Poetry Review by Jane Munro
(extended version)

E. Alex Pierce, Vox Humana (London: Brick, 2011). Paperbound, 76pp., $19.
Sue Goyette, outskirts (London: Brick, 2011). Paperbound, 88pp., $19.

What follows is the complete text of Jane Munro’s review of new collections of poetry by E. Alex Pierce and Sue Goyette, which appears in shortened form in Essential East Coast Writing (#180, Autumn 2012).

Vox Humana, the title of E. Alex Pierce’s first collection, comes from the name of a pipe organ stop designed to produce tones resembling those of the human voice. Voice is important in these poems. So is theatre. For the most part, we’re listening to the stories of women though the poems dramatize a wide range of characters: Penthesilea’s horse, a German-speaking man, a fetus. In “Vox animalia” we hear porcupines:
All night loving, quills softened. They sound like us,

another vox humana, like the organ pipe, relic
of the parlour. Pump organ, stops labelled
vox, vox, vox – tremolo, bellows filling the air.

Take this creature into your throat pipe. Gristle,
heft and hide. Rasp, slide the whistle ….

Taken together, these poems perform a universal voice— “the under-singing.” This is also the voice of book’s narrator: it is her story, though its versions are legion. In “A girl awake” her father says, “What a waste …. You should have been a boy.”

In the breakers, I would keep up with him until the water
rose over my head. His bare back, ahead of me. My arms,
my legs, not knowing what I was.

The search for self and voice: “I do not want to have lost what I am looking for now,” begin “In the Sand Hills:” “Down in the dunes is a language place, lost U-vowel of the sound turned round, /  guts of the rabbit strewn over ground.” The search continues through family. “Musk melon moth skirt … our mother, that summer our brother was born” turns into “Ice Mother” after a stroke, no longer Queen “in that brass iron bed.” Incapacitated, she “cannot find her words.” In another bed, Aunt Edna’s arm: cursive, scribing— “has something to tell,” swinging “back, forth, repetitive / on the sheets.” Many of Pierce’s poems are elegies. As the book progresses, the patterns of loss and death expand through friends and lovers into literature and myth. Words, language, story, music – how we hear, express, and pass on the Vox Humana—remain its recurrent themes.

Epiphanies do come. “The Snakes Transform in the Woodpile” begins:

Even the eyes moult, growing larger
under the skin that covers them – a skin
that thin, purely transparent, holding them
intact, so they can do their work. What do they see
at the moment of moulting? The snake
that was, the snake that will become – split,
blind, as the lost world memorizes itself, still
present in the cells that lift off,
as light as paper?

And, it ends:

Like sticks, the snakes must have lain there afterwards.
Like lovers, startled, still too new to move –

and then    their eyes    would open.

Most of these poems are open form lyrics but Vox Humana also includes prose poems, sonnets, and a sestina. Pierce’s penultimate five-part serial poem, “Snow White & Rose Red,” short-listed for The CBC Literary Awards, could be presented as a dramatic monologue about the loss of a child – a daughter – born too soon to survive. The book closes with a prose poem, “Arioso”—“a musical term which describes a state of singing between recitative and aria, between speech rhythm and song.”

Then the winnowing will come through you and you will sit up, and laugh, and go out under the trees, and a coil unwind in your throat, and the arc of your singing will come out.

Like Pierce, Sue Goyette also lives in Nova Scotia. Two imperatives—“Persist” and “Resist”—bookend her third collection, outskirts, winner of the 2012 Pat Lowther Award. We enter outskirts at a terrifying moment:

The boy moves like a long-necked creature, a horse or a giraffe. With the same arc of reach, a gracious hunger, he lunges in front of my car impervious to its heft. His body is wily and wired for adventure though the soft skin of him still nuzzles the woolen mammal of family. His father, a force across the street, watches. We are in a globe theatre rehearsing tragedy. There are no lines. We are poised to remember each other for an eternity of remorse.

