Register Sunday | October 1 | 2023
Lost at Shore Image courtesy of Gaspereau Press.

Lost at Shore

A review of Sue Goyette’s Ocean.

Confessional, metaphor-driven, and drawing on a distinctly Nova Scotian landscape, Goyette’s poems have never dawdled. Since her first book’s lyric treatments of motherhood and grief, Goyette has, collection by collection, introduced more social and historical elements into her poems: artists in Undone, retooled environmental texts in Outskirts, and now, in Ocean (Gaspereau Press, 2013), a world reimagined.

 Ocean seems very much an extension of Goyette’s previous collection, Outskirts, published only two years ago. The ocean figured prominently there, she began experimenting with numbered sequences and, by embedding government texts, she stretched the reach of her poems from the confines of house and home to include province and country. In Ocean’s fifty-six linked poems we find not so much a marriage of the personal/familial and government/ecological, but instead a chronicle of a society undergoing feverous and protean changes.

Geographically Canadian and culturally recognizable (podcasts, real estate agents, skyscrapers), the new book is engaged in the discovery of things as basic as “death”, “storms”, and “corkscrews”. While the characters in the narrative are all, as the book’s sleeve asserts, “archetypal” (we only get titles, never names), each stands in an alchemical relationship with their surroundings – transmuting “the menthol shade of pine trees” and feeding their daughters “thin/wafers of moonlight”.

  In this amalgam of time and place the speaker writes from an equally mutable, and omniscient perspective—chronicler, seer, historian, and poet – speaking at once as a participator in the world and standing at a remove, within her character’s heads and outside them. The speaker is everywhere and nowhere at once: much like the world Goyette has created. This is a world intensely conceptualized, an allegorical world, and is thicketed with metaphor. And it is here, in the scaffolding of this world, that things begin to fall apart.

We basted decadence, flambéed it and then dipped it
into excuses. We poured the lava from our secrets

into foil cups and presented them as declarations
to each other. We plugged into electrical storms

and marched our arguments down Main Street.
We sat at the edge of bottomless and fished out

the last living things…

When we poured the first vat of pavement
into our sense of adventure, some of us spit into it

for luck. Others turned their backs and in this way
political parties were invented…

We wrote notes to our young children, explaining

the best defrosting methods and invented psychology
to soothe the teddy bears of their bedtimes.

 Recently, another reviewer wrote that Goyette’s “metaphoric reaction to life” in Ocean has produced “ultra-original poetry”. Goyette is doing something different here, but it isn’t original. She is treating concepts as physical things (can be flambéed and dipped in other concepts), or as though they have physical things placed inside them (pavement into a sense), or as though they are physical places (we sat at the edge of the bottomless). And to call this original is to forget her other collections where, as in Undone, Goyette began to deal heavily in abstractions—the rubble of despair, the ocean of our days, the tools of regret, the house of his heart—this is not innovation, but it is evolution.

  Abstractions of the sort in Undone have been retooled in Ocean—the image (like rubble) is no longer a quality of the concept (marriage) but a physical aspect of it, or the concept (regret) has been given agency and uses the image (tools) like an object. Goyette has promoted the abstract to the physical and thereby made the physical abstract, and this? This is one of the oldest of territories—the territory of allegory. But in a traditional allegory literal and symbolic layers of meaning read in tandem—the narrative, ideally, giving body, and through it, better access to the concept beneath it. So, pavement, for example might refer symbolically to the way fixed routes between places robbed us of the opportunity for adventure. But in promoting the symbol (pavement) and its content (loss of adventure) to the same plane, Goyette fails to tell us a story about either: it is a case of x + x = x. Her abstractions failed before because they presumed the reader knew what, say, a tool of regret might be. The only difference here being that we are asked to believe they exist in an alternate reality as actual things.

