outskirts by Sue Goyette
Reviewed by Angela Hickman (Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Issue 10, September-December 2011)
There is a lot to love about outskirts, Sue Goyette’s latest collection of poetry, but let us start with the setting. Although not knowing Halifax does not take away from any of the place poems, knowing the city and its neighbouring towns certainly helps situate the collection in a way that adds just the right edge to some of the poems.
Perhaps the best examples are the numerous fog poems that come in the second half of the collection. It is easy to think of fog as a generic, rolling, poetic convention, but on the south shore of Nova Scotia, for all its density, there is a softness to the colour and weight of the fog, making it all the more sinister. As Goyette says in her first “fog” poem (there are four): “Fog I nomadic. A low prowl of Atlantic rooting / through the city like a bear. In the town of Prospect, / fog once swallowed a school bus. The children, / taught to hold hands in an emergency, emerged older / and craving gills.”
Besides being a lovely and subtly vivid passage, it is also a good example of how Goyette works names of places and specific stories into her poetry without being obvious. Cape Breton’s famous Tim Horton’s Jesus also gets a mention, as do some of Nova Scotia’s other myths and stories, and picking them out adds another layer of pleasure to reading her verse.
Thematically, outskirts takes its title and then changes what we think it means. Many of the collection’s early poems are told from the perspective of a parent watching as the bond between herself and her child lengthens, and she shifts from being central to her child’s life to a peripheral influence. This idea of distance is evoked in many ways, including visual and linguistic distance, but where “outskirts” typically refers to a geographic location, Goyette is more temporal than that. Often, the speaker is watching the action from some space apart – behind a window, across a crowded bar, through memory – and is thus unable to take part. That experience, of course, is mirrored by the reader, giving the edges a kind of gradient – there’s a reason the title is plural, after all.
The first and second sections of the book are quite different, and at first I found the shift jarring. Partly into the second half – titled “the last animal” – the book felt too long, as if the longer, more ranging ones of the end took away from the quality of the compact poems of the beginning.
But, once I got over that, I realized that outskirts works precisely because the tone shifts: it’s a collection that requires you to think about what you’re reading, and the early poems take on a new light in relation to the ones that follow. In the later poems, often the subject matter is broader and somehow both less human and more personal, with Canada becoming its own shifting character and fog creeping in and out.
outskirts takes on the domestic, the ethereal, and the worldly and gives them all the same shifting weight. Although Goyette keeps the reader peering in over the rim, she moves us around, changing our perspective while maintaining a distance that’s still close enough to the action for it to matter. It’s a strange and addictive feeling, and one that ensures I will return to outskirts again and again.
Angela Hickman grew up in Nova Scotia, but is now living in Toronto, where she is completing her Masters of Journalism at Ryerson University. She blogs at www.booksunderskin.com