It’s a close call. “Persist”— Goyette’s condensed morality play of an opening prose poem – is not reassuring. Neither the narrator driving “this enterprise of engine and fuel” nor the father can save the boy “chosen to be treasure.”

Later, I will drive through the town of Economy and think of the way you looked at me in that second. The joy of seeing your father slurred with sudden panic. But only in your eyes and only for that moment. Immediately it wavered and delight moved back in. And such a force of delight, how it spread, the opposite of shadow, its hands on the heavy back of time, pushing it, shoving it still to let you squeeze by.

Such faith, with its echoes of Blake, may be part of our heritage, but can we, rehearsing tragedy in this globe theatre, count on “such a force of delight” to still the momentum of disaster? Can we persist in delight?

Goyette sets this hook then lets her line run. From the almost-scapegoated youth and helpless patriarch in “Persist” we’re off, exhausting resources in a wide-looping race toward the post-apocalypse of the final poem, “Resist.” Because of its physical position beyond the end of the book, it may come as a surprise.

But artistically, “Persist” and “Resist” serve as the carved doors of outskirts’ diptych. Swung wide, their imperatives turned aside, our gaze fills with the details of Goyette’s colourful verso and recto – outskirts’ inside stories. In these collages, as in memory or dream, scenes come forward, link and shift, occupy the present.

In “my darkness, my cherry tree,” the first or verso panel of outskirts, we begin intimately with a woman’s voice and specific local details. Goyette introduces a poetic tactic she’ll employ extensively:

for their art project. There’s no question about it,
she will organize a memory swap. The phone is a flashlight
into her silence. She tries icing her kids’ boredom so it will
taste better. ("Snow Day (#14)")

Outskirts organizes a memory swap in more ways than one. Entrenched patterns associated with one vocabulary parade in fresh garb, their assumptions redressed. By the time we get to the book’s second section, Goyette is serving up extended “memory swaps” in serial poems with “government and ecological texts reconsidered.” All along, she’s calling us up, icing boredom, tempting us to remember and to think. She’s never talking to herself.

This wish to engage with the reader is an essential part of her artistry. Her welcoming and conversational tone is supported by intelligence, craft, insight, and – yes – Economy. That’s the town we start in; she has planned the tour. Personal details chosen as icons skirt the traps of the confessional. It’s the reader’s emotions she’s addressing when writing of her son, her daughter, the new mothers, the going-craziness of a woman housebound and snowed in, the tired woman, the father’s death and his obituary, a kitchen party and singing when you can’t carry a tune, recession, the thief whose “hands squirreled though my underwear drawer” and the man “aloft among the trees with an armful of light, cascading sparrows, illuminated notes of the melodic minor spilling between his hands,” the “man hovering in the branches beyond the cherry tree holding out a bouquet like a marriage.”

In the middle of “my darkness, my cherry tree” we come to:

It’s Not Keening, It Is a Kind of Hunger

I had swallowed a bird whole, that’s what people thought. I tried telling them
that no, I hadn’t swallowed a bird, I just didn’t feel like talking

and the feathers coming out of my mouth were just a kind of silence, billowing.
When moths started coming out of my mouth, they thought I’d been a room

with a door closed for decades and now opening. In a way, they were right
but not about the door. I’m not a room, I wrote in a note I’d give

to whoever asked. My father has just died and the moths are the years
of silence between us finally taking wing. Yes, you could say an opening.

They’d step closer to me then, their hand reaching for my arm, my shoulder.
Oh, they’d say, your father. And he’d appear then, between us,

an urban river, smokestack or an eight lane expressway to cross. My father.
The clouds, the day he died, were sweaters draped over the shoulders

of the soft hills I looked to. The weather, maternal, tucking me  in
and bringing me cool cloths for my forehead. I unfolded the chart

of the continent I’d just walked and was exhausted. All my clothes heaped
in the hamper, the animals so loose, the tinderbox dropped into the edge

of the Atlantic. This happens after a long journey, no? Every step you’ve taken,
every long shadow, each road appears briefly to bow before retiring.

