Sunday, February 28, 2010

Consciousness and Sense: Chris Hutchinson and Sue Sinclair

At the very heart of what I love about poetry is its attempts to capture in a truly authentic way how we make sense of our lives. Primarily as I see it, this involves issues of identity, experience, and consciousness with our imaginations being the fulcrum the rest of these mental processes rest on in a good poem.

For me, I like poems that mediate between one’s empirical experience of what is real and one’s awareness of a self at one remove, a self that processes all thoughts and emotions through the imagination. Whether you view the imagination as the mind’s holy ghost, a faint whisper of word and image, or more cynically, as cognitive feedback produced in the brain due to overloaded sensory equipment, the imagination teaches us how to paradoxically disassociate from ourselves, while also generating new associations from this same sense of detachment which overall give us a stronger feeling of connection to the world.

It is in its special role as an intermediary between our interior selves and the larger chaos of modern life that poetry, or at least good poetry governed by the imagination, most nobly mirrors and mimics how consciousness works.

These themes I explored a little in my last book so it should be no surprise why I am drawn to poets and poems that delve into similar terrain. Two terrific Canadian poets who play in the metaphysical realm and practical philosophy are Sue Sinclair in Breaker and Chris Hutchinson in Other People’s Lives both by Brick books.

In an interview he did recently with Alessandro Porco for Open Book Toronto, Hutchinson wrote that, “perhaps this is the crux of the collection: how language, which might be the closest thing we have to telepathy, haunts the no-man’s land between interiority and exteriority, between self and other. Although the book is ostensibly ‘about’ a whole host of things: sidewalks; cockroaches; cities; Aeolian harps — I think it’s really about this liminal space where the weird abundance of the imagination pushes out into, or even back against (as W. Stevens suggests) reality (if such a thing exists).”

What Hutchinson is talking about in terms of language and imagination above is very much what C.K. Williams addresses in his book Poetry and Consciousness when he says, “poetry moves through our perceptions and our mind to a place beyond either, a place which participates concretely in both consciousness and sense”(133). A good poem of Hutchinson’s that illustrates the relationship between consciousness and sense is his sonnet “Homeless” from the first section of his book:


You weren’t here, the morning light
inside the mist-hazed park where mushrooms
flared like fleshy bells. I almost believed
my mind had grown tendrils and bloomed.

Old women disguised as crows stuttered past,
jigging upon the sleeping city’s hip bone,
flirting between the horizon and beer cans
coated with the aspic glow of moonstones.

Drunk, you slept here once, then withdrew—
your mind a sticky as a wound, reopening.
Poor pupil of homelessness, you never knew
delirium could become your dwelling—

Yes, a place of twisted hues, of doubled sight,
But a house just the same, built of light.

After reading this poem, I thought of Tu Fu and what he said about “a blood-stained spirit has no home”. Like much Chinese poetry, Hutchinson introduces the sorrow that comes with human existence amidst nature’s indifference in the first stanza when he writes “You weren’t here, the morning light / inside the misty hazed park where mushrooms / flared like fleshy bells.” The use of the second person also helps to create this sense of distance and isolation. But then in the second stanza , what saves the narrator from despair is the influence of the imagination bumping up against nature’s indifference, generating its own images, like old women “disguised as crows” and beer cans that take on “the aspic glow of moonstones.”

The third stanza reinforces that the poem is a reflection on intoxication, on the loss of ego and the feelings of heightened consciousness that attend it; however, at the time, the poet did not recognize his experience as anything transcendent for afterwards his mind was “sticky as a wound, reopening” and says “Poor pupil of homelessness, you never knew / delirium could become your dwelling—“. It is only in retrospect the relationship between consciousness and sense is elevated for in the final couplet the poet writes “Yes, a place of twisted hues, of doubled sight / but a house just the same, built of light.”

Consciousness and sense are also exalted presences in Breaker by Sue Sinclair as are language and the imagination. How Sinclair differs from Hutchinson is that she takes a less narrative and more lyrical approach, one that more directly tries to apprehend the transcendent amid the ordinary through the intensity of her gaze. Take, for instance, her poem “Joy” which figures in the third section of her new collection:


Everything leafs out as though in praise.
Beaky water lilies rise from the pond’s stirred muck.
The imagination calls to the world, its inflected echo
coming back to us as light rippling on the back of the real.
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
through which our lives come pouring as we fade slowly
in another world. But this world is the one we know,
the one we hold onto, filling ourselves with its visible truths.
We work through the hours, always too few,
packing them into our greedy bodies. Yet we fall prey
to the occasional twinge, hear faintly at our backs
a thrumming, like the bowstring of a shot arrow.
And that sound is what clinches it, our love of this place,
its thin blood penetrating to our very quick.

In this poem, Sinclair sublimates the concerns of the self and looks wholly on the world as it “leafs out in praise” for if this is all we have beyond ourselves, it is only through a concentrated engagement with the world that we are rescued from the despair of human existence, or quoting Tu fu again, the fate of the ‘homeless ghost.’ As Sinclair tells us, it is the imagination that “calls out to the world, its inflected echo / coming back to us as light rippling on the back of the real”. Again it is our imaginations, generating images and associations on the flip-side of our sense, that give us a feeling of greater intimacy and connection with the world, and thus greater ease with ourselves.

Nevertheless, even though our imaginations provide us with a strong sense of connection to a world “we hold onto, filling ourselves with its visible truths”, Sinclair reminds us that our imaginations are not enough to make us forget what awaits us for we still “fall prey/ to the occasional twinge, hear faintly at our backs a thrumming, like the bowstring of a shot arrow.” And yet, for Sinclair, it is this sense of our mortality that “clinches it, our love of this place” and pushes us to seek greater connections to a world beyond ourselves through our imaginations.

There is much more to both of these Canadian poets than I have time to share with you. If you liked these poems, I urge you to go pick up Chris Hutchinson’s Other People’s Lives and Sue Sinclair’s Breaker, both by Brick books.


  1. Great post! I just discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago and have since acquired and am reading Larry Levis' The Gazer Within.

  2. Hi Lary,

    I'm glad I pointed you toward "The Gazer Within" by Levis. It is a great book. Feel free to drop by my blog anytime.