Gaspereau Press, 2013
What happens to us when we live by the sea?
According to Sue Goyette, we get “basted.” Lapped and licked by saltwater air. She writes: “We were being seasoned. Lightly. Of course we rebelled, / refusing to be in its roasting pan.” (Poem Seven)
That’s where Goyette puts us. In a roasting pan. A magical roasting pan in which all life—the personal, the civic, and the universal—is thrown in to heat and gel and later to cool, to be cut up and eaten, savoured.
Her Ocean moves in rhythmic waves, couplets that push you off your perch on shore—sometimes gently, sometimes energetically. While broken up into 56 poems, the book is a long poem, an ode to the water, to the natural world, and a (more) “natural” way of life. It’s also a probe into the weight of the water, and how that weight falls on those of us on land. It’s about relationships, ours with the sea, but also ours with the city (in this case, Halifax), and with our loved ones.
At times, as Goyette says herself, it can be hard to get in that roasting pan. There’s a reluctance to get in the boat. At the same time, it can be easy—but this depends on your propensity for the magical, giving yourself over to the unknown. If we look to great magic realists, such as García Márquez or Neruda, it seems that living by the sea makes you a little more up for whimsy; a little more apt to believe in a world that is not quite as it seems. (It seems, too, that Goyette believes the poets are the most willing to dive in: “The poets, it turned out, were our compasses” Poem Ten.)
If you’re not up for jumping in, your mind a little too stuck in purposeful reality—inland, perhaps (that’s where I was, on first read)—then it’s easy to run aground and get lost in Goyette’s expansive imagery. And there isn’t necessarily specific points of running aground in this book; it’s more a feeling of being lost in the vastness (the ocean is big, after all), in the depths, of going “beneath”.
From the beginning, Goyette throws the reader into a mystical, mythical world where the natural pokes fun at the human (“We weren’t introduced to bees until someone / overheard them and mistook their drone / for a school board meeting.” Poem Eleven) It seems you can either stay on land, be offended and lost, or swim with all manner of creatures.
Regardless, I think Goyette succeeds in reeling us humans into her juxtapositions, luring us in to her talk of the medieval fog trade (let’s ponder this!), the night pontificating – “droning on like a politician / promising us more day” (Poem Thirteen) – and the moonlight, the ocean’s “accolades of full moons.” (Poem Seventeen)
And this, let’s highlight this:
We were guilty of putting up fences. We were guilty
of lawn care. We were guilty of pruning our lilac ideas
until they could no longer flower; of weeding the wilderness
from the turnips of silence that grew beneath us,
pale and verging on purple.
Goyette’s language is lyrical, and she isn’t afraid of possibilities, the vastness and endlessness the ocean inspires. She lives in Halifax and has had many staring contests with the sea. It always wins, she writes. And we need its stoicism:
If we drove to its feet,
it wasn’t to confront it, but more to adjust
our own reflections, straighten out our hearts with the old
In the end, Ocean comes down to attention. Can you spend the day wandering in Goyette’s sometimes absurd but also bang-on metaphors, or does the world of the straight-and-narrow call you back to reality?
In one of the last poems, Goyette writes: “When had our schedules become the new mountains?” (Poem Fifty-Five) Just that is enough to ponder, while sitting on the beach listening to fog horns.
*Note: As there are no page numbers in Ocean, poems have been referred to by their titles, as they appear in the book.