Poetry Reviews by Jane Munro

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

Sue Goyette, Outskirts (London: Brick, 2011). Paperbound, 88pp., $19.

Vox Humana, the title of E. Alex Pierce’s first collection, comes from the name of a Vox Humanapipe-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: porcupines, Penthesilea’s horse, a German-speaking man, a fetus.

Taken together, these poems perform a universal voice—“the under-singing.” This is also the voice of the 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 begins “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.

Most of the poems are open form lyrics but Vox Humana also includes prose poems, sonnets, and a sestina. Pierce’s five-part serial poem, “Snow White & Rose Red,” shortlisted 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. After its emotional and artistic complexity, the book closes with a prose poem, “Arioso.” “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 lives in Nova Scotia. Two imperatives— “Persist” and Outskirts“Resist”—bookend outskirts, winner of the 2012 Pat Lowther Award. We enter 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. (“Persist”)

Artistically, “Persist” and “Resist” work as the doors of outskirts’ diptych. Swung wide, their imperatives turned aside, our gaze fills with the details of the inside panels where scenes come forward, link, shift, and occupy the present. 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 of outskirts. 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.

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: “the inevitable choice of watching / everything go.” Goyette offers some comfort: “Darkness bears its own sight,” and the sound of walking lights the path, but “the great sadness” will descend if 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, Goyette summons the uplift of a long vision.

—Jane Munro

As in The Malahat Review, 180, Autumn 2012, 137-139