Long Lines, Yes!
Reviewed by Travis Mason (The Goose, winter 2012, issue 10, pages 116-118)
Undone, Sue Goyette’s second poetry collection, enacted fully the long-line lyric that has become a Goyette hallmark, a patient, ambulatory account of the observable world: the book itself was designed to accommodate the poet’s wide-angled observations of life and the world in which life plays out, so that instead of a standard trade book, the pages were shortened and widened to resemble a journalist’s field notebook rather than a poetry book. This was no gimmick but an effort to contain the long lines integral to Goyette’s poetic style. For her follow-up—seven years in the making—Brick Books has abandoned that physical change even as Goyette has maintained, even refined, her long-line poetics. Instead of changing the dimensions of the page, the designers have modified the typographical dimensions of the poems. Set in Joanna type by Canadian polymath Robert Bringhurst, outskirts barely contains Goyette’s lyric scope within the conventional bounds of a trade poetry book. The resulting poems look almost to be italicized throughout, a visual marker that takes some getting used to and yet appears appropriately imminent. Each poem, that is, seems a mere moment away from releasing its potential energy and bursting off the page, like the citrus spray of an orange as you remove the peel. That moment just before the wire snaps, or the branch breaks, or the kernel pops, is often when interesting things can happen, and Goyette captures that moment expertly.
The first of the book’s two sections, “My Darkness, My Cherry Tree,” concerns quotidian affairs, both domestic and social. Family and city (Halifax) interpenetrate in this section. In “Heavy Metal Night at Gus’s Pub,” for example, the speaker feels out of place watching the mosh pit full of “young bearded boys” and “girls wearing black leather chaps with matching bras.” And yet, as the singer gives himself up to the waiting hands of the mosh pit, she figures that “This is what I’m supposed to watch,” preparing herself for the day when her children are “gone.” The loss that pervades this section is both elegiac, as in the few poems dealing with death—“In Your Wake,” “Obituary,” and “It’s Not Keening, It Is a Kind of Hunger”—and not-yet-but-certain-to-occur, as in the poems that foreground a parent’s fear of children growing up and going away. Daughters and sons occupy many of these poems as if on the verge of disappearing. Early-morning encounters between the speaker and her son—she having just awoken, “him a walking ad for the somniferous”—the poem ends with the speaker recounting a memory of her son in grade one and lingering there, “not wanting to go / into [her] morning yet, the kettle’s inevitable boil and outside, // at the feeder, starlings trying to bully the treasured birds away.” In “Memoir,” a similar sentiment regarding a teenage daughter’s night out, her house key hung around her neck “like a happy ending.” “I’m alright with the happy,” the speaker tells us, “it’s the ending that keeps me in my chair.” And yet these poems are never brooding or unnecessarily heavy. Moments of light, and of lightness, abound. “To the Thief” addresses the anonymous thief who took, among other things, a copy of Rod Stewart’s greatest hits, “The anchor,” Goyette writes, “of my good taste that I / hope, hot legs, will somehow manage to sink you.”
The personal loss foregrounded in the first section anticipates the ecologically attuned poems of the second, which attend to loss on a larger scale while insinuating human emotions into technical discourse. The most affecting poems are found poems that reconsider government and ecological texts so that emotional (and, in some way, logical) responses to these poems turn on key terms and phrases that have replaced expected jargon. Consider “Aquifers”:
So far receptive yearning has found there are close to 100,000 cubic wistfuls
of music hidden in the aquifers across the country—a large, rich supply.
But most of them are echoes that were trapped underground long ago
by the bewildered rainfall of the broken-hearted or the lost. Happiness
can be replenished but grows more slowly than previously believed
and most voices don’t drill very deep. We may run out of music—
Between 1975 and 1999,
almost 10,000 kilometres of Nova Scotian curiosity was slashed and burned,
which is more than a sixth of all the ideas in the province, and almost a quarter
of the exclamation marks and eurekas. (!!)
Far from diminishing the crises the original texts detail, the anthropomorphic modifications alter readers’ perceptions regarding the effects of careless water use and clear-cutting. The power of these found poems lies in the way that music, say, stands as a metaphor for water and at the same time exists plausibly as a synonym for water. Water is music; trees are ideas.
TRAVIS V. MASON teaches Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University and Mount St. Vincent University. He was a recipient of a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship. He has a forthcoming book Ornithologies of Desire: Ecocritical Essays, Avian Poetics, and Don McKay (WLUP 2012).