Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Reading Susan Musgrave

Chelsea Thornton

When the World Is Not Our Home
Susan Musgrave
Thistledown Press

Obituary of Light: the Sangan River Meditations
Susan Musgrave
Leaf Press

When read together, these two separate volumes by Susan Musgrave, When the World Is Not Our Home and Obituary of Light, easily meld, in the mind, into one collection. The quiet wisdom and wonder of the later Obituary clearly grows out of the sharp, honest and occasionally brutal observations of life in When the World Is Not Our Home. While the earlier collection trembles with fierce strength and anger tempered by occasional moments of quiet acceptance and humour, the later collection trembles like a spider web in the wind, intricate but simple, delicate but strong.

When the World Is Not Our Home is largely a chronicle of how incredibly inhospitable the human landscape can be. It is an unsettling compilation of grief and violence, undoubtedly the stories of many real and imagined characters, but all told with the same poetic voice so that the stories begin to feel like the chronicle of one person’s many tragedies. This unification of suffering makes the anthology’s stubborn strength seem all the more defiant: “I’m here for the duration. / Grief’s never had it so good.” (“Here it Comes – Grief’s Beautiful Blow-Job”)

The true strength of When the World Is Not Our Home is Musgrave’s ability to find moments of beauty hidden within the hurtful world she portrays: “I try/ to remember the immense beauty of pain” (“Mute Swans”). It is the tension between these two realities, the world of beauty and the world of pain, that gives the poems the ability to arrest the reader, to demand stillness and attention. In “The Way We Watch for Her,” a mother describes the grave of her child as “only / a mound just out of reach under the nettles / and wild peppermint,” and we are caught by the opposition of the grave and growth, mesmerized by both beauty and sorrow.

Also included in the anthology is “Water Trembling at the Rim: The Process of Revision,” an engaging discussion of the process of poetic revision that considers not only Musgrave’s own process, but those of Jane Hirshfield, Donald Hall, and Galway Kinnell.

In Obituary of Light: The Sangan River Meditations, Musgrave chooses to sorrow quietly and beautifully. The brutal portrayal of pain and cruelty that characterizes her other recent collection is absent here, replaced instead with a meditative tone:

The brightest stars are not always
in the mood to sing. Pain
is simply there, like bread rising,
like driftwood, and the sun in the garden
window. There is no place
to take shelter
but yourself. “ Summer x”

Much of Obituary of Light assumes a form similar to a Zen koan – small, unanswerable questions or contradictions designed to further open the mind: “Is it the flags/ that flutter now, or the wind?”(Fall v). The empty space on each page is needed to accommodate the deep well of thoughts the short verses evoke.

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. She closes with “We are the broken heart / of this world.” (Fall xv) In light of the rest of the book, this feels more like a comfort than a condemnation.

Chelsea Thornton writes from Mission, B.C. She reviewed What Species of Creature in PRRB, Spring 2009.