Saturday, November 23, 2013

The True Names of Birds - Susan Goyette

Today's book of poetry:  The True Names of Birds.  Susan Goyette.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  1998, 2008.

When I opened Sue Goyette's first book, The True Names of Birds, I saw something you rarely see in a book of poetry:  SEVENTH PRINTING.

This will come as no surprise to those who have had the pleasure of reading Goyette's very fine poetry but it is very rarefied air for mere mortals.

There is good reason for reprinting The True Names of Birds.  It reads like very few first books.  Goyette is so astutely sure of her voice that it almost causes the reader to pause, the familiarity of it draws the reader closer to impact.  Goyette arrived on the scene fully formed and in this book there are moments of such recognition that you think she might be giving voice to things you've dreamed but never been able to say.

The True Names of Birds

There are more ways to abandon a child
than to leave them at the mouth of the woods.
Sometimes by the time you find them, they've made up names
for all the birds and constellations, and they've broken
their reflections in the lake with sticks.

With my daughter came promises and vows
that unfolded through time like a roadmap and led me
to myself as a child, filled with wonder for my father
who could make sound from a wide blade of grass

and his breath.  Here in the stillness of forest,
the sun columning before me temple-ancient,
that wonder is what I regret losing most; that wonder
and the true names of birds.


There is a casual authority in Goyette's voice, an insistent tone that breaks down all our illusions, we know she is telling the truth.  Goyette uses unassailable reason crafted with uncanny and bedrock solid lyricism.  She sings like an angel driving a dagger through your heart.

You Know This

You dream of fire and watch as your reading chair is engulfed in flame.
Curtains and the bird cage by the window.  Every cat you've ever owned

is meowing and winding its body around your feet.  And you know in this dream
that you must save something.  Something important, irreplaceable.  Instead

you grab the can opener and a shoehorn.  When you awake, empty
handed, that sense of failure begins to stalk you.  You feel it watching

when you speak on the phone, it makes you falter, stumble over
your words.  No one eats the chicken you cooked.  Cups of tea are left

half full.  This is how it begins, this part of winter.  Its hands, clawed
and chapped, undo the safety net over your ears.  Once that's gone

you hear things you shouldn't.  Whispers.  Winter undoes
all kinds of knots.  Lets loose those things you've tied up, the guard dogs

and the rescue boats.  This is the season when you're stranded;
anyone can sneak up.  And what comes to you, comes at night dressed

in your grandmother's flannel.  Superstitions.  Her whisper telling you curiosity
killed all the cats curled around your feet as the fire got closer,

got hotter.  You couldn't save them.  And your children ask so many damn  questions.
Fear is passed on like the colour of eyes, the texture of hair.  You know this.

Winter knows it too as it gnaws on daylight.  You also know that the candle you need
for its darkness may be what burns your house down and you light it anyway.


So as I read, read, read these lovely poems I can't help but think that wherever that bench is that Atwood, Musgrave, Bruck and some of those other giant talents sit — they have to be making room for Goyette.  This first book comes from a voice as old as Methuselah and as fresh tomorrow morning.

This Contradiction of Passion

If your husband owns a rifle company, you must face facts.
There will always be ghosts.  The ghosts of rifle victims follow
you out of your bath, clinging to your nightgown. And the ghosts

of your husband's hands, the contradiction of his passion,
his thin finger tracing your lips, touching your tongue,
and the same finger squeezing a trigger.  Wanting to squeeze a trigger.

And if you're a sculptor you're obsessed with the human body,
and must face faults.  There will be an arm longer than the other,
a thigh more muscular. But that vision you've seen, that slender

body of spirit with its feathers and wish bone hides beneath
those flaws and day after day you must chase it. Whittle and chisel
after that image you know must be true. When you finish,

your work is in powder, in dust that you sweep up and store
in matchboxes. Maybe you'll swallow it, mixed in your tea
and it will awaken something in you that doesn't yet have a name.

Despite these facts, these faults, I have licked the fingers
of a man who knows the secret steps of stalking
and can follow me anywhere. I have sculpted him here

behind the shadows I keep casting. This is my contradiction.
I still want him. I have swallowed the powder of his bones,
slept with his words beneath my pillow. It's the weight

of his body on mine when I lie in his traps;
his teeth, the gentle tracks they leave on my skin.


Goyette entirely lives up to her promise.  These poems will

"awaken something in you that doesn't yet have a name".

The True Names of Birds went on to be among the Globe & Mail Books of the Year and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award, The Pat Lowther Award, The Gerald Lampman Award and the Atlantic Poetry Prize.  Go figure.

Sue Goyette:


  1. I woke up with a bit of the title poem on my mind and googled it. I appreciate your analyses on this underrated poet. Perhaps she is known in Canada but here in the U.S. she is also underrecognized in my opinion. Her writing is accessible yet so multilayered. To me her poems are full of emotions that exist within beautifully specific metaphor. As I read the metaphors connect me to feelings I cannot name but somehow recognize. She is one to reread to feed the mind and heart. Thanks fornthe blog!

  2. Thank you very much for introducing me to Goyette's wonderful poetry. I can't believe I have missed her work all these years. I can only echo what the previous commenter has said. I will seek out her work. Take care


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