Spirit Suffused in Matter

Reviewed by Kelly Shepherd

“Can a piece of writing be haunted?” Selah Saterstrom asks in Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics (113). Can a piece of writing be haunted, “like an abandoned opera house or a doll baby on a lonely highway?” (113). If so, Jessica Moore’s The Whole Singing Ocean might certainly qualify. A true story, this book-length poem investigates mysterious and otherworldly visitors from the ocean—from vibrant living whales, to birds starved to death with stomachs full of plastic—and it’s haunted by the disturbing childhood memories of both the narrator and the character known only as the boat builder.

My first impulse was to compare Moore’s boat builder to the titular figure of Tim Bowling’s Tenderman. Both are men whose love for the water, and reliance upon the work of their hands, has not been enough to protect them from the larger currents that sweep over them and carry them along. This analogy is inadequate, though, because the boat builder is also a musician and a storyteller, a lover and a family man. He is more detailed and dynamic. Bowling’s tenderman is a modern archetype; the boat builder is based on a specific individual, with the name changed to protect his identity.

The Whole Singing Ocean begins with the boat builder’s story about a whale. As a young man he was pulled behind a marine biology vessel, instructed to signal the crew when he spotted a whale. He cut loose and swam with it instead, and he tells the narrator about this life-changing encounter: “You have never seen an eye such as this, so large . . . You are beheld / held in that eye and you // are whole” (Moore 24). Whales represent a powerful presence here, an ineffable otherness, but they are not reduced to poetic symbols. Throughout the book we return to whales: human memories of them, speculations about their consciousness and memories, their language and their music. And the damage we are inflicting upon them, from loud industrial noise that can damage their hearing and disorient them, to the plastics and garbage that whales ingest. In The Whole Singing Ocean, beauty is never far removed from trauma.

As a child, Moore’s boat builder had been a pupil of the École en bateau—an alternative approach to education which operated on the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean from 1969 to 2002. Using the works of Michel Foucault as justification, the founder of the École en bateau sought to eliminate all barriers and boundaries between children and adults. “This story is built of splinters,” the narrator claims, “tiny toxic layers // mica-thin, sparkling / and deadly” (76). Moore’s narrator is writing a book about this school, and its victims; we are given fragments of the boat builder’s stories, and glimpses into her research.

And one haunting unearths another; perhaps as a result of this research, the narrator’s own family trauma is also brought to light. There are difficult questions: Whose stories do we have the right to tell? How can you ask your parents about these things? How can they answer? How can you go back and fix what was broken?

This book has multiple voices and personas, speaking from the present and from various points in the past. One voice is indicated by all caps, but it’s still not always entirely clear who is speaking, or when, or to whom. At some points the story itself, personified, converses with the narrator. The narrator’s research includes dreams, journals, and a documentary film, whose voices are added to the others. It’s easy to become lost. But while this polyphony might present some difficulty for the reader, I don’t think it’s a flaw in the book; I think it’s an accurate rendering of the depths and murkiness of memory, especially when dealing with memories that have been hidden and repressed.

As in her 2012 collection Everything, now, Moore’s writing is often sparse and evocative. There are black and white photographs, and when you read their explanations in the endnotes you’ll flip back to look at them again. Some of these pages are solid dialogue, while others employ short lines and white space. Some words and stanzas appear to float on the page. This is lyric poetry, but also meta-writing: the reader follows the writer, who is haunted by the story. Does that make the text itself haunted?

A common thread that winds through The Whole Singing Ocean is a sense of the sacred. Sacred here doesn’t imply a religious context; the sacred is something that has been elevated in significance and set apart. To make something sacred is to make it holy, to sanctify it. This may be another way to answer Saterstrom’s question about haunting. In “Poetry and the Sacred,” Don Domanski describes the sacred as a response to our surroundings. According to Domanski, it means “to be aware, to answer the call from life itself, to practice the veneration of its numerous forms. This has nothing to do with religion per se; rather religion and art grow out of this veneration, this deep need to bow our heads before wonder and being” (80).

The ocean is sacred in this book; that sacredness is exemplified by whales and other creatures, and by the human response to it: “Go back now to the ocean / quietude // enter and there’s no / divide” (Moore 134). People return to water and to whales—including stories of whales—when nothing else makes sense. Innocence is also sacred here. “I do believe in childhood,” the narrator insists, as she wrestles with her research on Foucault and the École en bateau (77). “I do / believe in the sacred hermetic / precious sealed inside revered” (77). This is a book about how these trusts can be broken, and how it might be possible to put things back together again.

“Can a piece of writing be haunted?” Saterstrom’s question is not so easily applied to a book like Patrick Friesen’s Outlasting the Weather: Selected and New Poems 1994-2020. In his 1995 essay “Gathering Bones,” Friesen describes poetry, and poetic knowing, as a “kind of identification with, a kind of love. Love of the specific, in matter. Spirit suffused in matter, not separate, not inhabiting” (119). This approach to poetry, this affinity to the interconnectedness of spirit and matter, is evident throughout Friesen’s writing. Domanski’s formulation of the sacred in poetry as a “deep need to bow our heads before wonder and being” (80) can certainly be read in this context.

