On October 24, I sat with Jessica Moore, author of THE WHOLE SINGING OCEAN, a book of narrative poetry that carries the truth throughout on a wave of emotion. We discover while reading, what lies beneath the grief, the loss and the trauma.
We got to talk about the before and after grief, the ocean and the binaries of before and after.
Although it moves like a prose story, it’s told in fragments of memory. And the words are italicised, capitalised or in quotes and we’re never quite certain who’s speaking. Can you talk about this abstraction of voice throughout?
I like this, “fragments of memory.” It feels true. The way memory surfaces like shards of glass caked with dirt. There’s something intensely satisfying to me in reading, and creating, works in fragments.
And yes, this is a work of many voices. Almost kaleidoscopic. The most consistent interlocutor is ALL CAPS, boisterous, bold, sometimes crass, bit of a know-it-all, foil to the narrator’s lyricism. Sounds like a sailor. ALL CAPS knows the narrator intimately (even interiorly). This voice helps nudge the story along and won’t let the narrator rhapsodize or obfuscate for too long.
Other voices include: the boat builder, the mother, story, transgression, the mysterious “we,” and layers of the narrator. I think this story would have been impossible to tell in just one voice. There is something in this about memory, and repressed memory, and fragmentation / abstraction. And also, the book is an accompaniment of the boat builder’s discovery of events, and the narrator’s remembering of events in her own life. If it were all told in one voice, it would need to be an omniscient and distant voice looking back on all of it. But this story is one that unfolds in tandem with the writing, and reading, of the book:
I: I’m following you, I’m trying anyway, sorry about the times when I try to take the lead
Story: only one of us can lead
I: I was never any good at ballroom […]
Story: Remember: what haunts you wants a form that is like none other
In the book, you speak of how cautious you are with words. “I hold his story like a child with a hot bowl of soup in two hands.” The power is evident and then there are also moments where you use French and you speak about how some emotions are better conveyed in other languages. As a translator, how do you approach writing poetry in English when you know there might be a more potent expression in French or vice versa, if that’s ever the case?
As a translator, I am exquisitely aware of the space between languages—the shadowy corridors between French and English—as well as the space between thought and language, or idea and word. I am enamoured with that liminal space, before or behind words, and try to cultivate a consciousness of it. It’s not often that I would rather use a word in French than one in English, but for this book I allowed myself that luxury whenever it came up, since French (and language in general) has such a prominent place in the story. I love, for example, the words grisaille [greyness, but also gloominess, and seems to almost contain a drizzle in it] and miroitant [shimmer, or gleam, but also contains within it the word miroir, suggesting a mirroring], more than their English counterparts, and so I inserted them into the part where the boat builder swims to look in the eye of the whale.
I was very conscious of holding not only the boat builder’s story, but also my mother’s story with this book. Over and over, the book asks the question, Whose stories do we have the right to tell? I grapple with this throughout, returning again and again to the affirmation that this story is mine as well, this is the way I lived it, absorbed and inhabited the stories of others.
On the power of language: words can be everything and nothing. I was especially interested in this around the trial, when the director of the boat school, Kameneff, was charged with (and eventually convicted of) pedophilic abuse. When interrogated about the abuse on board, he tended towards benign words like “affection, jeu, sensualité” [affection, play, sensuality].
Words, sometimes all powerful
other times empty balloons.
They give nothing back.
I was also very curious about the wielding of words in the writings of Foucault, who influenced Kameneff. Words can be so innocent. In The History of Sexuality Vol. I, Foucault describes the case of a “village simpleton” named Jouy who is found taking girls into the ditch to play a game called “lait caillé,” curdled milk, involving money in exchange for sexual favours. When Jouy is caught, he’s sent off to a mental hospital. In Foucault’s argument—which has nothing to do with protecting children, everything to do with his larger theories around surveillance and control (the State has no business in matters of sexuality, mental hospitals are no better than prison—both built with an intent to control and survey)—the caresses in the ditch are described in words such as “inconsequential” and “bucolic pleasures” and the little girls are labeled “knowing,” cunning, shrewd.
