duino Elegies, the fatal limitation inherent in the 20th century trend toward the poet as hobbyist:  

Not out of curiosity, not just to practice the heart,
that could still be there in laurel…
But because being there amounts to so much, because all
is Here and Now, so fleeting, seems to require us and strangely
concerns us. [5]

It would be heartening to discover that there are correlatives available in today’s world; that somehow the long, carefully tended hours that will be necessary are still possible.  Should it prove to be the case, Mortal Arguments promises to be just one of many remarkable volumes.


[1] Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, transl. Jane Bannard Greene and M. D. Herter Norton. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1948. II, 227-28.

[2] Letters. II, 183.

[3] Letters. II, 220-21.

[4] Objects on a Table: harmonious disarray in art and literature by Guy Davenport. Washington, D. C.: Counterpoint, 1998.  9.

[5] Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke. Transl. J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1963. 73.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy’s work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); Grand Street; SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); and Eclectica.  His Hyperlinked Onlne Bibliography appears in the pages of The Catalyzer Journal.  Query to







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