Susan Musgrave’s new Selected Poems is an altogether different kettle of fish. Her lines are short, packed, even incendiary; her absorption of the Confessionalist manner and avoidance of its self-eviscerating, mawkish or maudlin tendencies. Her surreal obliquity, quick wit, gift of metaphor and macabre black humour are, of course, well known, but these are the revisions of poems from two out-of-print collections. Forcing the Narcissus (M & S, 1994) and Things That Keep But Do Not Change (M & S, 1999) she most wished to re-visit, and the trip has proven revealing.
It was not just the chance to tart down a line or remove a stylistic glitch or affectation; it was a chance to re-envision the poems in light of the evolving oeuvre. Having this collection and the big, lusty What the Small Day Cannot Hold: Collected Poems 1970-1985 and recent Obituary of Light: the Sangan River Meditations (2009), one can see a steady evolution of craft and art.
The crazy circumstances of Ms. Musgrave’s life are perhaps more well-known than the oeuvre, at least among the younger generations of general sometime poetry readers, but we’re way past the sensational or salacious confessionalism, or the theatrics, of Plath or Sexton here. It’s one thing to stare at the chap-fallen skull of a court jester; it’s quite another to juggle skulls while you’re making an omelette or advising your young daughter when it might be appropriate to lift the tent flap. Musgrave is seriously funny, but just when she’s tweaked your funny bone, she zeroes in on a poignant peek behind the curtain.
“We can’t build anything if you
keep drinking drugs,” the tiny wife bursts
as my daughter keels into the cookstove
and pretends to catch fire ...
she writes of her daughter’s playing house in “The Laughter in the Kitchen” (p. 23), after revealing the candy Popeye cigarette prop her daughter sucks on was earned showing her vagina to the neighbour kid through a slot in the cedar fence. The speaker weeps, then tells her daughter next time to hold out for the whole pack. It’s a Musgrave moment: epiphanic, but double-edged. We hear the world-weary narrator upbraiding herself behind that quip perhaps, but we also hear the hard-earned self-deprecatory wit earned in learning to forgive oneself as one juggles accounts. — Richard Stevenson
Susan Musgrave is one of those writers who can write anything they desire. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, children's fiction — you name it, she's probably written it. She began her poetry career with Songs of the Sea Witch, published in 1970 by Sono Nis Press, and continued with some fifteen further collections. She was nominated in 1979 for the Governor General's Award for A Man to Marry, A Man to Bury (poetry), and in 1980 for her novel The Charcoal Burners.
The present volume opens with the essay "Water Trembling at the Rim: The Process of Revision," which itself opens with Paul Valéry's famous line "poems are never finished they are only abandoned." Musgrave describes her process of abandonment in one the best explications of this theme you're likely to encounter. She cautions that, although it's wise to have a coterie "of friends and editors" to assist you with their advice, the ultimate artistic creation remains with the writer who must, in the end, rely on her/his own aesthetic sense.
We then enter the realm of the poetry proper, where Musgrave immediately provides a lesson in craft. It is often difficult to find an appropriate title for a poem. Yet, often that difficulty can be resolved by having the title act as the poem's first line. Too often, however, poets make the mistake of repeating that initial line. Musgrave demonstrates the effectiveness of starting instead with the title and then simply continuing. She does this with "Tomatoes on the Windowsill after Rain" as the title and follows that with the first line "and bread by the woodstove" (18). This is a simple and elegant solution to the problem of titles. She adds a pinch of humour to the broth with the title "One Evening, the Wind Rising, It Began" (20) followed by "raining. I peeked out from behind the blinds," the word "raining" providing a jolt to the senses. This latter poem contains one of those stunning images every poet who reads it will wish they had written: "Flowers on their drunken stems / were opening themselves like brides." One can only stand back and say "Wow!"
Not everything is of that calibre, however. In "The Moment," the poem assumes the melancholy mantle of the country song that the protagonist overhears. Here, a case of suburban paranoia blossoms from the stereotypical projection of seeing "a stranger / on the block, the kind who wore / a stained suit from the Sally Ann" coinciding with the momentary absence of the protagonist's young daughter and resulting in delusions of the stranger "stuff[ing] her trusting body into a single forest / green Glad Bag, then tot[ing] her to the park" (21). As Shakespeare would say, this poem is much ado about nothing--although it does give rise to interesting lines, such as in the reversion to the country song "death in all his beautiful variety / sang to us, off-key and aching / inside our cheated hearts." (22).
But Musgrave quickly resumes her aerial flight as she dances her way across an azure sky, her technique shimmering in the sun. She demonstrates her prowess not just across line breaks but across stanza breaks as well, as in the title poem "When the World Is Not Our Home":
Once we returned to my father's house, the house he had lived in as a child. He said he found it unchanged, yet when I looked at his face I felt it must have changed. He died just the same, as if he had been caught scheming
to live forever. (38)
Here we find two breathtaking examples of this flight. The first occurs in the fourth line where she employs an envoi-like device, borrowed from the sonnet, as a pivot around which to take the emotion in a different, unexpected direction. The second occurs between stanzas, where the surprise of the father's death is captured in three simple words. The intake of breath between stanzas registers the surprise starkly.
Musgrave is a brilliant technician who isn't always spot on but enough to make her an icon in Canadian poetry. A poet to emulate, she pleases not just with her flourishes of technique but also with her fresh, evocative imagery.
— John Herbert Cunningham
John Herbert Cunningham is a Winnipeg writer. He reviews poetry in Canada for Malahat Review, Arc, Antigonish Review, Fiddlehead and The Danforth Review, in the U.S. for Quarterly Conversations, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Big Bridge and Galatea Revisits, and in Australia for Jacket.