Loss and language: Sue Goyette’s outskirts

Sue Goyette, Outskirts. London, ON: Brick Books, 2011.

~reviewed by Rhonda Douglas


Outskirts, Sue Goyette’s third poetry book, is a mix of recent prose poems and lyrics, with a “U-Pick” triptych thrown in for a bit of fun. As always, Goyette is able to seam together loss and language as though one were simply the mirror image of the other.

On my first read of this book I discovered a new favourite poem every time I turned the page, savouring them as touchstones to come back to every time I returned to the book. (I’ve now read it four times. For the moment.) Goyette has a gift for depicting emotional landscapes, those things that move through us and then move away. “I’m sometimes haunted” is the title of one poem and by this she means

the smell of my son’s old room, the battle fume between Peacho the hamster
and Lego pirates. The vapour of their souls entwined in a kind of territorial

clash of cedar shavings and carpet.

Goyette describes the textured smell and casual gestures of growing boy in the house in order to ask, “How else can they leave, our boys, but slowly?”

She has a gift for evoking the full menu of silences humans can experience, either alone or with others, and each of these is offered in its component parts, almost a meditation. In one of the poems in the first section of the book, “We Lean In, Closer,” Goyette unwraps a specific silence at a dinner party:

You mention your daughter. How she left for university. You may have said more.
Someone at the far end of the table is talking politics and doesn’t notice. Someone opens

More wine, bread is cut. Two of us put down our forks. This kind of silence
stops chewing and stands on its hind legs to peer into our forests. It’s heard something

move. Arrested, it stops breathing. It will moult any whispering until it’s fully

The maritime landscape is both a rooted and an active feature in Goyette’s poetry, not a static fixture or prop but a neighbourhood character who might turn up at the house for tea. Perhaps every Atlantic poet eventually writes at least one poem about fog, and every attempt risks getting tangled in the shadows of Pratt and Sandburg. It’s a mark of Goyette’s ingenuity that none of the four (!) fog poems in Outskirts feels repetitive. Her metaphors are fully alive. (“A travelling salesman for thirst, / it’s got a briefcase squalled with gulls.”)

In the final section of the book, two poem series, Aquifers and Erosion, take government-speak about the environment and merges it with human histories, longings and philosophies. These poems explore the friction that happens when the rough edges of a bureaucratic tone scrape up against the tender language of relationships and spiritual seeking. Unsurprisingly, it’s not the bureaucrats who end up bruised. The last section of the book reads like a warning beacon cutting through our twenty-first century fog.

There’s a kind of silence where you close a book of Sue Goyette poetry on an early spring evening and sit still for a bit on the back deck. If she were here, she could describe that perfectly.


Rhonda Douglas is the author of Some Days I Think I Know Things: The Cassandra Poems. She is completing the Optional-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at UBC.

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