Beth Goobie, poet and fiction writer, is her own hard act to follow. With twenty-five books – including the Governor General-nominated young adult novel Mission Impossible – preceding her latest title, readers have come to expect work that sets the bar high in terms of both content and technique. In breathing at dusk, Goobie’s 2017 poetry collection with Coteau Books, the Saskatoon writer again addresses some difficult themes – chiefly childhood sexual abuse – and delivers work that pours light on the darkness of her own Ontario childhood, while reconciling – often through music and nature – that it’s possible to heal from the unthinkable.
I scan the Contents page and note three titles which might be considered taglines for Goobie’s work, present and past: “the other face,” “living with what remained,” and “the mind coming home to itself”. In this and previous books she reveals that her Christian father – a piano teacher – prostituted her from an early age, and that incest, violence, being drugged, and participating in religious cult-like activities were her childhood norm. As with “talk therapy,” writing about one’s trauma is considered an emotionally health-making activity, and what Goobie manages to do is share just enough: she makes the unimaginable horrors imaginable – without gratuitous details or melodrama – and writing is, I expect, her process of “living with what remain(s)”.
What remains are piecemeal memories, “like a child’s puzzle,” and a recognition that in order to survive, the author existed in different planes. In the poem “waking,” we read “what i remember most/is waking on the edge of myself,/uncertain of what i was/and what i was not”. The small “i” here is significant in these autobiographical poems.
To understand just how good Goobie is, one must study her language. A bridge is described as a “concrete overture of one shore greeting its opposite”. In the same poem, “your skin again feels spoken alive,/quilted with the sensation of come-and-go wind”. At age fourteen Goobie was “watching/unfamiliar faces form like window frost/under [her] sketch pencil”. And a terrific line like “the sun’s warm footprint tracked the story of itself,” deserves its own meditation.
Though unthinkable evil existed in the drugged-and-passed-around nights of her youth, Goobie recalls some of the good magic of her childhood home and community, too, ie: “the scent of cut grass and lilac murmuring along the hall” and cicadas – “tiny prophets announcing the beginning/of their sun-winged world,/proclaiming their territory of light”.
But the father, the father. With drugs and a kind of malevolent hypnosis – “when i call little turtle,’/you come out and do what i say,” Goobie’s father manipulated his eldest child “while the camera filmed all of it”.
This writer’s voice, whenever and however it is heard – whether through novels, short stories, or poetry – straddles the fine line between horror and hope. Although “sorrow is a fundamental luggage/that refuses to be left behind,” Goobie is “a lark throating a delicate sky”. A survivor. Long may she be heard.
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