Wrath and Worship The Anthropomorphic Ocean in Goytte's "Eight"

Because, as humans, we are so delightfully self-obsessed, we have a tendency to view things that aren't human as though they are. Much like how we can pull faces from random patterns and stimuli, we have no trouble forcing human qualities onto those things that clearly aren't. In the poem "Eight," Sue Goyette anthropomorphizes the ocean into a being that she describes as being "fed" by those humans that lose objects, conversations, and lives to the sea. While many may see Goyette's sea as a beast that one must subdue, I choose to see it differently; namely, as a divine being that one must worship lest it exercise its wrath. This framework lends itself well to Goyette's tendency to describe accidental loss as a purposeful sacrifice, a process that is reminiscent of religion's attribution of meaning to the unexplainable or the purposeless.

Interestingly, the term anthropomorphism was first coined by Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who noticed that believers' perceptions of their gods highly resembled themselves; Greeks depicted their gods as having white skin and light eyes, while Africans depicted their gods as having dark skin and dark eyes. This origin of anthropomorphism as a concept fits very well with how Goyette uses it in her poem. Gods in most religions, especially those of polytheistic origins, walk a precarious line between compassion and vengefulness. Ancient Greeks worshipped their gods not only because they appreciated them, but also because they feared they'd be punished if they didn't.

The Greek origins of anthropomorphism and sacrifice.

This same love-fear relationship is present in our modern perception of the ocean, particularly with those of us who live in its constant proximity. Living on PEI, the ocean is something we both revere and despise. We want its bounty and destruction not to be a meaningless natural process, but something done with purpose. We anthropomorphize the sea just like we do our gods because we want to believe things happen for a reason. This trope of the wrathful god is reinforced in Goyette's language throughout "Eight." In reference to items, abstracts, and people lost at sea, Goyette writes: "We had a squadron of cooks/specifically catering to its needs." Although the idea of cooking speaks more to domestic mundanity, we can also see it as a form of sacrifice; in fact, food was one of the most common sacrificial items given to the gods by the Greeks. This sacrificial undertone works especially well in "Eight" when on considers many of Goyette's "meals" are living things. This contrast between divinity and mundanity present in the idea of food-based sacrifice underscores the central tension in "Eight" between natural processes and the sacred meaning we attribute to them.

However, if we are to personify the ocean, then Goyette's imagery of consumption becomes especially terrifying. Rather than a form of natural disaster, these deaths are marked as cannibalism. The sea as an anthropomorphized being becomes responsible for its own actions; in a sense, it becomes worthy of either punishment or reward. However, Goyette subverts this side effect of personification by ending her poem with the following stanza: "And then the ocean would be calm. It would sleep. Our mistake / was thinking we were making it happy." If we are to view "Eight" through a sacrificial framework, then Goyette's final line seems to suggest that attributing meaning to natural processes, specifically in terms of the ocean and more generally in terms of religion, is pointless. Here, Goyette seems to be taking a distinctly anti-Romantic stance: rather than using nature as a conduit to spiritual enlightenment, Goyette uses sacrificial images to expose the inherent mundanity of nature.

-D.

Credits:

Created with images by cluczkow - "ocean" • Pexels - "black and white nature hand" • leonardobcorrea - "wave mar stone"

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