Outlasting the Weather includes material from eight books, and concludes with a thirty-page selection of new poems. While it necessarily leaves out a number of Friesen’s other publications and productions, it is still an impressive cross-section of the career of one of Western Canada’s most prolific and important voices. (Buy it! Read it! Out loud!)

The book’s cover photograph shows a man on a beach, walking away, almost out of the frame; less solid but remaining front and centre in the picture is the man’s reflection, rippled and ghostly, still standing in the water where the man left it. This image of the lingering reflection is reminiscent of the haunting music in Lorna Crozier’s “Loon Song”: it stays in the water, it lingers in the mind, even after the bird has flown away.

Friesen’s poems do the same thing. I found numerous examples by flipping the book open at random: “midtown bridge” (from st. mary at main, 1998) begins with the lines “I don’t know why this comes back to me / it was midnight in may 1967”; the speaker ends the poem by claiming he is “not sure now any of this happened / the bridge the river I remember / the rest . . . all a story / long gone fluttering through air” (Friesen, Outlasting 31). Stories may not always be exactly as we remember them, but the memories linger.

The speaker switches to the second-person perspective, addressing the reader, in the breath you take from the lord (2002). The second segment of this long poem suggests that there is “so much missing there almost everything you know in the darkness of your memory,” that “like the fox or deer you don’t enter the field you gaze through the leaves and circle” (57). Like the walking man on the cover in relation to his reflection, and like Crozier’s loon in relation to its song, there is an in-betweenness, a left-behindness, a liminality here. The man is gone, the loon is gone; where does that leave us? What are we left with? Because there is never nothing. Something stays.

In “gone like the bell-ringer’s wife” (from jumping in the asylum, 2011), the speaker remembers that “sometimes we ran across paths that were still warm animal or god it was always hard to tell” (126). Who or what had traveled on the path before the speaker did, and recently enough to leave behind the heat from their body? Was it an animal, or a god, or God? (Friesen uses the lower case g.) Or was it both, because—“[s]pirit suffused in matter, not separate” (Friesen, Gathering 119)—there is no real separation between the two? In “Gathering Bones,” Friesen claims poetry is “[p]recise. Elusive. A handful of water” (121). It’s this uncertainty that makes the memories most fragile, most poignant, and that makes the writing of these memories into poetry.

But while some similar themes, or interests, might be present throughout this collection—and they are not all the same, by any means—the poems also vary widely based on their form and their shape on the page. Poems from a short history of crazy bone (2015) are arranged in couplets, and very short lines; poems from songen (2018) appear in solid blocks of text. The newest poems are likewise mostly dense stanzas and prose poems, up to one or two pages long. A couple of the earlier collections employ very long lines, perhaps too uniform and symmetrical to be called Whitmanesque, but with a similar conversational rhythm, a similar music.

There’s simply too much in a book of selected poems to really do it justice in a short review article. The depth and breadth of the material here is astonishing. But I’d like to end by saying more about these poems’ music. A poet like Friesen is better heard than read: the eye can get lost in a heavy stanza on the page, but the rhythm becomes apparent, and comes alive, in the poet’s voice. Frequent line breaks and shorter stanzas make it easier, because they make the rhythm visible. “j & a lunch” from Earth’s Crude Gravities (2007) is one example: “swiveling on a stool at j & a lunch / a milkshake and hot dog / and you’re twelve years old / and you think you’re canadian” (Friesen, Outlasting 87). The stresses are obvious when it’s read aloud. There’s no regular metre, but there is a narrative momentum that keeps driving forward.

Or look at “thirty birds,” from the same collection: “naked in twin creek among a slur of fishes / cold water washing me old and human / smooth as a river otter and almost an otter” (108). The rhythm is nothing as formal as iambic pentameter: it’s the rhythm of normal speech. Think of readings where the poet (Allen Ginsberg, for example) uses one hand to tap out a beat in the air. The poems of songen, while they don’t use short stanzas and line breaks, have a similar musicality. Here is the first half of “100,000 miles” (174), where each line or couple of lines might be spoken with one breath, and where the enjambment keeps the reader moving on to the next line and the line after that:

wind talking across long grasses and water,

riffing along earth’s surfaces, where it goes,

what destination, what stone in your shoe,

what roadkill, what crows lurching slowly

above fields of wheat, what killdeer dragging

its wing in circles, and from an abandoned

pontiac what late night music . . .

Works Cited

Bowling, Tim. Tenderman. Nightwood, 2011.

Domanski, Don. “Poetry and the Sacred.” Arc Poetry Magazine, vol. 61, 2009, pp. 75-81.

Friesen, Patrick. “Gathering Bones.” Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays and Interviews, edited by Tim Lilburn, Quarry, 1995, pp. 118-22.

Saterstrom, Selah. Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics. Essay, 2017.

This review “Spirit Suffused in Matter” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 169-173.

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