Poetry in the Courtroom: Sue Goyette’s The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl

Goyette’s account takes the form of a lineated narrative poem, and recounts the trial of the mother; the account is broken into segments, one per page, some longer text blocks than others, with a ragged right margin. This form is a break from Goyette’s earliest collections, which offered more conventional forms; it is closer to the incremental, somewhat surreal effect of Ocean, and perhaps a building of technique from this.

The recounting of a trial in a long poem inevitably recalls Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, which recounts a murder trial in blank verse, although in the case of Browning, each chapter, or monologue, is presented from a different participant’s perspective; here the perspective is more fluid, wandering from one participant to the next (the judge, the doctor, the father, the ghost of the girl). And one of the two aspects of this book which I very much appreciated is that, as with Browning in the 19th century, Goyette addresses a real event in the world, and places faith in poetry’s ability to offer a complex response. (Although I do have a question about the decision to present this as a lineated poem, not densely textured poetic prose, but I’ll return to this later.) Goyette’s poem magnifies several interconnected contemporary issues such as the over prescription of psychotropic drugs to very young children in the interest of keeping them subdued; the lack of checks in place to watch out for the welfare of children; the role played by poverty in creating such abject conditions.

The second aspect of the book that I enjoyed very much was its brilliant use of metaphor, which can be one of poetry’s most powerful tools in shaping the ways we frame and think about the world: what Adrienne Rich once called the “great muscle of metaphor.” This use of metaphor, in conjunction with surreal imagery and word play, creates a through-the-mirror effect, as if all surfaces have become wavery and dreamlike. The poem also gestures towards medieval allegory, with the personification of Poverty and the reappearance of the dead girl as a ghost who watches the transactions. Certain characters become associated with recurring attributes: the mother has had her tongue eaten by Poverty; the father sits in the stands fuelling a fire in his crotch with images of girls in tennis outfits; the doctor wields her prescription pad like a compact mirror to reflect and magnify her own distorted image of her prestige and power. These image-metaphor constellations are powerful, affecting, and often quite unusual — yet disturbingly apt. For example, a juror “cleared / her throat of her grandmother’s crochet hook”; the father’s problem is that his children have become “aquariums of swimming pills”. With this latter example, our thinking might go something like this: surreal image of child-aquarium filled with fish. Metaphorical leap—child’s body as glass aquarium, filled with “swimming pills”—fish—that is, the ADHD cocktail. But also, the child is then associated with attributes of transparency, fragility, a container to be filled by others with foreign, possibly dangerous things such as fish/drugs, something easily broken. Then there’s the pun on swimming pills/pools. It is as if we ourselves have been prescribed a language cocktail as anecdote to the wretched circumstances that ended in the death of a little girl. The cumulative effect of these constellations is disorienting, where language itself is experienced as deceptive and unstable.

This through-the-mirror effect also has the benefit of seeming to present at times what the world might have looked like to the young girl, highly drugged by her own doctor and parents: surreal, unreliable, fragmentary and dissolving, populated with monsters. Poverty has eaten not only the mother’s tongue, but is ravenous, and devours many other words and ideas, hopes, and possibilities, in the course of the poem.

The decision to present this narrative as a lineated poem, however, did raise some questions for me, certainly not limited to this book. Why lineation, as each page could have been set as a text block and presented as poetic prose; what is the value of, or reason for, lineation? Browning’s The Ring and the Book, for example, was written in blank verse; there is an underlying current of metre played against colloquial rhythm that runs through the speaking voice of each monologue. This is a question that concerns me beyond simply this poem, but many poems which today rely more heavily than this one on narration and anecdote (and is not a new issue); I might ask the same of some of Brad Cran’s poems in Ink on Paper, where the poems are presented as poem-essays. Does the lineation gesture towards a certain, somewhat diminished authority that poetry once held in popular culture? Does it change the way we receive the lines on the page? (I’m not sure we could hear the line endings). Do we pay attention differently? A key difference with Goyette’s book however is that it uses metaphor so densely as to impede or divert narrative, like blood clotting in veins. Courtroom logic and linearity are refused. It does however make great demands on the reader. We have to work hard to decipher the brilliance of its metaphorical insight.


Kim Trainor‘s first collection of poetry, Karyotype, has just appeared with Brick Books.



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