Already Whole: rethinking your so-called ‘parts’

Vol. 5, No. 6 (Fall 2023)

Clare Goulet has published creative nonfiction, poetry, and reviews as well as essays on metaphor and polyphony. Adjunct prof and writing centre coordinator at Mount St. Vincent University, she co-edited with Mark Dickinson Lyric Ecology on the work of Jan Zwicky. Her book, Graphis scripta: writing lichen, will be published by Gaspereau Press in spring 2024.

1975. Late summer in the woods behind the backyard, lost, first freedom, almost five, lying across a warm rough slab of granite, heat soaking into my belly where the cotton t-shirt has pushed up, scratched by brown prickly things—rock tripe, though I didn’t know the name, genus Umbilicaria—the world something sensuous, even reading which came too early, my head already filled with poems. The sun is hot. I mumble made-up lines, sleepy, peeling brittle bits to see the thick white cord connecting each to its substrate, holding rock, lichen, child in place. It will be forty years before these come together and I feel this whole again.

1999: I edit books, I teach writing; I write about editing books and teaching writing; I remember poems; I edit others’ poems and write papers about editing poems; I teach others how to remember poems while my own hover and elude like motes, bright floaters just at the edges of vision.

In breaks of work, walking coastal barrens in Nova Scotia and Nunatsiavut, the century about to turn, I fell in love with the first growth to appear when snow peeled back: tough bits of pink and gray you had to press your face close at ground-level to see: twisted miniature grotesques like crinkled grubs poking up from rock. The urge to collect struck and I came home with coat pockets stuffed, laid things out on a pine board and refused to learn their names: a private wordless world where mysteries stayed what they looked like: spears, tumbleweed, hallucinatory flower. “But naming has its satisfactions,” writes Don McKay, “that itch to identify things.” When Lichens of North America came in the mail, I discovered that these creatures in their Latin names were, translated, still called ‘sword’, ‘tumbleweed’, ‘flower-like’—science’s unavoidable act of imagination because that’s how we think. I was (also) editing, serving as final reader for Jan Zwicky’s Wisdom and Metaphor—on how things are and are not the same, form integrated wholes, “not one, not two, that’s how it is, with us”—when the lichen book arrived and I discovered what was always there: symbiosis.

Metaphor and lichen are each about two or more wholes sharing the same space. A lichen isn’t a single entity but a relationship: an association of a fungus and at least one photosynthetic partner (algae, cyanobacterium) and other elements. Metaphor associates one thing with another: something is like but not the same as, not literally, something else. This botanical description might fit either: “boundary-crossing, relation-seeking, category-eliding, world-forming.” In a metaphor, as in a lichen, each partner remains whole, yet their conjunction creates a new entity, something that was not there before.

One role sparks another: Watching students react to fresh metaphors led to a future book; I was searching for what was happening in their brains to make them physically react so strongly in the writing classroom—but the research hadn’t yet been done. When it came out (Nira Mashal in 2006), I gave a paper at a Teaching and Learning conference in St. John’s, but the form was wrong—lecture, linear essay with evidence, explanation, the antithesis of its own thesis, where lichen (a metaphor for metaphor) got tossed in as afterthought as if they weren’t the centre around which the rest turned. But it did point at those new findings, that fresh metaphors (Mashal’s study used poems) make physical connection, profound changes in the brain in ways we had never imagined, bringing us to ideas we reach no other way. Lichen, too, has turned out to be not what we thought: a third partner (yeast!) and possibly more cohabitating, changing each other’s natures to allow existence in places that would otherwise not be possible. Fitting that it took someone like Trevor Goward integrating his lichenologist, writer, and Classicist selves to propose lichen as not only organism but ecosystem, complex assemblage that cannot be reduced to—or recreated by—its parts.

If ‘parts’ exist at all. Because they may be just another metaphor: this year, neuropsychologist Iain McGilchrist (who also cites in his work that Mashal study, just as Zwicky cites McGilchrist) sets out what the poets have always known, that “the whole is never the same as the sum of its ‘parts’” and that “there are in fact no ‘parts’ as such . . . they are [just] an artefact of a certain way of looking at the world.”

Between teaching classes as adjunct, running a part-time Writing Centre at a small university, editing, then parenting—I glimpsed the right form: poems, an Index of Names, lichen as metaphor for metaphor, a book sketched on the back of an envelope. 2010. I was waiting for ‘time’; poems hovering at the edges, again. Parenting became solo parenting, became COVID-19 homeschooling plus everything else. I stopped waiting for time, wrote and got a Research and Creation grant from the Canada Council of the Arts for funding last fall to complete Graphis scripta: an A-to-Z “Index of Names,” a poetic field guide to lichen that explores the nature of metaphor. I snuck into a Dal faculty science writing group that I also did not have time for, every Thursday from 9 o’ clock to noon. Poem by poem, A to Z, I became apprentice again—and when it came to “U” (Umbilicaria muehlenbergii) I remembered that moment at 4 years old, warm cheek and belly pressed to rock, sensing every overlapping boundary, peeling stuff I had no words for, dreaming made-up lines.

What does this have to do with your so-called parts? Or mine? Perhaps re-think them as cohabitators not competitors, each holding the other, mutually nourishing. Here: teaching, coordinating a small team of writing mentors (who are also students and writers themselves), editing books, walking on the land, writing my own books: these are essential partners in an ecosystem, each sustained and changed by the others, producing suddenly some odd, embodied thing in the world that was not there before—in spring 2024 a collection of poems, finally the right form for an old idea, Graphis scripta: writing lichen, alongside a still-joyful teaching practice with renewed vigour and results, while coordinating a Writing Centre team that has never been as busy or reached more people than the terms I was (also) book-writing. Perhaps because my own writing sleeves are daily rolled up alongside the students, hands in the earth, getting dirty with the uncertain work of it, feeling that thick cord, Umbilicaria, connecting everything again.

To writing profs, tutors, and in particular Writing Centre Directors and Coordinators who labour under those capital letters and think you have no time: write. It’s why you got into this gig to begin with, remember? You have no time only in the sense that you have no time to lose—your own deep connections, your own unfettered practice for its own sake and central to the whole. Not one, not two. And without that? Philosopher, neuroscientist, and lichenologist agree: It’s not that ‘part’ of us is lost, it’s that all of us is less.


Goward, T. (2008). II. Nameless Little Things. Twelve Readings on the Lichen Thallus. Ways of Enlichenment.

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. London: Perspectiva Press.

Mashal, N., Faust, M., Hendler, T., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2007). An fMRI investigation of the neural correlates underlying the processing of novel metaphoric expressions. Brain and language, 100(2), 115-126.

Zwicky, J. (1992). Lyric Philosophy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Zwicky, J. (2003). Wisdom & Metaphor. Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press.