Although published in 1998, Susan Goyette’s first collection, The True Names of Birds, is still a ‘hot’ book. Birds received considerable acclaim, including its inclusion on a Governor General’s Award shortlist. This acclaim is warranted; Goyette’s is an original and arresting voice in Canadian poetry. I don’t think I’ve read such compelling poetry based on the domestic world since Bronwen Wallace. Like MacDonald, Goyette probes those all-consuming, human questions: how do you live? How do you make a home?
For Goyette, the world is an endlessly mysterious text, an uncrackable code - "everything a sign," she writes in "To Keep You Well." "November: The Sawing of Women in Half" interrogates this notion of an over-arching system of signification that will make everything make sense:
'There must be a formation
that calls to birds. Some magic seen from the sky
that means rest. I haven’t learned it yet'
Later in the poem, we discover that "[s]ome people can translate anything into music. I’ve had to/adapt." There is, of course, no guidebook to life, as Goyette tell us: "There are books, encyclopedias in the library/explaining every magic trick invented'nothing/about music." Goyette plays effectively with the schmaltz of the magic show: "the sawing/ of women in half, the bouquet of doves." In contrast to the gimmickry, the bogus potential of ‘explanation’, there is the poem’s real problem - how to translate the world into music.
For Goyette, poetry is the art of translation. The poet-translator’s key tool is metaphor. Despite Goyette’s charmingly self-deprecating gestures - "All I’ve learned is how to pull/handkerchief after handkerchief from my sleeve/while someone else sings the blues" - she is, in fact, a highly adept ‘translator’. Her metaphors are rich and striking. In "Sisters," she writes: "We weren’t temples or even bungalows. We were apartments." "Regret is a woman who watches her reflection/in soup spoons and still water" ("Regret and All Her Nightgowns"). Many of Goyette’s metaphors are spun from the seasonal cycles and her close attention to the natural world. In "In This January," she writes: "My dreams are shoeboxes/filled with bones from my feet." Everyday activities accrue metaphorical dimensions, as in "A Gift for the Winter God" where the speaker is knitting: "Left alone, I unravel Autumn all the way/back to April and try to pick up what I’ve dropped."
After inhabiting Goyette’s poems for awhile, their weave of metaphors begins to spin into something even more profound: a mythological milieu that defines and gives musical resonance to the poet’s own life. This is how you make a home. The materials woven and translated into a music for living are, in Goyette, as often drawn from domestic objects as from the more esoteric world of nature. But the two are often connected. In "October," Goyette writes: "October leaves me with just a soup pot and a faint taste/of my mother. I make our home from cards in my pocket, pull/coins from the backs of my son’s ears." There is that schmaltzy magic again that Goyette both believes in and doesn’t. Similarly, in "The Mythology of Cures," the question of the artist’s authority arises: "I’ll create a mythology for this house. Trust me." Is Goyette winking at us here? Yes and no. These moments of self-irony point to an interesting tension between authority and tentativeness that informs Goyette’s aesthetic. There is that self-assuredness of voice in the collection’s title poem, for example: "There are more ways to abandon a child/than to leave them at the mouth of the woods." But these studied declarations function mainly as springboards into the real business of the poem which is much more exploratory, open-ended. The poems’ stated ‘premises’ are sometimes undercut by subtle irony or silence. By the end of this poem - also the collection’s opening piece - Goyette has moved us from ‘certain’ knowledge (which, as she knows, is something we construct) into a hauntingly elegiac territory:
'Here is the stillness of forest,
the sun columning before me temple-ancient,
that wonder is what I regret losing most; that wonder
and the true names of birds.
Goyette’s collection plumbs lost language, lost childhood. The poem’s tentative moments of loss and silence are striking in the way they open up possibility. But this encapsulization misses the strength of humour in Goyette’s work. "Confessions" illustrates this important counterpoint to the elegiac: "'please God of everlasting love/and lambs,/please give me something to confess/and a Barbie camper." Moments like this should not be underestimated; they ensure against earnestness.
Goyette has created a highly successful hybrid blend of narrative and lyric. Her line is long in length, rich in cadence. She is not a poet for quickie readings; her work demands time and slow immersion. And it’s well worth both.