Sue Goyette’s The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl
I have long been moved by Sue Goyette’s poetry. But halfway through her latest, a sorry tale of a four year old’s parents being prosecuted for her death through the over-prescription of bi-polar drugs, I realized I wasn’t feeling much of anything but detachment. This numbness irked, especially given the trust I have placed in Goyette’s intent craft in the past, so I talked to another artist about my reaction. After she read 5-6 pieces, she burst out, “That’s the whole point! To not feel! Sue is mimicking the effect of the drugs for the reader through her disconcerting overdoses of surrealist imagery.” Illuminating. Of course. And so I re-entered the text with a wholly revised set of expectations. And ended up feeling something, regardless.
Undoubtedly, it disconcerts, the experience of reading this book. It accretes. The prose thud of each courtroom entree, the father’s crotch fires, the mother’s dearths (nameless until Section 59 when she is given the only name in the book, Carla), poverty’s relentless hunger (for unicorns, “the barbequed idea of summer,” the smell of aftershave, Kleenex), the girl’s spectral presence, the doctor/lawyer/teacher/judge each asking or presenting or announcing and the bear figure, both ominous and comforting. Everything is open to being prescribed, to transforming into a dosage (which recalls Gabor Mate’s approach to addiction in his book, In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, where he demonstrates the continuum of addictive behaviors – not just heroin, for instance, but also his own desire to constantly purchase classical CDs). All is discombobulated. The legs of the furniture are being shaved; the trees smirk and point; people can have their fuses unscrewed. And so I had to release my need to be stirred in a familiar lyric sense and enter the chillier realm of brick-shaped texts, each one brilliantly and painfully hurled by Goyette toward the institutions that vilified a child’s imagination and energy, condemning these gifts as just other quashable symptoms.
Harry Thurston’s Keeping Watch at the End of the World
Any poet who writes with the ghost-pulse of Robinson Jeffers in his veins, not to mention the spectral-sonorousness of Loren Eiseley, is a poet after my own heart. And as with these poets, Harry Thurston writes most potently about inhuman nature and can dip into cliche and banality when speaking of the people in his life, however intimate, as in the weaker final section, Returning, whose most significant piece is for the deceased poet, Elizabeth Bishop.
His Transatlantic Cansos section is gorgeous, especially the long lyric sequence “Littoral” with its solid inhumanist lines: “my unaccountable love of rock,” “we come to this place famous for its barrenness,” “at our feet we find gull-work,” and “at the wrack line…the unravelling rope of a lost trawl,/the rusted marlinspike of a wharf pylon.” The cadence and vision only falters when Thurston falls too readily into humanized simile as when the grassy islands rise “like drowning men” or cattails bend “like grieving women.” The energy of the images would have been far more concentrated if he had just left them hauntingly within their initial sources. Subtract the like and as instants in IX. Isthmus as one example and you have a powerful evocation that rests respectfully inside its primary landscape. Compare “the hay bales loom like neolithic/glyphs before the written word./ Blackbirds flock, become sky carbon,/crows caw over the cropped fields as in Van Gogh’s last canvas,” with the alternate option of “hay bales loom, neolithic glyphs before the written word….crows caw over cropped fields.” In the first case, the simile becomes metaphor; in the second the simile is removed as being too easy a leap and not the point Thurston really wants to make of groundedness in place. Conversely, when Thurston uses Goya’s Still Life with Golden Bream in the same-titled poem, it is a jarring stimulus for an eventual unfolding of a poetics of truly seeing, even though, “always, the more deeply we look/the darkness only grows and grows.”
Thurston deserves greater acclaim as an exquisite poet of the natural world, but he is likely too old-fashionedly “present” in the eyes of the literati to receive it. Although he doesn’t draw from traditional forms, neither does he employ any of the current “tricks & stances” that might render him better read. Instead he “only” possesses a honed ear and a clear eye. And o dear, like Jeffers, he deigns to make the grand statement about such terribly archaic subjects as the poet’s role in the world, as in these key lines: “It is the poet’s work, not to stand in garrets….to see things before they take shape,/the poet’s duty. This can only be done/by standing inside oneself alone, in the tower.” Yes.