 In crafting a boundary-less world, every image, every idea, and every strange object forces its own acceptance on the reader because it is written as part and parcel of the world created. Anything is possible and so we cannot complain about the “raisins/of winter clouds”  or abstractions like the “uneven ground of our fear”—anything flies because there is nothing to stop it from flying. While this no doubt gives the writer a sense of freedom, it often ends up giving to the reader, simply, poor metaphors and rickety conceits. This excerpt from poem 44 is a good example of what I mean:

The process was simple though-consuming.
It involved a complete turn of tide, anchoring a piece of linen

with the name stitched on it and waiting for the ocean
to eat off the bones of its former memories: the tenderloin

of the person’s voice, the sugar crust of their laugh,
the whipped cloud of their whispers.

                                            Some still boiled
the linen and drank the tea of their longing.

Some wore the linen stitched to the underside of their shirts,
so their hearts could take small breaths of its echo.

The poem functions loosely, as 46 did, as an allegory for the way memories that remain embedded in a person’s name fall away after their death. This inner process is reimagined as a physical one: the washing of a name like laundry, given to the ocean to “eat off the bones of its former memories”. Here, already, as the laundry allegory is overlaid with a culinary one, the conceit begins to fracture. Goyette pushes the culinary metaphor forward to explore the “bones” of memory: “the tenderloin/of that person’s voice”, the “sugar crust of their laugh”, and so on. What we have, by poem’s end, is something that goes like this—a name is: a memory-boned sugar crusted caramel tenderloin topped with clouds and nougats (you can run your fingers through) of whispers that can be washed, boiled, or stitched to linen and worn under the shirt so that the heart can breath the sound of its…taste.

One effect, among many, of this layering of metaphor is that the process embodied in it, the slow action of grief, is progressively lost. The experience of this is much like reading poor turn- of-the-century translation in which poets would often bend lines of one language to meet an English rhyme scheme—the rhymes reach back into the line, forcing their meaning to meet them. Here, the effect is similar; the lines made to turn back to the poem’s opening metaphor. The poem (to answer metaphor with metaphor), like a tower built on a matchstick foundation, teeters.

Goyette seems to want to deal with her abstractions by giving them physicality, but this hasn’t produced clarity, just oddity. It isn’t “ultra-innovative”, it is the same kind of abstraction that poets have worked against for centuries, and the same utilitarian use of language that poetry attempts to combat: to not place language in service to an intangible realm of ideas, but to a world that refuses, and should refuse, to be reduced to them or, as in this case, to have them promoted to the flesh and bones of a fantastical one—as Adrienne Rich put it, “the long struggle against lofty privileged abstraction”.

And there is something privileged going on here, but it has to do with the perspective that informs the world of Ocean. In the first poem we encounter a speaker who interprets a briefcase as a “small shield”, but can encode a critique of its use when she writes that bankers are “shielding” themselves with them and then, on the next page, writes about purchasing a house and the “smell/of bank” on a real estate agent’s breath. The privilege, or at the very least convenience, is in a speaker that adopts a pre-modern gaze when they want to implicitly critique a society from the outside, and a modern one when they want to critique it from within.

 “Everything is connected!”, Goyette’s speaker proclaims, and yes, it is: because a world has been created in which there are no boundaries between anything—not dreams, matter, smells, senses, concepts, or memories—and their connections aren’t revealed because they are presented as fact. Goyette doesn’t have to ground or hone her metaphors, to fashion cohesive conceits, because she has created this world with a structure that implicitly excuses their failings and obscurities.  

Goyette, like so many other Canadian poets have and continue to do, seems to want to address the issue of naming, and finding, home—as Dennis Lee asked to forty-one years ago, “allow me for to/be here is enough and earth you/strangest, you nearest, be home”. You can feel this question throughout Ocean, and in the speaker’s lamentation at the book’s end at the replacement of the ocean with “3d” films and “scratch and sniff coastal cards”. But it’s sadly ironic because it’s a similar replacement Goyette has created here: a fake-up ocean coursing in a world far from our own.