The first collection of new poems in more than a decade from one of Canada's most vibrant and original writers.
With her first major collection in ten years, Susan Musgrave displays a range of form and expression that may surprise even her most faithful readers. The quiet, lapidary elegies of “Obituary of Light” are set against the furious mischief of “Random Acts of Poetry,” where the lines move with the inventive energy of a natural storyteller, while “Heroines” wrests a harsh and haunting poetry from the language of the street.
Her alertness to the absurdity in even the most heartbreaking personal crises leavens the sorrow that speaks through so many of the poems. Sadness and levity interweave. The wilderness and the penitentiary reflect one another. There’s an underlying tenderness, though, whether she is writing about family, the dispossessed, her life on Haida Gwaii, or the vagaries of love. This is Susan Musgrave in full control of her powers, writing poetry that cuts right to the bone.
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.
Excerpt: Origami Dove (by (author) Susan Musgrave)
Another Valentine’s Day behind bars
and I bring you light from the stars
that you might find your way back to us
out of darkness. I bring you memories
of me – naked, happy, nine months’ pregnant
tasting applesauce in the kitchen.
I bring you the wind, the way
our house creaked as you rocked
our newborn daughter who couldn’t sleep.
I bring a handful of rain
that you may remember the sound of it,
and the smell of the earth
when you turn it in your hands.
I don’t know why our life took
the turn it did, but now the smell
of earth reminds you – the magnolia
tree you planted the day
our daughter was born: did it live?
I bring you tears, the ones you wept
mixed with the milky scent of those I kept
locked up in me as we sang our daughter
to sleep those first merciful years –
if I could I would give you wings
to carry you up to the sky.
When I kiss your eyes, your sudden cry
startles the magnolia to a deeper white.
THE ROOM WHERE THEY FOUND YOU
smelled of Madagascar vanilla.
After touching you for the last time
I scrubbed the scent from my skin – I would try
to remember later what the water felt like
on my hands but it was like trying to remember
thirst when you are drowning. They say love
doesn’t take much, you just have to be there
when it comes around. I’d been there
from the beginning, I’ve been here all along.
I believed in everything: the hope
in you, your brokenness, the way
you arranged cut flowers on a tray
beside my blue- and- white teacup, the cracked
cup I’d told you brought me luck, the note
you wrote, These flowers are a little ragged
– like your husband. The day you died
of an overdose in Vancouver
I found a moonshell in the forest, far
from the sea; when I picked it up
and pressed it to my ear I could hear you
taking the last breath you had the sad luck
to breathe. Our daughter cupped her hands
over her ears, as if she could stop death
from entering the life she had believed in
up until now. Childhood as she had known it
was over: the slap
of the breakers, the wind bruising the sea
tells her she is no longer safe in this world –
it’s you she needs. I see you pulling away
after shooting up in the car while we
stood crying on the road, begging
you to come home. The vast sky
does not stop wild clouds
from flying. This boundless grieving,
for whom is it carried on?
Nothing out of the ordinary, only
a doe and her fawn nudging
the hard yellow apple
you left on the grass, a fist- sized
Golden Delicious, the kind
that makes your mouth bleed
when you bite into it. The doe
raises her head when you step out
onto the deck to smoke your last
cigarette of the evening. Nothing
out of the ordinary, only the same
forgivable habit. I say, nothing
when you ask what’s the matter
later, and then I start weeping
I can’t help it I can’t
A Globe and Mail Best Book
“[Musgrave’s] poems flow with the almost invisible artistry of a master poet at peak power caught in the talons of something much bigger than herself able only to sing as she is transported.”
—Pacific Rim Review of Books
“Musgrave’s work draws the reader gratifyingly closer to the human essence, an exploration sometimes nightmarish, sometimes wondrous. . . . Her poems resonate within both heart and mind.”
Other titles by Susan Musgrave
My Love is for You Read-Along
My Love is For You
Kiss, Tickle, Cuddle, Hug Read-Along
Love You More Read-Along
More Blueberries! Read-Along
Sguna, Salgang, Dang k'uut'as, Dang k'uusgid
Kiss, Tickle, Cuddle, Hug Haida Edition
Kiss, Tickle, Cuddle, Hug / Sguna, Salgang, Dang k'uut'as, Dang k'uusgid
A Taste of Haida Gwaii
Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World