Pacific Rim Review of Books

[Back to Issue Features]

“It Doesn’t Get Any Easier”

Carol Ann Sokoloff

Origami Dove

Susan Musgrave
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:

…The going
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)

Because it 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.

“Bona fide poet(ess)” indeed.

Origami Dove 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.

Susan Musgrave 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.

Carol Ann Sokoloff is an author, poet, jazz vocalist and songwriter. Her jazz CD Let Go! is now available.