Clayton Longstaff

Tender Distances: Sue Sinclair’s Almost Beauty

Almost Beauty is a collection of over one hundred poems, selected from Sue Sinclair’s previous five books along with a significant body of new work, spanning the breadth of her twenty-year career. What is immediately noticeable is her consistent return to the subject of beauty—beauty as truth, as falsehood, as manufactured and immortal. Sinclair’s rural Canadian landscapes are anything but immune to such paradoxes, visited as sites of natural wonder but also as occasions for interior reflection and historical grieving. Beauty is both subject to and an object of human imagination: an unremitting thesis whose footnotes cross the sands of millennia, citing prophets, saints, spiders and goldfish, but whose final point is left unspoken.

Sue Sinclair. Almost Beauty. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions. 2022.

In “The Prado,” the book’s opening poem, Sinclair offers an ars poetica dramatized through a speaker who contemplates the framed faces meeting her along the halls of the museum; how it feels to be met by such willful eyes, imagining what it is to be willing. The speaker wonders if there’s a trace in her own face that reflects what she searches for in art; what she finds herself so inexplicably drawn to. When the reader is suddenly addressed we find that we ourselves have entered a museum—standing in the foyer where the speaker comes out to meet us, welcoming us in.

If there is in me something worth being seen, let it look out at you
from my face.

Let me try.

Let me try again. (“The Prado”)

There is so much love in these poems—so much patience, generosity and attention. And yet, despite Sinclair’s remarkable talent for observation and specificity—or perhaps as a result of it—it’s the inevitable distance between us and the world we inhabit, the limits to our knowledge, that’s really at the crux of much of her work. “No one could dream / anything stranger than belonging, / a horizon like this doesn’t / allow for it” (Grazing). As she suggests in the poem “Roses,” in which the speaker arranges some roses in a jar as a simple aesthetic gesture, this ontological distance, which is often regarded in works of literature as the subject of existential bafflement, is also the very space where literature and other practices of the imagination flourish. Once the roses are placed, they immediately become the subject of poetic contemplation: “how they gather / the room about them yet think nothing of it, how each / thorn persists, how they have made a purpose / of holding still (“Roses”).

The word “how,” repeated several times throughout this poem and others, possesses within it two diametrically opposing functions: to explain and to wonder. Sinclair’s oeuvre is resplendent with such examples of paradox—of beauty within the grotesque, of the inanimate taking flight. Both portrayal and pursuit, Almost Beauty is a lasting tribute to a fleeting world.


Clayton Longstaff is a writer whose work has appeared in publications including The Dalhousie Review, Geist, Canadian Literature, Prism International, Literary Review of Canada and elsewhere. He lives on the traditional territory of the Lekwungen & W̱SÁNEĆ nations. [updated January 2023]

Skip to content