Poetry as Social Conscience – Part One – Sue Goyette and Amber Tamblyn

Halifax-based poet Sue Goyette. Photo: from the website Pebbles and Buttons

Halifax-based poet Sue Goyette. Photo: from the website Pebbles and Buttons.

Poetry is language used with particular intensity. It is not, as many suppose decorative speech. Poets tell us what our eyes turned with too much gawking, and our ears dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depths of reality itself. They do it not by reporting on how life is, but by push-pulling us into the middle of it. Poetry grabs for the jugular.

Eugene Peterson from Answering God, The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, HarperCollins Publishers, 1989

If ever a quote captured the importance of poetry in the world this one would get my vote. Especially this line: Poets use words to drag us into the depths of reality itself.

I was reminded of this quote when I posted a blog last year on Claudine Rankine’s poetry collection, Citizen, which examines the stark reality of being black in the United States. To read that post click here.

And this quote came to mind again when, recently,  I read two wonderfully disturbing poetry collections published last year: The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl, by Halifax-based Canadian poet Sue Goyette and Dark Sparkler by American actress and poet, Amber Tamblyn.

In this, part one of my post on the poetry of social conscience, I profile Goyette and in particular a few poems from her latest book. In part two I profile Amber Tamblyn  who is no stranger to these blog pages. I profiled her collection Bang Ditto in May 2012. Tamblyn is a contributing writer for the Poetry Foundation and her television and movie acting has garnered nominations for  an Emmy and Golden Globe award.

Sue Goyette ( 1964 – ) is a Canadian poetic treasure, her supple metaphors pretzel images together into shapes of light and dark wonder. Her 2013 book, Ocean, was nominated for a 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize, and was my favorite that year to win. Instead, Ann Carson, won the prize.

How not to swim in words like these from poem # Thirty Nine in Ocean:

It was soon obvious we shouldn’t have drunk
the lake water greased in moonlight. It woke

the bears hibernating in us and got us back on
our feet. We scavenged the silence looking

for the berries of our original names. We tore open
old arguments, rooting through accusations

hungry for meat.

Sue Goyette from Ocean, Gaspereau Press, 2013

However, accomplished and lyrically gorgeous the poems are in Ocean, they did not prepare me for the world she brings up uncomfortably close and personal in her latest collection: a poetic exploration of the life and death in 2006 of a four-year old Massachusetts girl whose parents were convicted for her murder.

Goyette’s poems from The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl makes true Peterson’s words: Poetry grabs for the jugular:

from 1

The girl refused to be afraid when she climbed
on high things. Her mother shaved the legs of the furniture
and, along with some cough syrup, stewed it
with a few of the girl’s father’s beer caps. The girl spit
a whole parade’s worth of bicycle bells back at her
and pranced around in her diaper. The mother sat in the closet,
lit a candle, and located the doctor with binoculars.

Sue Goyette from The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl, Gaspereau Press, 2015

# 20

The juror who has taken the sunflower seed to turn the thermostat
of her own childhood down was panicked that no one else saw
the sturdy flame of the girl’s father crotch. She looked to the judge
but he was trying to pour water without getting any ice.
and the daycare teacher was busy lending her dismay
to make an indoor/outdoor mat that someone else could use.
The lawyer asked the doctor about how the mother managed
to up her daughter’s dosage without the doctor’s consent.
The doctor explained that, as she said, she relies on binoculars,
mirrors, bears or whatever wireless system there is
between the parents of her patients that can keep her informed
of their medical condition. Often in these cases, when the children
are too young yo articulate how they’re feeling
their parents karaoke how their children’s diagnosis
is progressing. In this case, the child’s mother told her that the child
was driving her crazy. That she wouldn’t put away her toys
and would try to push her parents out of the way
when they insisted she do something she didn’t want to do.
The medication she prescribed is often used as an internal
way to child the child to better behave. There are many
numbers, the doctor concluded, to back her up.

Sue Goyette, ibid

from 55

The jury heard how the girl’s father rasped his stubble
on the silk of the illegal drugs he had been taking. The mother
had spread silence like lard the night before the girl had died.
The apartment smelt like the cartilage holding the marriage
together and the silence that was smeared on the walls, greased
into the furniture….

Sue Goyette, ibid

This poetry is not an “aboutness” or a reporting. This is the “issness” of a madness no child should live or die through. This is the “isness” good poetry injects like dreams into our veins to bring first-hand news of the human to  our hearts and from there to our minds. This is poetry, not become sermon or polemic, to prick any conscience. What a showing that turns itself into this “issness” that grabs me by my jugular!

As horrific this story is, and however real Goyette makes it through language and metaphor, she doesn’t abandon its victim to the cruel facts of the case. Somehow through the metaphor of a bear she brings some measure of love and redemption:

from 59

When the mother and bear faced each other, the bear snouted
at the word mother like a carcass, spent and boned. The mother
tried protecting her wishbone with her high school yearbook.
She inhaled deeply and held in her fear until she was stoned enough
to see headlights. Someone was tapping on her eardrum
with a rack of antlers. She couldn’t hear words for the voices.
The bear had pulled the last velour off the word mother
and the memory of the girl was fading and then broken.

Sue Goyette, ibid

from # 61

The bear knew the second before she caught it
that she’s found the right one. She readied herself
for the feel of it, how it might overwhelm her
but once she held the fish it was more
like a homecoming than anything. The bear reveeled
in the pure movement of it, its clamour for life.
It felt like this, she told the ghost of the girl
before placing the fish in the pan where the girl’s heart
had been. The fish enchanted them by swimming
in protest. The girl glided back into her voice
long enough to say oh. Oh. Love trusted the bear to pick the fish
from the pan then and return it to the river…..

Sue Goyette, ibid


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