Saturday, December 5, 2020





Let me explain. Without knowing the technique that went into the construction of the little book of poems entitled Where Forth Art Though that I wrote with my mother, the title being her accidental reinterpretation of Juliet-to-Romeo’s “wherefore art thou,” one might not realize that it is organized more or less line by line, with half the lines of each poem being mine and half being hers, and these in an alternating pattern, composed in the manner of the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse.[1] Of course there was some editing so this isn’t quite exact. Nevertheless, the pattern that emerged for me, and that remains clearly visible in the published poems, was that every time I sunk a line deep into the “dark and stormy” region of my soul that, as you’ll come to understand if you keep reading, only my mother really sees very clearly, she extracted it, saving the poem, and ultimately myself, from the vortex of a despairing mood, as a bright orange life saver lobbed at the heart of the middle child. This is the kernel of what I have come to know about these strange poems.

Let me begin again: In a little book published in 1989 Georges Perec, lover of writing games, novelist, filmmaker, cruciverbalist, advocated for a quixotic attention to the ordinary: “What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we go downstairs, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed on order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?”

One evening, about five years ago, on Galiano Island where I was spending a seaside summer week with my mother, Susan Burgoyne, ogling languorous pods of whales from a little wood deck, a misty, half-churned idea turned up at the end of a mojito. I wanted to write poetry, but I wanted to write it with my mother and see the way poems of our co-making might be as prisms, rendering the genetically-kin flow of our thoughts and similar penmanship into jewelly refractions of some deep and important consanguineous incantation. Yes, an evening spent drinking cocktails from plastic glasses with pink and yellow sailboat motifs and writing collaborative poetry, just us two, would be an excellent use of time and also a sort of “calisthenics of our creative faculties” (which is to say a hearty shift from our usual evenings spent “in the recline position,” as my mother calls it, watching trashy movies). And so, when our second mojitos attained a state of depletion, I proposed a spirited game of cadavre exquis hoping she would say yes, for the sake of poetry, Georges Perec and the Sacred Mother-Child Bond, and she did.

The next day I sent the poems (by SB and SB) to a friend who responded with an email, quoting back to me his favourite moments, a veritable poem in and of itself. I needed to know it wasn’t just me, hungover and surprised the next morning upon rereading the poems over a third cup of coffee, to find that, even with the liquor mounted in our heads, we were surprisingly able to write some less-than-trivial poems, poems I liked quite a lot, in fact. An evening of laughter, of cheap pens and cheaper paper, of poorly mixed drinks and salty air, became a highlight of both process and product in the life of a poetess. But, as we know, the heart of the poem is always lodged in the process, not the product. The poem resides in its own making. This evening proved that to me. The poem was altogether the laughter, the relationship. But mostly it was love.

Years later, with 4433 km now between us, our merry-making relegated to phone calls spent discussing health, work, pandemics, politicians, and the latest TV shows, I saw the totality of poems as a script, map or code for a dynamic my mother and I move quietly within: in the time span of my life, I have been labelled, on several occasions, by my mother, with, I believe, a Snoopy reference embedded, as “dark and stormy.” No one else in my life sees me this way.[2] And the dynamic is that when I enter these storms, she calls me from a threshold, one we call humour, to come inside.

I realize this essay may seem a little dramatique, and indeed, now my reputation may be marred or “adjusted,” or perhaps those who read this and know me will wonder if this is not a little bit put on, but that is neither here nor there. The fact I would like to resonate with you, readers, strangers, strange friends, is that the true magic at the heart of the poems of our collaborative chapbook Where Forth Art Though, is the humour with which my mother, Susan Burgoyne, employed time and again during my existence, and still now, to pluck my sorry soul from life’s harder waters—to follow a line like, “Jump. It’s never too high or too scary when / you’re not alone” with “SUICIDE THWARTED (OR) DON’T JUMP.” My friend, a new mother herself, suggests that this may merely be the natural perspective of the maternal role. But I’d like to go with the idea that it is because she sees something about me clearly that others do not. The precipice is closer than it appears. This is my answer to Perec’s “why”: I eat, I walk, I lie down to sleep because someone, my mother, taught me how to laugh at myself. Or, as my mother commented in an unsolicited but appreciated edit of this essay: “It is not dissimilar to the constrast of the dramatic foreboding description of a ‘dark and stormy night’—written by a loveable beagle, on a doghouse…with a typewriter. The essence of pathos is situated in humour and love, hopefully to illustrate a contextual perspective that counterbalances despair.”

In his email responding to the poems, most of the quoted lines were in fact my mother’s contributions, which made me really happy. The poet, and the poem, are altogether too self-serious; rarely do we find ourselves “situated in humour and love” in our at times gloomy practice. We know it’s true. And, in this way, like Perec says, we cease to question what has stopped astonishing us. Astonishment needs a revival. And sometimes, the most astonishing thing is humour where you don’t expect or even think you don’t want it. We know we all mistake or at least mistook “wherefore art thou” in Shakespeare’s play for “where the hell are you” when what it really means is why are you. Wherefore art though? Why art though? What I didn’t know was the art, the lift, had been in the patterning all along.


Sarah Burgoyne, December 2020





Sarah and Susan Burgoyne's chapbook Where Forth Art Though came out with above/ground press in 2020. Sarah Burgoyne's second manuscript, Because the Sun, is forthcoming with Coach House Books. You can find more of her work at

Photo credit: Laurence Philomene


[1]    Should you want to play, I will explain it: on separate pieces of paper, each writer writes a line and a word below it; a line, once written, is folded back, so that the other writer has only the hastily scrawled word to go off to inspire the next line, (speed is of the essence in this game) which is then also folded back, and so on and so forth, until each paper is filled with words or maybe poetry. The papers, once unfurled, have a pleasing accordion-like shape due to all the folding, and they keep well in wallets and diaries like secrets or talismans.

[2]     Or perhaps (hopefully) only see me this way sometimes and those times being after a particularly long day or if I were to find a spider carcass in my wine or a band-aid in my takeout.

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