Susan Musgrave: You're in Canada Now…
When I was in my mid-20s, one of my favourite poets was the west coast poet Susan Musgrave, based upon my appreciation of such heart-wrenching poems as her "VERN AND JOANNE: DEAD," from her tenth poetry collection Cocktails at the Masuoleum (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1985), that begins:
and Mike Davis just back from his
holiday brings us the bad news.
Jack Miller pours another whiskey.
His old lady has left, moved to
Pouce Coupe. So far he's got the kid,
but there's going to be a fight.
Mike feeds the airtight,
Helen cooks the spaghetti.
"They were wiped out in a car,
I don't know how it happened."
Most likely Joanne wasn't wearing her glasses:
they'd just come from the Commune
and Brother Love says glasses are crutches.
I remember you, Vern, at Cape Ball one winter.
We swam naked in the river.
And when the time came for you, Joanne,
you too lay down naked.
Vern delivered your second baby. (Cocktails at the Masuoleum)
Since that time, my interests have shifted away from more narrative, almost story-telling forms of poetry, but I always derive great pleasure from hearing Susan Musgrave read, whether as part of the West Coast Poetry Festival, where we read together in the summer of 2005, or a few months later, at the ottawa international writers festival. She certainly holds up as one of the Canadian writers I most enjoy seeing, holding little to no airs but her fierce sense of her own self that doesn't hold into any personal or professional importance over anyone else; warm and welcoming, but suffering no fools (unfortunately, good writing doesn't necessarily equate good people; and Musgrave is certainly good people). She's published a few books since Cocktails at the Masuoleum, including a couple of novels I haven't had the chance to read, and poetry collections that include a selected poems, The Embalmer's Art: New and Selected (Toronto ON: Exile Editions, 1991), Forcing The Narcissus (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1994) (which I very much liked), Things That Keep And Do Not Change (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1999) and her What the Small Day Cannot Hold, Collected Poems 1970-1985 (Vancouver BC: Beach Holme, 2000), which excited me less than her earlier works had; I know it's probably far less a matter of what her writing is or has been doing, but where my own interests have shifted over the years.
THE SEX OF MONEY
You walk into the white field, squat
between rows of frozen cabbages, almost happy
he is gone. You spread the money all around you
on the ground, remembering how it felt
when he put it in your hands. (Things That Keep And Do Not Change)
Much of any appreciation of Musgrave's poetry, and to her non-fiction collections, including Great Musgrave (Scarborough ON: Prentice-Hall Canada, Inc.,1989) and Musgrave Landing: Musings on the Writing Life (Toronto ON: Stoddart, 1994), (it seems odd, as an aside, that the dates provided in the two individual collections are not the dates listed in the front of her collected poems…) is hinged on her personality: flighty, fixed, honest and intelligent, and almost completely open. Some of my favourite of her works has been her non-fiction pieces, as Musgrave writes strange and hilarious observances on writing, living, travel and politics; when she travelled with us in 1998 on the Great Canadian Via Rail Writers Tour, organized and sponsored by the ottawa international writers festival, apparently part of what she was doing to supplement her income was writing a daily on-line journal of the trip, and her experiences during the travel and readings (part of me has wanted to never know what she might have said), with her own stretch of travel starting in Saskatoon, and ending in Vancouver. It was certainly something to witness her and Montreal writer David McGimpsey go back and forth from singing traditional Irish songs to theme songs from Saturday morning cartoons of the 1960s and 70s in our own little corner of the first class smoking car.
Her third collection of non-fiction pieces, You're In Canada Now… A Memoir Of Sorts (Saskatoon SK: Thistledown Press, 2005) includes personal pieces on family and other writers, but also includes pieces more overtly political than in either of her two previous collections. Also, once you're past the front cover, you get a glimpse of the full title, something that couldn't be put on the front cover for obvious reasons (and isn't the "official title" of the Library and Archives Canada Cataloging in Publication title), You're in Canada Now… Motherfucker. Including pieces separated into six sections, including subheadings such as "The Particular," "The Personal," "The Political," "The Professional," "The Penitent" and "The Posthumous," it includes pieces on her family life, including her daughter's attempted suicide, and travelling with her mother to Ireland, pieces on late friends such as Vancouver bookseller William Hoffer and poets Al Purdy and Robin Skelton, a piece on touring parts of Europe with bill bissett, and of her husband, the former bank robber Stephen Reid, currently serving time for a botched bank robbery in early 1999. The whole section, subtitled "The Personal" opens with the header "Heroin Christmas," and writes about Reid's last robbery and conviction, his heroin addiction, and the Canadian prison system, as well as her daughter's attempted suicide. In her on-stage interview with Ken Rockburn at the ottawa international writers festival in fall 2005, most of the conversation centred around Stephen Reid's final conviction, addiction and the Canadian prison system in general, which Musgrave has written about extensively, while trying to keep herself out of trouble by doing so.
What I've always liked about her non-fiction is, apart from the fact that the pieces are highly intelligent and include links and quotes from all over, heightened by Musgrave's wit and highly optimistic sense of humour, is the fact that they feel so immediately personal, as though Musgrave is speaking to the reader directly. It's one of the things that I think make her public readings so effective, and her poems on the page feel less than, that extra feeling of what Susan's own voice and personality bring to whatever is happening on the page.
The title of the collection comes from the title piece, writing about drug trafficking across the Canada-US border:
My dad was a hard act for any man to follow, but eventually I found one—a smuggler from Washington State. Unlike my father, my future husband did not clear customs at the Canadian border, or serve tea when his freighter, loaded to the gunwales with thirty tonnes of Colombian marijuana, broke down off the west coast of Vancouver Island. He brought it in to an inlet north of Tofino to make repairs and offloaded his cargo in the middle of the night. (These days importing pot would be like transporting coals to Newcastle, but in 1980 our province's main export was not BC Bud.) At daybreak the combined forces of the DEA, FBI, RCMP and Coast Guard descended—the ship had been under surveillance since leaving Barranquilla. The Columbian crew surrendered but one of the Americans took off up the beach, pursued by a Mountie and a tracking dog. The dog pinned the suspect under a log, taking formidable bites out of his desire to remain silent. "I give up!" the man cried. "I'm an American citizen! Don't I have any rights?"
The Mountie raised his rifle and brought the butt down on the smuggler's head. "You're in Canada now, motherfucker," he said.
Big mistake. By Canadian rights the Mountie should have asked the surrendered man whether he wished to be beaten in French or in English. (p 123-4)
One of the oddest bits has to be her three page "When We Get There Can I Smoke?" on travelling through London and Paris with poet bill bissett, doing a reading tour together, that includes an image of her and bill in Paris, writing:
At the Louvre I watch bill flick a booger onto the Mona Lisa to see if it will set the alarms off. It may still be there, bill's booger, to this day. (p 191)
At nearly three hundred pages, this is certainly the one book of Musgrave's I would recommend over any of the others, and I would recommend this highly.