Undone by Sue Goyette
Reviewed by Lorri Neilsen Glenn (Antigonish Review, issue 141)
Poetry is alchemy; it cracks open the quotidian and teaches us how to pay attention. In the collections here, all by multi-award winning poets, the reader's listening eye is rewarded with three different poetics, each carrying its own astonishment and delight.
All readers come from somewhere. Rilke's often-quoted comment on criticising works of art - "only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them" - describes where I stand. As a seasoned teacher and always-apprenticing poet, I believe, like Bachelard, that criticism can too often put the mind in a "second position, destroying the primitivity of the imagination." Reading to stay open, to imagine with another poet, teaches me, invites me to wade in the river rather than watch or throw stones from the shore.
This late-summer evening as I read Sue Goyette's Undone again (and again), what comes to mind is the long elastic sweep of a line over bright water: her work has the solitary beauty of fly-fishing, yet it is rich with characters and a sense of home. (Her long lines, by the way, are accommodated in the book design - applause to Brick for the seemingly radical practice of letting the work itself determine format). Goyette's elegant cast and expansive reach explore loss and letting go: how do we manage these, or do they manage us? In "New Year's Eve, 2001" she reminds us that " … eventually even the night steps back, / turns into a pale, last star with all we're left of it slowly burning out." "Patience" cuts to the essence:
Soon the hour of dry, folded towels, the hour of the empty
house will chime. Respirer. And in the silence, your heart,
there are the hands of many memories working. Time
is the gasket, the thin slice of hope that fits between
the pieces. Here it works its quietest skill of undoing,
of slowly sorting what to keep and who to let go (141)
The passion and grief in Goyette's poetry is embodied, and can be knee-buckling: "There is a hunger in us, / I think, for tragedy," she writes, and she cultivates our awareness of it in kids' fingerprints, a discarded cardigan, the loops of a knot tying and untying, spiders carried outside in a young man's hands. Her words reach under our ribs, shake us, the reverberations threatening our own undoing.
Imagine waking up and hearing crying,
that quiet sob of despair and rushing through
the house, then remembering. Looking out
the window to see only moonlight and concrete
(Jack Gilbert's Divorce, 21)
Undone is a long, deep breath of a book, capacious, balancing optimism and the threat of despair. Goyette's eye for what Bronwen Wallace called the stubborn particulars, along with her heart-stopping metaphorical leaps, show us grief as tender gestures of the everyday. This collection follows The True Names of Birds, Goyette adding strength to strength. Her wisdom here is in showing us how we keep on keeping on, our arms, like her long lines, reaching into the depths, gathering, reaching again.
Loneliness is evening's natural resource. Entire lifetimes have been spent drilling offshore / of memory.
"Marry me," evening, down on its knee, begs dawn. And dawn, with a little secret of its own, / agrees. ("A week" 134)