E. Alex Pierce, Vox Humana (London: Brick, 2011). Paperbound, 76pp., $19.
outskirts (London: Brick, 2011). Paperbound, 88pp., $19.
Vox Humana, the title of E. Alex Pierce’s first collection, comes from the
name of a pipe-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 “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”)
"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.
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