Pacific Rim Review of Books

[ Back to Issue Features ]

Obituary of Light: The Sangan River Meditations

Robert Priest

Obituary of Light: The Sangan River Meditations.
Susan Musgrave, Leaf Press, 2009

"I thought I knew where I was going/when I set out/but now I’m not so sure” writes Susan Musgrave in the final lines of a poem from her latest collection: Obituary of Light, The Sangan River Meditations. In many ways this hints at the essence of the book if not of her whole career as a poet. Which is not to say that Musgrave has lost her way. In fact in this volume, for my taste, she has found her way---to uncertainty. But it is a fruitful uncertainty that gives the poems a most becoming sense of openness and mystery. “I’ve kept the same question/to myself for a thousand years/ When life stops does death stop too?” “Is it the flags that flutter now or the wind?” There are many such questions posed throughout the poems and even when there are answers they remain wreathed in their attendant mysteries like the “duck’s cry” which “doesn’t echo/ and no one knows why.” All of this is appropriate to the book’s themes of life and death, emptying and replenishing. As such it is not a book that knows anything for sure, but a book that asks everything. The voice is straightforward, honest and without irony. There’s not a static moment anywhere. The 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. They have the freshness and ease of urgent meditations and like meditation they come from the observer’s stance, unmarred by the futile thrashings of resistance or judgment. Whatever troubles or losses befall her Musgrave’s mood is one of eloquent but sad acceptance. “If you ask me/ again what I want it is to make/ peace with the part of me that insists I exist.” What a relief then, to read poems which are not always straining forward toward their next self-justifying flash of technique for technique’s sake. Sure there is plenty of skill here but only insofar as it supports the delicate questioning underlay. And the miracle is Musgrave makes it look so easy – as though these riches just fell into her lap from the troubles of the world. “how effortlessly / rain drips from the eaves”.

Dedicated to the memory of Paul Bower, a logger and friend who is battling and then dying of cancer the poetry finds its imagery in the richness of the natural surround, the island of Haida G’waii where Musgrave lives. This landscape of mist, rock and sea is evoked intensely but deftly throughout the slim volume serving at once to describe the physical limitations of her environment and magnify her themes. “Even the river stealing past/ in the darkest night becomes another way / for grace to slip through.”

Musgrave’s antecedents are also clear. She has been reading Rumi and I suspect, the great sixth century Chinese poets Li Po and Tu Fu. These influences are acknowledged in poem ix in the section entitled Spring:

Perhaps this is all I have left to do
To bow to the plum blossoms in all those ancient love poems
Loosely translated from the Chinese

I suspect that Musgrave actually has lots more to do in both poetry and prose but this volume is a definite turning point. It gives us a new deeper Musgrave, a friendlier more mystic sea-witch if you like, neither a tart nor a mugger but simply this: a true poet capable of addressing the great themes and sufferings of human kind in a way that is readable and re-readable. Of course the old Musgrave is not that far away. But listen to how artfully her presence is resurrected:

“As long as I am alive there will be a snow of mist on the mirror.” In truth her gaze mostly falls far beyond the mirror to illumine instead ‘the broken heart of this world.” She does this with compassion, wonder and wisdom.

A fabulist in the tradition of Cortazar and Borges, a composer of lush love poems, and a widely quoted aphorist, Robert Priest has also written fifteen books of poetry and prose.