Poet lets go of control in life, work
Reviewed by Megan Power (Halifax Chronicle Herald, June 5, 2011)
CHILDREN BLANCH at parental pining, largely, one suspects, because it tends to be expressed in such banalities. But Sue Goyette’s newest poems speak to one of the deepest human experiences, parenthood, with none of the typical mush.
Arresting images and controlled emotionality elevate the subject matter far above the domestic sphere, clear into outer space.
In Snow Day (#14), a mother "tries icing her kids’ boredom so it will taste better" and later, ultimately unsuccessful, stands in the kitchen watching "a hydrangea of soap bubbles disappear down the drain."
"I want to be able to touch the truth without sinking into Hallmark and that’s a challenge," Goyette says over tea in downtown Halifax recently. "You have to cut through the sentiment, which is the easy way to talk about it, and go to the real heart of the matter."
Goyette’s third collection, outskirts, prompts the reader to reflect on how his or her own parents felt, and how it will feel when the pattern repeats itself. For the sandwich generation — those whose children are nearing the empty-nest phase, while their own parents reach their sunset years — there probably isn’t a more cathartic poetry collection out there.
Of newly absent daughters, she writes: "This is how they return, in the middle of conversation, pieces of soft wood smoking and, if we wait long enough, catching and burning in our throats."
Goyette says attending a dinner party where other guests also happened to have children leaving for university inspired We Lean In, Closer.
"I think all of life is a series of lessons of letting go," she says. "We don’t have any control over a lot of the things we think we do.
"And we’re continually reminded of that, either by our parenting roles or even living by the ocean, in terms of weather and hurricanes — there’s very little we can control.
"Letting go of control actually is a way of getting to a good solid place. But it’s hard to do."
Poetry itself also reinforces this philosophy of voluntary surrender for Goyette. "I’m in charge of writing it but it doesn’t stop there. It goes on without me. You bring your own meaning to it. And I have to let that go."
In The New Mothers, she writes: "F—, the new mothers want to say. They have to wash their water with water. The whole planet is at the window peering in while the new mothers sit on the side of the bed. They have to be wolves; they have to be golden-winged warblers. Reminders, reminders."
A significant portion of outskirts explores the pain/joy dialectic of parenting in such vibrant, original terms, only the stone-hearted could remain unmoved.
Although they are clear standouts, Goyette doesn’t limit herself to motherhood poetry. Bad Dinner Guest, Bad, To the Thief and Canadian Apology are all bitingly comical and a thrill to read, though a sequence of reconstituted government and ecological texts labours at times under its own conceptual weight.
East Coast tropes of ocean, fog and clouds are dealt with admirably and evocatively. Fog is a recurring motif in Goyette’s work; it has its own poems, appears as a secondary character in many and seems to be a preoccupation of the writer.
"Well, it’s like, the past 40 days we’ve had fog and drizzle, drizzle and fog," she says.
"When you have fog, you may as well make poems. And I really like writing about where I am. I really like living on the edge, close to the water. I think fog is kind of the way the ocean reminds us that it’s there."
"We were young and thought you were ours. We thought everything was," she writes in the title poem, as a kind of apologia to the environment.
"I was thinking about the crazy attitude we have about everything," Goyette says, "like it’s just there for us to take. How we treat the planet and all the wilderness as though it’s ours to domesticate."
Goyette says that for all of humanity’s ills, the creative act serves as testament to our ability to progress.
"I think what art does is it redeems us. It reminds us of the dignity that our life often shows examples of."
In addition to her work at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, Goyette has taught creative writing at Dalhousie University since the program’s inception and enjoys a close relationship with her students.
The cover of outskirts is a surrealist painting by Laura Dawe, one of her former students. A female figure stands under a muted rainbow, gripping the rail of a broken bridge.
"I think it’s a really beautiful representation of what the work is," Goyette says.
Megan Power, of Halifax, has an MA from Trinity College. http://meganpower.blogspot.com/