Through its adept use of the technique of bricolage and Oulipian-like language games, Sarah Burgoyne’s first poetry collection, Saint Twin, tackles themes of personal loss, spirituality, and the quest to make sense out of the absurdity of human existence. Divided into eight sections comprised of poems in stanzas, prose poems, and long and short sections of narrative prose (all placed non-sequentially), the book’s surrealist bent successfully defamiliarizes the world for the reader.
With the act of creating eight recognizable sections that are then dispersed seemingly at random throughout, the book calls upon the reader to let go of preconceptions—stylistic or thematic. Via incongruous juxtaposition and surreal imagery binding the poetic elements to the narrative prose, Saint Twin lifts the reader up out of the usual track and line of thought to the realm of language as possibility, surprise, and source of constant renewal.
Some of the formal limitations that have been set and self-imposed are revealed in the collection’s notes. For example: one of the eight sections is written using 150 prepositions; one poem is built on the conscious use of conjunctions and transitional phrases; yet another is constructed via three different parameters (inclusion of the names of Montreal streets and/or landmarks, references to dogs or “doglike features,” and various embedded OED definitions). In this same vein of Oulipian-like language games and surreal play, intertextual references permeate the collection. Borrowed lines from the poetry of Czesław Miłosz serve as titles for some of Burgoyne’s pieces throughout; one poem is made out of a number of translations of the Ecclesiastes; ideas of one of the four haiku masters, Kobayashi Issa, can also be found in Saint Twin. In short, the intertextual element of the book opens up a series of different avenues for the reader through a number of interesting and thought-provoking connections.
These different formal techniques, however, are effective insofar as they are working organically with the powerful themes of the book: loss, spirituality, and reckoning with the mundane, absurd nature of our everyday existence. “Hand me an apron and a can of mace, I know the tricks. I’ll pass them down the generations.” is just one of the many lines that bring together depth of critical inquiry with surreal imagery and juxtaposition. Poems written in formal stanzas are found in the sections entitled “Raisin Cakes” and “Psalms;” these poems reverberate with a prayer-like quality while retaining their critical edge. The following poems are worth quoting here in their entirety:
TO THE MASTERS OF OUR YOUTH, GREETINGS
the last days of a person’s life are the same
as the first someone says at the party one mountain
will always stay hidden behind another
and the orange
will light up a field
that knows nothing of your goings
meanwhile in your apartment
the zanzibar gem grows a new arm
and someone spills a drink
to take things seriously means to avoid
the idiotic glass
that fills or empties
according to outlook
the stain on your shirt
your last coat of arms
means the same as the first
OAKS AND PLAINS
Lord, you fill my nose with the scent
of cut grass and move the water
by my feet in one direction only.
The fire you depend on
is hot and good. In it, I make my way
to new bones. Rub the salve
with your everlasting thumb.
If you wanted us to follow
your spirit, why did you give it
so many perches? Something else must want
to sling along the treetops.
Other sections of the book are characterized by their varying degrees of poetic and more functional prose, all the while following through with the book’s set themes. The prose of “Happy Dog Sad Dog”—the section employing various street names and landmarks of Montreal—winds through the convolutions and contemplations of personal grief and loss.
Either my twin left willingly or not […]
I could remove neither my twin’s memory from the
routes we travelled together nor the memories of
conversations triggered by certain landmarks along
said routes but rather would have to suffer being
hounded by the aforementioned memories or else
stop walking completely […] (p. 140)
With its blocks of run-on sentences and absence of paragraph breaks, this section contains the longest continuous segment of prose in the book. The section entitled “With a Flick of the Wrist I Fashioned an Invisible Rope, and Climbed It and It Held Me,” written in italics with a fragmented style, also picks up on the idea of a journey, though this time it is of a more fantastical nature. Here the speaker moves alone, searching through a swampish, jungle-like landscape:
Into the stilt-root jungle, cautious like an egret, minus the sure-footing, next
to the Gulf of Mexico, near the heart of Vanderbilt Beach, I went off the
trodden path, on my own, onto the cypress knees, opposite the strangler figs,
outside the brackish water, over the reindeer lichen […] (p. 68)
“Story Poems” and “Fiction Stories” are sections characterized by their sense of play. A series of short paragraphs, “Story Poems” provides “(a poem in 4 stories)” called “A LITTLE BLACK HOUSE ON THE SEASHORE.” The second of these four gives us a sense of its loose movement and agility:
Over pancakes the other day, John asked for a new way of organizing
sheep and goats. “Impossible,” I said, flipping batter. But he kept
thinking out loud: “Horns can’t be the only things distinguishing
people.” I agreed but burned a flapjack. Everything looks alike, covered
in blueberries. Someone must always be hungry. (p. 21)
While “Fiction Stories” is more firmly grounded in a sense of character (“John … Yohanan … Iannes …”), it similarly renders language pliable through its play with a dramatic format.
Mid-afternoon. John on the café floor. Splayed corpse pose. Passed
out or dead. Mind-phantoms, like fruit flies, on his dead peach
heart. Narrator’s voice in his head. Everything in his head. John,
sometimes-speaking. If there are other characters, other sounds,
John is unaware of them. Hands clenching. Ambiguity. No curtain. (p. 65)
The remaining sections, “Story of a Leaf” and “You Look Cool in Your Eagle Suit,” are structured via short chapters ranging from several sentences to one single (poetic) line. It is in these two sections that the biblical formula of chapters and verses comes to mind. The spiritual and existential inquiry, as well as a plea for meaning, can be felt for example in Chapter 10 of “Story of a Leaf”:
What is the final touch going to do? What is the fabulous city going to
be? Where am I going to find a milling neighbour? When is the full
light going to be cut off? The vital bog sunk in restless memory? Who
is going to eye the unborn birds? When is the world going to have
turned enough? When is the abominable wind going to leave us to our
hung sleep? When am I going to sink totally into the broken web of
earth? Enter tranquil nighthood? The thought, merely lately. (p. 133)
Placed as one long sequence at the end of the collection, “You Look Cool in Your Eagle Suit” consists of 46 “chapters” in four parts. Each part is announced by a faux horoscope or proverb-like affirmation invoking the celestial in yet another, slightly different way. The section revolves specifically, however, around one of the main axes of the book: the concept of the twin. While poems like “TWIN FLAME” and “THE WORLD HAS TOO MUCH FIRE” in other parts of the collection evoke the ancient divinity of twins, as well as Plato’s notion of a single soul split apart to reside within two people, this last section of the book distils everything down to one repeated single direct address to the twin, and thus also to the self. Chapter 26 begins with “Dear twin. I would like to pass my life right-doing, but you have / broken my door” while Chapters 45 and 46 together share the final last lines and enlightened affirmation: “Twin / There is no difference between the unknown of me and the / known of you.” (p. 166)
In short, Saint Twin shows the bricoleur-artist at work, shaping as Levi-Strauss says, “the beautiful and useful out of the dump-heap of human life” while at the same time elevating the reader to that place where the surrealists claim “life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable […] cease being perceived as contradictions.”1 Burgoyne’s first collection leaves the reader cleansed and asking for more.
1. Chadwick, Whitney. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. Thames & Hudson, 1985 (p. 66).