Someone always gets thrown under the bus and here
it’s little girls, the ones you toss a few coins to for caresses
the older ones won’t give. Caresses
is a sweet word. Language
“Over and over, the book asks the question, Whose stories do we have the right to tell?“Jessica Moore
The book speaks to the binaries with which we see things, the black and white, the before and after. You repeat: “nothing so horrifying as something different in the shape of someone you know.” This speaks to the horror of the boat-builder’s experience on École en bateau and how it threatens to erase the “rapture” of those times, but also to your own personal grief and trauma. Was this a theme you wanted to explore before this story came to you or was it born out of conversations and experiences in life and with the boat-builder?
My first instinct is to say that the subject of binaries arose quite naturally from this story—and I was so delighted when I learned that, because of the placement of their eyes, whales and other cetaceans can see two completely separate realities at once, leading some authors to suggest that they may be able to get beyond binary thinking. But I realized recently, on a night walk with a friend (which we started taking during lockdown last year), that I’ve been thinking about binaries for over twenty years. When I was 22 I was convinced that balance was not to be found at the precise midpoint between two extremes—was not equal measures of war and peace, for example, or rapture and pain, but lay in something quite apart, wholly other, which the end of the book gestures to without ever quite reaching:
Suddenly I am like a sky
something boundless and wild
I love thinking and talking about binaries and the beyond—anytime anyone wants to take a night walk!
I am fascinated by the weight of stories—which is a large part of what this book is about, as well as memory, inherited trauma, binaries and the ocean—but I did not enter the writing with any intention of bringing these themes to the surface, or of exploring the way I personally have felt the weight of inherited trauma as a result of abuse, or my own separate grief. They arose through the quiet process of tending to the work of creation, as truths often will.
Throughout the book the binary of before and after is also explored. That after a death or trauma, there is an invisible line we cannot cross. That going back to the happiness, the good times is a betrayal, sort of. It feels important we be able to remember the good, even though we are haunted by the bad. Can you talk about that and how has writing THE WHOLE SINGING OCEAN impacted you personally?
I suppose I’m seeking a place where we can hold both, side by side:
And how, I want to ask, can we hold two truths—
just hold them, side by side, without explaining,
denying, justifying, negating—two truths as though
we had heads with one eye on each side
…as though that might gesture to something beyond the toggling back and forth we usually do, either / or, this or that. Some other truth, some other possibility beyond binaries.
In my book, “the author of the book” is based on a real person who was on board the École en bateau at the same time as the boat builder (he wrote a novel, which the boat builder mailed to me, touching on what happened at the École). He spoke most arrestingly about this before and after—for ten years, he said, he remembered only the rapture of that time, the unbelievable freedom and adventure. Then, as part of his process of healing, he had to open “Pandora’s box” and do his own reckoning, at which point he entered ten years of horror eclipsing all the rest. He is one of “those who’ve lost that luminous / before, and now have this, this always-two so hard to hold.”
Then, after years of waiting, the author of the book witnessed Kameneff’s trial and conviction. “His nightmares stopped after the trial / and haven’t returned.”
The greatest impact for me in writing this book was the chance for more healing in my relationship with my mother. I was terrified to be telling parts of her story which had impacted me so deeply, terrified of how it might hurt her. The conversations we needed to have before the book’s publication were painful, but we were both brave and stayed with it, and she was supportive of the book becoming what it needed to be. My editor suggested inviting my mother into the creation of the book itself by asking her to author the brief description of the École en bateau, which (although my mother had nothing to do with the École) felt to me like a brilliant and subtle—almost secret—way to bring her in. It meant she was not just being written about, she was part of the process of creation.
“Underneath all this, I sense a lostness—a blindness that also seems to be to be grief, bereft of a connection with nature—which can be examined on the level of language, as well as on many other levels. What would it look like if, within language, we saw the trees and lakes and rivers as sensate beings?”Jessica Moore
The Ocean, plastic and whales: It’s hard to not talk about the ocean, the plastic island, the pollution, the melting arctic. In THE WHOLE SINGING OCEAN, the ocean and the whales who inhabit it, feel like they’re stuck in the confluence or conflict of human seeing, looking and maybe even seeking. The DJ playing whale music at an art gallery with two plastic water bottles on his table and then on page 108, you share hope in discovering organisms might be evolving to be able to better digest plastic yet we turn off videos of the melting arctic. Do you see this as a conflict of desire v. empathy or is it really just greed and love converging, leaving people so confused they just choose to not see?
