How Fiercely Have You Loved Your Days? The Searing and yet Uplifting Latest Poetry Collection by Susan Musgrave

Canadian poet Susan Musgrave and her new poetry collection: Exculpatory Lilies

SEPTEMBER 14th, 2022

The day you are cremated, a girl modelling a black hoodie
like the one I’ve chosen for you to wear, lights up my Facebook page:
I survived because the fire inside me burned brighter than the fire
around me. I hear you laugh at the irony as they fire up the retort,
a laugh dragged through the ashes of a thousand cigarettes, tokes
of crack, my sweet dangerous reckless girl, what could I do
but weep, the way I did when you were four, butting out
a Popeye candy cigarette you scored from the boy next door
for showing him your vagine through the split cedar fence.
I told you, next time baby, hold out for the whole pack, trying
to be brave, the way only a mother could. Now I carry you home
in a plain cedar urn, the remains of all you were reduced
to this smaller, portable size. Not even you could survive
the fire this time, your light in ashes now,

Susan Musgrave from Exculpatory Lilies, MCClelland & Stewart, 2022

A mother’s extraordinary ability to name what is so awful to name. Addiction and a death of a beloved daughter. A death, so often dreaded, that finally arrived. The searing beauty of these lines:

….Not even you could survive
the fire this time, your light in ashes now.

A little more than a year ago, with great sadness,  I wrote a blog post honouring Sophie Musgrave, the subject of the poem above, who had recently died of an accidental drug overdose. Sophie is the daughter of Susan Musgrave,  truly, one of Canada’s keystone poets of her or any generation.  I do not say this lightly.  Musgrave is one of our greats. And she just launched (Oct. 29th, 2022) her latest poetry collection, Exculpatory Lilies, in Haida Gwaii, where she lives and runs a famous guest house.

Her book: a cry of grief and sorrow but much more. A woman living each breath, fiercely,  as she says in a poem, loving her days. Imagine, as I do as I write this, a woman standing on a rugged Hadai Gwaii beach, drenched in rain, her hands raised to a pouring sky, yelling: and yet and yet I live, I am here!

The book in its first two parts captures Susan’s specific sorrows from the death in 2018  of her beloved husband Stephen Reid and the difficult addictive journey of her beloved daughter Sophie who died last year aged thrity three. But it is  so much more than recitation of griefs beyond imagining but also, especially in the books last three parts, a remarkable meditation on the loneliness it is to live as a human in this world, the burden of being human, but in spite of that lonliness and burden, she is indomitable in her crying out the utter need to love her days, and for us also, to love our days. Feel that imperative that sings out from this poem in the new collection:


  The tears I shed yesterday have become rain.
  —Thich Nhat Hanh

I almost weep for myself,
for this, having to be human.
Did you ever hear of loneliness?
Did you? I let the days enter me.
I let loneliness be the choir
that requires I sing alto
when I wish to be a soprano.
I could reach the high
notes, I promise you, if only
I could learn to breathe.
I don’t know how to breathe.
If I breathed I could be rain, I could
fall. How fiercely have you loved
your days? Have you? How few days
are left, what few hours. For now
I know this: the broken bottles our lives are.

Susan Musgrave, ibid

This poem astonishes me, both with its craft and its evocation, heightened by the craft, of the excruciating reality of being human. How she uses questions to increase the poem’s urgency. How I hear an echo of getting high, something that bedeviled both her husband and daughter, with her line break in this line: I could reach the high/ notes.

The epigraph poem of this blog post is the only poem in the new collection to directly address Sophie’s actual death, not Susan’s forbodings of it,  but there are many other poems that weave in  both light-hearted  and harrowing moements of Sophie’s life which was so awfully burdened by her years battling addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Susan in the book’s second part titled The Goodness of This World expands on her prize winning poem, The Goodness of this World, about some of her memories of Sophie’s times, addicted and living by her wits on the street and elsewhere, But her additions to The Goodnesss of this World and the poems that follow it in Part Two including Postcript, September 14th, 2021, become an even larger and full-hearted, yet still searing, celebration of Sophie’s indomitable spirit. How her humour and utter Sophieness seems to triumph no matter the dark places she is walking and living in.

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, you 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 Exculpatory Lilies, McClelland & Stewart, 2022

The new first part of  the poem The Goodness of this World consists of twelve koan-like small poems of six to eight lines. They are exquisite.

Here are two of them:




Break what is already broken.
Choose one form of emptiness
over another. Take thids casket
of black earth and sit with it
by the river. Sitting is familiar
practice. Scraping dirt
from the bones of a daughter
is not.


Find a word that tastes
of holiness. Hold it under
your tongue. Say it as you kneel
on the rain-wet street, begging
the north wind to blow
back the way it came.

This is a necessary and heart-haunted book.  And a testament to a poet’s unflinching ability to look at her unspeakable losses and sorrows and somehow have her indomitable life-force shine through it all. This is a woman who fiercely loves her days. Even such ones that might shatter those of many others.

Thank you Susan.




  1. Liz
    Posted October 31, 2022 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Richard, I bought the book on returning home recently, I am reading it slowly, mindfully. To do more would be a disservice, it’s a book to be savoured.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted November 17, 2022 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I get it. This one both sweet and bitter in the mouth. Much love to you and your tender understandings!

  3. Heidi Garnett
    Posted November 1, 2022 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    What a gorgeous posting. Musgrave’s poems are deeply moving in their dreadful honesty.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted November 17, 2022 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Dreadful honesty. Oh my yes. Bless you dear heidi!

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *