“The Dark Came Down” – R.I.P. Sophie Alexandra Musgrave Reid (1989-2021) – And Poems of Response by Her Mother, Canadian Poet, Susan Musgrave

Sophie Alexandra Musgrave Reid: With permission of Susan Musgrave

THE SOUL IS A TINY THING
for Sophie

The day you were born the sun
thawed the tears on your father’s
face. We needed you, a flirt
of grace, your breath on our lips
like one long kiss. We could have spent
a lifetime together in that kiss. Today
you are twenty-six. You send me
a photo of your white wolf hunting
rabbits in the snow. “Who says we can’t live
forever, lol?” Everything we are
comes from the dying light of stars.

Susan Musgrave from her Facebook page, September 18th, 2021. With permission.

from THE GOODNESS OF THE WORLD

……….. My fault was in trying to fix you,
who taught me, all life on earth is the dust of ruined stars.
Words for your headstone, carved by a hard bitten wind.
When the dust settles, we’re left with dust.

Susan Musgrave, 2012, with permission.

XV from Fall

The day we set to dig
my old cat’s grave under the looming
hoary cedars, the dark came down
earlier, blowing rain clouds
over the hills. I thought the going
doesn’t get any easier
. We are the broken
heart of this world.

Susan Musgrave in Obituary of Light – The Sangan River Meditations, Leaf Press, 2009. With permission.

I dedicate this blog post to Susan Musgrave and Sophie Musgrave Reid. And, through my poetry therapy work in recovery centers, to those men and women I worked with who subsequently relapsed and died and to their beloveds, many of whom I also worked with.

 

Here I am writing a blog post triggered by the overdose death of someone I never knew – Sophie Alexandra Musgrave Reid (1989-2021). This might seem strange. But thanks to Sophie’s mother, Susan Musgrave, truly one of the important Canadian poets of her generation, I feel I knew something of her. How? Through Susan’s gut-wrenching prize-winning 2012 poem, THE GOODNESS OF THIS WORLD. (An excerpt is above and the full poem is below.) To read a previous blog post on Susan Musgrave please click here.

In THE GOODNESS OF THIS WORLD Sophie’s journey with addiction is related with unflinching directness. Something Susan’s poems are often noted and celebrated for. And what makes this poem even more relevant and poignant for me is that it invokes a suggestion of Sophie’s death when it mentions an epitaph for Sophie’s headstone. That death, after Sophie’s courageous battle with her addiction and times of recovery from it, tragically came by an overdose all to soon on September 8th, 2021.

And Susan’s sorrow, as I also imagine the sorrow of so so many parents who have lost beloveds to addiction, seems unthinkable, unsayable. But Susan does begin to capture it in her poem above when she says: I thought the going/ doesn’t get any easier. We are the broken heart of this world. All these losses we experience as human dwellers on this planet. Yes: We are the broken heart of this world. And with Susan’s daughter’s death a mother’s heart breaks even more.

And Susan in a recent Facebook post tries to tell us of sorrow’s depth from the loss of a beloved through the use of an Irish word. ” The Irish have a word for sadness born of grief —”brónach”. But it means so much more than that. A sadness deeper than grief, akin to desolation. What an apt and, for me, horrifying word: desolation. And the desolation captured in Susan’s words above: When the dust settles, we’re left with dust.

Also, in her Facebook post she added this stirring quote from American poet Muriel Rukeyser’s poem Eighth Elegy. Children’s Elegy: “This is what they say, who were broken off from love:/ However long we were loved, it was not long enough.” To share how Susan has shared Sophie’s journey in poems and now, her death, and now, Susan’s grief, is not only hugely brave but so helpful in how it says for the countless others who have lost a beloved to addiction: you are not alone. Thank you, Susan.

It is important to note that Susan is one of a growing number of mother’s writing about the impact of a child’s or beloveds addiction. And I am sure there are others and also by fathers as well. The courage to tell these stories. The importance of sharing these stories from the the so-called “other” pandemic sweeping North America. As well as Susan I am thinking of Sheryl St. Germain and her searing book, The Small Door of Your Death,” that includes many poems on her and her family’s struggle with addiction including her son Gray who died of a heroin overdose in 2014. For my blog post of Sheryl and her book please click here.

I also remember Natalie Diaz’s book from 2013: When My Brother Was An Aztec. And, also I recommend Kate Daniel’s two books, Three Syllables Describing Addiction, 2018 and In the Months of My Son’s Recovery, 2019). Both of these books feature her experience as a mother of a heroin addict who, thankfully, at the time these books were published, was in recovery. And while not a book of poems I can’t say enough good things about Lorna Crozier’s memoir, Through the Garden, about her marriage to poet Patrick Lane and the impact of his addictions on her.

Over the years I have seen many poems by poets describing their own harrowing journeys through addiction. I think of Kaveh Akbar, Chelsey Minnis, Marie Howe, Thomas Lux, Patrick Lane, Joan Larkin and Franz Wright to mention just a few. But I am so glad to now also see we are more noticeably hearing in poems and memoirs from the ones who so often get overlooked when it comes to the suffering addictions bring. I have been privileged to work as a poetry therapist with beloveds of those in recovery who have suffered from addiction and watched them find some measures of peace and balance from writing their own poems.

Canadian poet Susan Musgrave. Photo Credit: Barbara Pedrick

Now, here is Susan’s, and here without apology I will say extraordinary, poem from 2012 that chronicles some of what it is to be a mother of a beloved in the throes of the disease called addiction. Part of the grace of this poem is its intimate tone and its range inside that tone. From off-the-cuff  humour to harrowing realities. And what is critical is what I hear and see in this poem is love and understanding, not judgement. And please do not be deterred by the length of this poem. It is worth every word. But to give you taste of this poem’s power here are some lines that get me every time I read this poem.

“Words for your headstone, carved by a hard-bitten wind.
When the dust settles, we’re left with dust.”

“She said she would donate your hair
to a good cause, and I thought

trust you to find a drug dealer with a social conscience.

I have learned not to ask why, but then I opened
the door and saw you standing small in your nakedness —”


“I am so like you. I don’t want to feel
anything, either. So when you phone, cut off
from me in your own world, I pretend you have died,
that you are calling home from your new afterlife.”

“The first time I gave you a bath, then
lifted you from the water and balanced you
on the palm of my hand, where you quivered
like a soap bubble. I wondered then how I would bear
the weight of it, but for that moment I knew what it felt like
to hold all that mattered in the palm of one hand.”

“and I was driving and you need both hands
to hold someone who is suffering and does not want to be held.”

The GOODNESS OF THIS WORLD

(i)

We used to joke—you liked to sniff the glue
that held our family together—but this much
is true: everything in our house has been broken
and mended, over and over again. I felt at home
in all the broken places, as if I could only find beauty
in hurt things, the antique floor lamps
with irreplaceable parts missing, and stands full
of wrecked umbrellas nestled together like crippled bats.
I couldn’t throw anything out because it was chipped
or cracked, or even when it fell to pieces
in my hands. My fault was trying to fix you,
who taught me, all life on earth is the dust of ruined stars.
Words for your headstone, carved by a hard-bitten wind.
When the dust settles, we’re left with dust.

(ii)

She forced you to cut your hair, hack it off
in front of those you counted as friends but failed
you in the end. Next time she’d make you
shave your eyebrows, too, she said, and sent you
back into the street with what was left of your dignity.

This girl sells you heroin you can’t live
without. She said she would donate your hair
to a good cause, like cancer, and I thought
trust you to find a drug dealer with a social conscience.

I have learned not to ask why, but then I opened
the door and saw you standing small in your nakedness —
the kind of nakedness that can never again be clothed.
I cried and cradled your head, while you, wise
as ever said, “Mum, it will grow back, it’s only
hair.” But your hurt goes deep.

You were the child I suffered for, your long hair
streaming as you ran wild into the wind
with your imaginary friends. While other mothers
snipped price tags off back-to-school fashions
I sat by your bed in the Intensive Care Unit
watching your vital signs blip across a screen.
You were barely fourteen, you’d had enough
of being alive. I lifted your head from the pillow —
the summer sun had streaked your hair
faintly gold — and brushed thin strands from your face.
I could almost feel you want to live again, by the grace,
as your hair slipped through my hands.

(iii)

Personal Effects

“the wrenching nature of personal effects when the person they belong to
has already lost so much…Lynn Crosbie

I go through what I have left of you: a Glad bag
full of syringes, the scorched glass cylinder
— you buy a rose in a tube at a gas station. Take the cork ends
off the tube and throw the rose out the window —
you called a straight shooter, scraps of Brillo pads,
Chore Boy, your brand of choice, a piece of coat hanger
to pack the steel wool into the tube. Condoms, assorted
colours. A tourniquet. A bag of bottle caps called “cookers”:
“You put the dope in it, cook it up and mix it around, then you
draw it into the rig and slam it.” How much
you taught me; how much I resented having to learn.

And your journal, the entry you wanted me to hear
when we met for coffee at Habit: Chapter One:
The Sober Years. I said, “Aren’t you jumping the gun,
baby? You haven’t even been to rehab yet?”
You looked at me with those round eyes
that seemed to say don’t ever stop believing
in the goodness of this world, and said, “Mum,
that was age zero to eight. Remember?”
I remember. The moment you were born, how you
popped out of me, two weeks late, like a tiny, shiny
lifesaver. The first time I gave you a bath, then
lifted you from the water and balanced you
on the palm of my hand, where you quivered
like a soap bubble. I wondered then how I would bear
the weight of it, but for that moment I knew what it felt like
to hold all that mattered in the palm of one hand.

(iv)

You brought home a suitcase
full of other girls’ clothes, lost girls
who had gone out back again — as you put it —
on the street, using. None of it mattered
to you, but after I lost you the last time I didn’t know
what to keep or give away. So hard to let go
of what death has touched.

I imagine another mother with a daughter
like you, in a far-flung city going through
the red suitcase full of everything you possess—
the summer dress I bought you at Bliss, the white
coat you said made you feel good about yourself,
the heels I teased you about, those “come-hither” shoes.

I am so like you. I don’t want to feel
anything, either. So when you phone, cut off
from me in your own world, I pretend you have died,
that you are calling home from your new afterlife.
I’m happy for you as I close my eyes and watch you
vanish into a stranger’s body. Sometimes
I even recognize myself, the suitcase in my hand.
We were driving, I was taking you away
from the life you were leaving for good. The heroin
you’d stashed for the journey ran out around Nanoose Bay
where we pulled into a Rest Area so you could do your last
fix in the privacy of the blue Porta-loo.

I got out of the car to wait and found, in the dead grass
at the edge of the parking lot, a suitcase full
of someone else’s life: recipes, spices whose expiry date
had been and gone, a bottle of vanilla extract — the kind
I let you sniff when we used to bake cookies together. Lately
you had taken to drinking the supersized containers
I bought at Costco: you said it helped you sleep,
when the drugs ran out. I’s begun hiding it, and the knives
I found in your bedroom under your pillow. I removed them
without saying anything, so terrified had I become of your fate.

In that parking lot I unpacked cutlery, saucepans with lids
missing, a single baby shoes. I worked loose the knot
on a bundle of letters tied together with butcher string
then stopped as you came flailing back to me
because someone had dumped a lifetime
of family photographs in the outhouse toilet pit
and up to that point it was the saddest thing I knew.

We got in the car and drove, trying to imagine—
had she been kicked out f her house, or had she run
away? Maybe she’s chucked everything
before checking into the rehab facility on the hill, hoping
to start anew? I didn’t want to go on, I wanted to turn back,
read the letters, find a clue, a name, an address to return
the things to, but you said it was useless and I could feel
the panic rising in you and I had little strength left at that time
and I was driving and you need both hands
to hold someone who is suffering and does not want to be held.

Susan Musgrave, Winner of the Subterrain Magazine 2012 LUSH Triumphant Lit Award, with permission

I know that Susan has more poems about Sophie, some already published that I haven’t read but I also know she is writing new ones. It will a privilege to read them if Susan publishes them. I will call the opportunity to read these poems as a sacred grace.  To read  these poems by a courageous witness to the ravages of addiction. Susan, my prayer for you, is that words will arrive from you and others that might accompany you in your desolation.

 

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