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Poetry Canadian

Exculpatory Lilies


by (author) Susan Musgrave

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Sep 2022
Canadian, Women Authors, General
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2022
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2023 Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry Finalist
2023 Griffin Poetry Prize Finalist
A Globe and Mail Top 100 Book
2022 Walcott Prize Shortlist
From the award-winning poet known for her bracing honesty and sharp yet compassionate gaze, here is a new collection of poems that explore life, marriage, addiction, death, and heart-wrenching grief.

If grief is the willingness to be claimed by a story bigger than ourselves, Susan Musgrave writes, “in that / tender wavering, I let grief in.”

"Writing about grief or tragedy is tricky. Hard to meet it at a heart-level without being effusive; hard to meet it at a brain-level without being cold. Hard not to make it about ourselves. Hard to meet it at a visceral level because it can take us out at the knees," wrote author Carrie Mac, responding to the death of Musgrave’s partner, Stephen Reid, in 2018. Following this traumatic loss, in September 2021 their daughter, Sophie, died of an accidental overdose after a twenty-year struggle with addiction.

But to say this is a collection solely about grief would be to miss the whole nature of Musgrave’s voice and sensibility. Wit is one counterpoint; the natural world is another. The poems share a landscape whose creatures, minutely observed, wild and tame—the winged ones most of all—dance attendance on the helplessness of our brief and mystifying human lives. Throughout Exculpatory Lilies, Musgrave’s alertness to even the most desolate places makes her personal sorrows astonishingly potent; and her scrutiny of language, and emotions, makes shot silk out of sackcloth and ashes.

About the author

Susan Musgrave has been labelled everything from eco-feminist to anti-feminist, from stand-up comedian to poet of doom and gloom, from social and political commentator to wild sea-witch of Canada's northwest coast. Her career as a social misfit began when she was kicked out of kindergarten class for laughing, and sent to the library to contemplate her heinous crime while seated on the “Thinking Chair”. She understood, then, that books and thinking must be considered dangerous, and they became her favourite forms of escape. Not long afterwards she dropped out of kindergarten for good. In Grade 8 she won her first poetry competition, with a poem about Jackie Kennedy visiting her husband's grave by moonlight in rhyming couplets. Her prize was a copy of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. At 14, Susan Musgrave dropped out of high school and ran away from home to gain life experience. She got as far as the railway tracks in Ladysmith, on Vancouver Island, where she wrote poetry about cigarettes drowning in cold cups of coffee, and on the eternal shortness of existence. Next we have the missing years (months, actually). Committed to the local psychiatric ward, assigned to Room 0, she met most of the University of Victoria's English Department. While she was plotting her eventual escape from the mental hospital, the poet Robin Skelton came to visit her. “You're not mad,” he said, after reading her poetry, “you're a poet.” She and an older professor escaped together, and spent the next years living in Berkeley, California. Her first book of poetry was published when she was 19. Of Songs of the Sea Witch, her grandfather said, “Even Shakespeare had to write a lot of rubbish to begin with.” In 1969 she received a short term Canada Council Grant of $1500 and spent the next two years living on the remote west coast of Ireland. In 1972 she returned to Canada, to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and in 1975 married a criminal lawyer, Jeffrey Green, at St. Albans Cathedral in England. The marriage lasted four years. During the trial of five Americans and 23 Colombians accused of attempting to smuggle 30 tonnes of marijuana into Canada (her husband was one of five defence lawyers) she fell in love (from across the courtroom) with one of the accused smugglers, Paul Oscar Nelson. When he was acquitted she left with him for Mexico. They lived for two years in Colombia and Panama, until the birth of their daughter, Charlotte, in 1982. While Susan was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Waterloo, 1983-85, Paul Nelson was sentenced to four years in prison in California on a previous smuggling charge. While in prison he gave his life to the Lord, and Susan and Paul were divorced shortly afterwards. Around the same time, 1983, Susan received a manuscript from a convicted bank-robber, Stephen Reid, serving a twenty-year sentence at Millhaven Penitentiary, in Ontario. She read the manuscript, fell in love with the protagonist, and married the author on October 12, 1986, while he was still in prison. His novel, Jackrabbit Parole was released the same year. On June 1, 1987, Stephen Reid was granted full parole, and the couple moved into a seaside cottage on Vancouver Island, with a 190 foot Douglas fir tree growing through the middle of it. In 1989 their daughter Sophie was born; in 1997 Stephen burned his warrant and Susan burned her mortgage papers in a party attended by a diverse group of family, friends and writers including a Supreme Court judge and two paroled members of the Squamish Five. During their thirteen year marriage Stephen battled heroin and cocaine addiction. In 1997, the couple began building a house on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and their lives were the subject of a CBC Life and Times documentary, The Poet and the Bandit, which aired in January 1999. On June 9, 1999, after a two year clean-and-dry period that had ended roughly around the time the documentary aired, Stephen was arrested for bank robbery in Victoria, following a shootout and car chase through Beacon Hill Park. He was sentenced to eighteen years in prison on December 22, 1999. Musgrave has published over 21 fiction, poetry, children's, and non-fiction books.

Susan Musgrave's profile page

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Susan Musgrave and Exculpatory Lilies:
“The sheer humanity and gift to show our fragile, broken selves is nothing less than prayer, as spoken in Musgrave’s Exculpatory Lilies. That she brings us to the sacred ground of loss and grief, and then lifts us toward our own humility is a ceremony. A ceremony wherein we must bow down our heads to the fragility of all we know, the darkness and light we all must carry.” —Judges' Citation, Griffin Poetry Prize
“Musgrave’s poetry is rooted in conversational phrases and natural observation interpolated with startling metaphors drawn from nature and everyday living. [Exculpatory Lilies] alights on many truthful moments.” —EVENT magazine
Praise for Susan Musgrave and Origami Dove:

"Enough tragedy to break your goddamn heart. But also enough craft to parse it for her readers. These poems might be bitter pills but they're coated with artisanal chocolate and gold leaf." —Winnipeg Free Press

"Musgrave at her funniest. She hasn’t lost her edge; in fact, she’s been sharpening it." —Globe and Mail

"Musgrave writes short, pristine poems, with the elegance of fresh tracks on snow. Her poem’s stark lines are freighted with wisdom deep enough that I’ve yet to scrape the bottom." —Dalhousie Review

"Through the collection’s quiet, mindful acceptance of sorrow, Musgrave has managed to suck the pain out of it. Sorrow simply becomes another way to experience beauty." —Pacific Rim Review of Books

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