to Issue Features]
Doesn’t Get Any Easier”
McClelland & Stewart, 128 pages, $18.99
A good book
of poetry can be an excellent companion – a conversation
you tune into that captures your attention in surprising ways.
The poet’s voice lives in your consciousness, reflecting
and expanding on your own experience. Susan Musgrave’s recent
volume Origami Dove, her fifteenth and the first in ten years,
is one such book. Organized in four parts, each with a different
style and voice, the collection brings together Musgrave’s
writing from the past decade, including work published in anthologies
and chapbooks, as well as poems in the voice of street women used
in documentary film. Covering a diverse range of tone and stylistic
approaches, the volume is united by the theme of loss, handled
with a mastery of craft that allows the poet to deeply penetrate
experience while maintaining a wry detachment. Musgrave finds
the poetry in sorrow, the humour in grief and the redeeming power
of nature to comfort and heal. Behind the work is the challenge
of a personal life left in pieces with the incarceration for robbery
of Musgrave’s husband, author Stephen Reid. Musgrave is
a tour guide down the dark passages of life’s edges, but
the quality of absence is universal and we find ourselves in familiar
territory. She has travelled this road many times, it appears,
approaching despair’s oblivion only to be rescued by the
act of poetry itself.
Part One of
Origami Dove is called “Madagascar Vanilla” and consists
of ten poems of loss – loss of the promise of romance and
family, loss of an ex-husband to an overdose, loss of a father
and the shattering of belief and loss of a first love. The collection
opens with the poem “Magnolia” the first line of which,
“Another Valentine’s Day behind bars…”
takes the reader directly into the poet’s present where
only memory – of rain, earth, pregnancy, a daughter’s
birth and those first merciful years – is offered as a path
out of darkness. Darkness and light run through these poems, as
does sorrow and weeping, but the poet also asks,
Don’t we stop
grief from cutting deeper, sometimes
with our tears?
The section concludes with “Understanding
the Sky” where a visitation by ravens awakens the poet and
draws her into the darkness until an encounter with a snow owl
initiates a moment of grace:
doesn’t get any easier, but by any name
I’d miss the wind too much to be
parted from this life for even one hard winter.
In Part Two of the book Obituary of Light, the
Sangam River Meditations Musgrave pays homage to Chinese, Persian
Japanese and Ojibway traditions in epithets preceding four nature-based
poems, reflecting the seasons. Each consists of a series of short
poems in which Musgrave proves surprisingly adept at evoking the
timeless through the sparse approach – short lines and simple
language – of these traditions. It is not a style I normally
associate with the witty, confessional work of past volumes but
sparseness becomes Ms. Musgrave. Perhaps the sorrow of her years
and the solace found in nature have brought her to the place of
stillness to paint, in a few deft strokes, an untold world of
truth and beauty.
The stillness between tides and winds.
snow blows through the emptiness
where my thoughts have been. (Winter vi)
is a style I greatly appreciate, this particular section, from
a chapbook of the same name published by Leaf Press, is my favourite
of the book.
But for those
who prefer Musgrave’s reliably thought-provoking and urbane
anecdotal approach, Part Three, “Random Acts of Poetry,”
will not disappoint. Included in this section is the CBC-commissioned
“Rest Area: No Loitering, and other Signs of the Times,”
broadcast New Year’s Eve 1999 and “Thirty-Two Uses
for Al Purdy’s Ashes,” from a previous chapbook, Twenty-Eight
Uses for Al Purdy’s Ashes (Hawthorne Society). Replete with
obscure and obvious references to the elder poet’s life
and work, graduate students will have a field-day with the latter.
I especially enjoyed the poem entitled “Women Poets from
Antiquity to Now: An Anthology.” Preceded by a curious note
in parentheses explaining the title as “a last gift from
Al Purdy, his way of saying that he considered me to be a bona
fide poet(ess)),” it begins:
By the time I reach the Sumerians
I have grown weary of our suffering…
I want to say, buck up, act like a man…
We ache, gain weight and yearn for that
fearful day when fresh love shows up and we
can crush it to death before it dies
of natural causes…
and ending with a sobering,
We prayed to a God who lied… Ah, men.
fide poet(ess)” indeed.
concludes with “Part Four: Heroines” a series of poems
based on conversations with heroin-addicted sex trade workers
from Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Created as narration
for Stan Feingold’s documentary of the same name, the poems
demonstrate Musgrave’s ease with voice – her own,
another’s and the place where they join. Writing in the
first person, Musgrave uses her pen as an acupuncture needle in
the energy meridians of these women’s lives. The poet celebrates
the sheer survival of these unwanted children who grew to be addicted
women. And once again, redemption occurs through the act of poetry.
has led a daring life and paid the cost in tears. Origami Dove
harvests the difficult wisdom of the breaking heart, but as the
poet writes, “A broken heart/ is an open heart…”
and the folded paper dove of the book’s title manages to
soar despite the pull of gravity. “The going doesn’t
get any easier,” Musgrave states on more than one occasion,
but suggests that the art of poetry makes the journey worthwhile.
A work of maturity and depth, Origami Dove is a triumph of craft,
voice and the human spirit.
Ann Sokoloff is an author, poet, jazz vocalist and songwriter.
Her jazz CD Let Go! is now available.