Undone by Sue Goyette

Reviewed by Eric Barstad

On the surface, Sue Goyette’s Undone (Brick 2004) shares certain characteristics with Shawna Lemay’s Blue Feast: Both are intensely personal books; both deal in the currency of sadness and are affluent; both can be self-reflexive, referring to writing, and poetry, and writers; both are long books, as far as poetry collections are concerned. Where Undone separates itself, however, is in its conveyance of the emotions felt by the speaker. An evocative poem can make you shiver in your seat, and many of the poems in this collection do just that.

I saw Sue Goyette read from her first poetry collection, The True Names of Birds, in Fredericton in around 1999/2000. What I remember most about her reading is how honest she seemed, how real. What I mean is that she wasn’t a performer; she just seemed authentic. (She was also very funny, as I recall.) This is how I remember her poems, too – as having this same authenticity. In this regard, Undone does not disappoint; these are heartfelt, heartbreaking poems dealing with the aftereffects of a broken marriage:

Heartbreak is a geological occurrence. It takes years. Seams, faults
have slowly broken our days apart, their history dates all the way back
to the ocean floor.
(“A Version of Courage” 43)

What I notice most about these poems is how they make it so we cannot be indifferent to the loss the speaker describes; that is, despite the cultural ubiquity of divorce, of separation, of those who leave and are left, these poems still make us experience the related grief and emptiness and regret as fully as possible. A remarkable feat, I think.

Here [time] works its quietest skill of undoing,

of slowly sorting what to keep
and who to let go.
(“Patience” 141)

The whole book is a single story with many tangents, a life-narrative that moves from separation and loss to hope and the faint notion of recovery. Where the first section, “Forgotten,” sets the tone and begins the story, the next, “Kindred,” leaves the story and searches for companions (misery loves company?), real and imagined. Rich with allusions to writers and artists, the poems in this part of the book call on Shakespeare, Elizabeth Bishop, Margaret Laurence, Georgia O’Keefe, Mahler, Charlie Parker, Leo Tolstoy, and Snoopy:

It was a dark and stormy night. Every one
of his novels started with that line. He knew

how to live, dancing, abandoned,
head back, his feet a blur, a whirr of joy. He knew
we all have our own beginnings and they’re all the same.
(“Kindred” 61)

Snoopy aside, I prefer the narrative poems in the collection to the tangential ones. Perhaps I take a kind of voyeuristic pleasure from the narrative poems, but to me, they seem more honest, down to earth. The tangents can get philosophical, weighty, and too “poetic”; I have a hard time delighting in poems about poetry, or in allegory, or in characters who come across as falsely literary:

The woman, who as a child shared her cup

of water with the tree that gave her shade, will sing a soothing song
to the boy who ran in fright from the butterflies.
(“Wind Chill and the Absence of Trees in Mexico” 120)

The only other critique (if you want to call it that) I can really make about Undone is its lack of tonal variety. As the back of the books says, “These are sad poems, to be sure.” This isn’t a light collection you can breeze through in a single sitting; rather, you have to be patient, listen, and let the book’s grief work itself out in its own time.

There you go, he tells me,

there goes the ghost of you. Leaving has left.
(“Demystified” 147)

Eric Barstad is the editor of PoetryReviews.ca, and he currently lives with his wife Erin and their two cats—Finnegan and Pickles—in Brooks, Alberta.