Book Review: The Whole Singing Ocean
In Jessica Moore’s book-length poem, The Whole Singing Ocean, an oceanic pull – called Story – insists that the author go on a voyage. She sets out to discover what the musical vastness of language, the sea of memory, and the oceans of our globe hold in their mingled depths. She encounters monstrous islands of plastic refuse, the all-seeing, giant eye of a whale, naked boys on a boat captained by a sexual predator with lofty ideals, luminous algae, the slippery thinking of Michel Foucault, and a dark tale of childhood trauma passed from mother to daughter.
A story can have many beginnings. At the start of Moore’s is her life-long hunger to see a whale; early in the book she lies in the arms of a young boat builder, in the hull of his boat, and receives a story. He tells her about the time he swam up to the eye of a whale.
“You have never seen an eye such as this, so large
and then there you are
just you and the whale
with her you are the vast mirroring sea. You are
the whole singing ocean. You are beheld
held in that eye and you
The author falls for the man’s story, not him. She leaves him and carries his story for years, crossing continents, searching for relief from a great and early grief.
“and for twenty years I see I’ve been searching for something
in the arms of men
when I should have been looking over their shoulder
to the places we were in.”
Eight years pass before the author encounters the boat builder again. He now knows more of his own story than he did before. In his youth he spent over a year at the “école en bateau,” an alternative school on board a sailing ship, which gave him a taste of unbelievable adventure, and up until recently had been enshrined in his memory as perfection. But the trial and conviction of its founder reveal that the boat school carried much ugliness in its hold. Léonide Kameneff, the ship’s Foucault-inspired captain, was found guilty in 2013 of rape and other acts of sexual predation.
At this juncture, the author longs to “push the story away.” She explains: “I gave myself three days—no more—to follow the sharp turn. Three days for the story to show me that it needed to be followed.”
Story and author negotiate their shared future:
“I: What about you? What do you want?
Story: I already said I’m like the sea. And the sea is only ever always endlessly being and being and being and all your strength is nothing against it, as you’ve well learned.
I: Can you keep a secret?
Story: All of them. I can keep them all.”
Story tugs the author into the labyrinth of Foucault’s thinking on childhood sexuality, his love of transgression, and his determination to free children by breaking down all barriers between them and adults. Story pulls her into a small room in which her mother, in childhood, was abused by a neighbour, a room long ago translated into story, received by the author when young, and carried in her body.
Moore’s book is an invitation to locate the oceanic within ourselves, the inner immensity required if we are to hold the beautiful and the monstrous side by side, if we are to embrace both rapture and loss. Is wholeness possible for humans? she asks. So often the psyche splits, seeking to cut off the unbearably painful and terrifying. A victim of abuse, testifying at a trial, speaks of a wall of glass that excludes him from the living, a researcher named H, whose subject is plastic pollution in the oceans, speaks of the mental split that allows her to live a consumerist life of luxury in an “aching world.” Story, Moore trusts, may lead her towards wholeness, by entwining in its fluidity the beautiful and the ugly, revealing their inseparability – without failing, nonetheless, to distinguish between good and bad.
It is the music of language that bears the author on her weaving voyage, allowing her to travel in and out of darkness, past dead seabirds who’ve swallowed tampon applicators, through whale song, through the stormy, luminous blur of Turner’s paintings, to a place of renewed possibility in herself and what may lie beyond all the binaries we create as human beings.
The rhythms of Moore’s poetry, the quiet humour of her dexterous mind, and her brave questioning quickly won my trust. The Whole Singing Ocean is a gorgeous music and an act of daring listening to what we know but don’t want to know. It left me with a feeling of rare freedom.
Martha Baillie’s novels include The Incident Report (long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize), and The Search for Heinrich Schlögel (an Oprah editors’ pick). Her book Sister Language, co-written with her late sister, Christina Baillie, was a 2020 Trillium Award finalist. Martha’s non-fiction can be found in Brick: A Literary Journal. Her poetry has appeared in the Iowa review. Martha lives in Toronto. Her multimedia project based on The Search for Heinrich Schlögel is archived at www.sch