Are you okay, people ask, and when I open my mouth an ocean pours out,
not a postcard ocean, but a real one, with cold-blooded creatures skulking

at the bottom, their hunger on a separate hunt moving farther from their mouths.

Goyette’s poetics focalize a woman’s voice: her ways of knowing, her forms of making and relating, her eccentricities and irrationalities, her passions— attributes of the feminine often cited in its dismissal. This is therefore brave feminist work. Goyette’s moral code is apparent, her wit playful and generous. The poems use internal rhyme, alliteration— nods to Beowulf, Whitman, Ginsberg—as they craft lyrical dramas. And throughout she wrings unexpected meanings from the mundane by twisting metaphors hard. “The hours can climb out of their cribs. She puts a safety gate / between now and the morning of her death. Her terror / is teething. She still has to defrost her father’s // letters.” (“Snow Day (#14)”)

“We shouldn’t have set the heart of the night on fire” (René Char) is the epigraph for “the last animal,” the second section or recto panel of outskirts. Char was a poet who fought in the French Resistance; he was also a fighter against environmental damage.  A note tells us “Resist,” the parallel poem to “Persist,” was written in the company of René Char.  If the book’s diptych were closed, “Resist” would cover “the last animal.”

In it, the focus expands from a woman in a small town, province, and country into a vast expanse of darkness. Immediately, the ocean—and it is not a postcard ocean—comes ashore. “Fog is nomadic. A low prowl of Atlantic rooting / through the city like a bear. In the small town of Prospect // fog once swallowed a school bus.” We return again and again to this shore, in darkness, and under the repeated title “fog.” When we are not there, we are often amid environmental devastation. The sequential poems, “Aquifers,” “Erosion,” and “Clear-cut,” illustrate Goyette’s irony and her linking of the personal and political. The fourth poem in “Clear-Cut” shows Goyette’s long lines, broad gaze that stays centred, and the kind of memory swap she’s playing with in this section:

Artificial conversation starters often encourage one or two seedlings of mild insult

and veiled accusation over a hardwood of compliments to initiate exchanges.

This creates a single species of silence, a monoculture of hard feelings

that share the same weight and size. This even-thrown monoculture is far less operatic

than the natural multi-voiced (or uneven-aged) family brawl of the supper table,

and these silences support a community of simmering unrest. Considering the aim

of a Protected Conversation Network is to support bio “diversities,” it becomes clear

that charcoals of silence and the mistrust they create are not consistent with the aims

of protecting Nova Scotia’s wild heritage of rhetoric, tall tales, and outright,

but interesting, false claims.

Individual poems grow darker the deeper we go into “the last animal.”  At the end, the terrible accident that almost happened at the beginning of outskirts occurs on a larger scale:

Unmoor the last light. And stand on the shore. How often we watch something leave

for the last time without knowing it.

We cannot slow down to hear ourselves think. If we did, the great sadness

would descend and not leave for many winters. Yes, we’d learn to live with it.

And it would loosen its grip; the inevitable choice of watching

everything go. Patience. Darkness bears its own sight. The path is lit by the sound of

our footsteps. (“Outskirts")

Goyette offers some comfort: “Darkness bears its own sight,” and the sound of walking lights the path, but “the great sadness” will descend it we slow down and listen to ourselves think.

It is only then that we encounter the final, post-apocalypse poem, “Resist,” which Goyette brilliantly sets outside the book proper. Its tone is urgent and militant, like commands to a cadre of guerilla fighters: “Stay off the paths. … steam rumours open and eat the nut / at their core… Love best those who have forgotten how. …Now scatter.” In a time when so much news breaks the heart, outskirts moves from Economy to Prospect. Goyette summons the uplift of a long vision.