When I stop and allow in the fact of what’s happening to the oceans and reefs and whales and all the marine creatures, it’s just heartbreaking. Your question returns me again to binaries—I can feel myself toggle back and forth between alarm or consternation at small gestures, such as people using takeout cups instead of bringing their own, and a more complacent (willed ignorance?) place where I, too, buy takeout cups and single-use plastics. This is on the minute level of the larger terrible thing. “Who wants to hold horror / in the mouth too long”? asks the book. We still have to live, and living in constant outrage or despair would only wreck us. The waxworms that seem to be able to digest plastic did fill me with hope when I first learned about them, but there are still all the whales and dolphins and seabirds dying ghastly deaths because of our plastic waste.
It’s important for me to remember that the vast, vast majority of waste comes from industry, not individual consumption, and that to change things at a level that would truly make a difference for the oceans (and the rest of the natural world) means looking to policy, seeing from a wider view. But there is still part of me that sees something terrible in individual choices to participate in disposable culture, in that they are a symptom or evidence of the same kind of thinking.
Desire vs. empathy… greed and love converging… I think it is more about the systems and structures that are in place, the logic we live within, the options that are presented to us. This includes the madness of the pace of our lives and the confines of capitalism. Plastic makes everything extremely easy and convenient. I have experienced vastly differing logics—for example, Nelson, BC, where there’s a tacit disapproval if you come to the coffee shop without your own mug—I found it so reassuring to be inside this logic—and New York City, where everyone eats takeout all day in their mad rush from one thing to the next, where every bagel comes with plastic cutlery and a thousand paper napkins.
Underneath all this, I sense a lostness—a blindness that also seems to be to be grief, bereft of a connection with nature—which can be examined on the level of language, as well as on many other levels. What would it look like if, within language, we saw the trees and lakes and rivers as sensate beings? I’ve learned from writings by various authors including Robin Wall Kimmerer that Anishinaabe and many (most?) other Indigenous languages refer to animals and plants and even stones and waters as them, rather than it, meaning all of these elements are seen as beings in much the same way humans are beings. I think this points to a terrible impoverishment in English (and other Germanic, and Romance, languages). It seems to me that if our language reflected it, we would be oriented to care for the natural world differently. More deeply.
And, yes, I certainly experience a kind of willful not-seeing at times (“I skip past videos of the Arctic ice melting”)—if I let it in, all the time, I would be drowned in panic. If I think about what my kids inherit. But it feels important to choose moments when I can consciously, deliberately allow it in. Feel all the feelings about the oceans and the polar ice and all of it. There’s that saying, “don’t worry, pray,” which I have found helpful—turning anxiety into deliberate intention—but of course we can’t stop there. The next step then is to turn that sorrow/rage/despair into action—here’s where I, and the narrator, feel at times like “becoming a warrior, running away”—i.e. becoming a full time activist, because what, truly, is more important?
Within all this, it feels so vital to remember to love the world:
I never want to look at the world and see only trash & shattering
someone needs to keep vigil keep valiant keep a veille
treetops catching light
never let this be obsolete
Jessica Moore is an author and Booker-nominated literary translator. The Whole Singing Ocean is her most recent book. Jessica’s first collection, Everything, now (Brick Books 2012), has been called “a powerful journey through love and loss – serving, ultimately, to unsettle any notion of a boundary between them.” The book is partly a conversation with her translation of Turkana Boy (Talonbooks), a poetic novel by Jean-François Beauchemin, for which she won a PEN America Translation Award. She is a former Lannan writer-in-residence and Banff International Literary Translation Centre alumnus, as well as a former VP for the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada. Her translation of Maylis de Kerangal’s moving and unusual story of a heart transplant, Mend the Living, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and won the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize. Jessica lives in Toronto, near the shores of Lake Ontario, that inland sea.