She’s Not Mad – She’s a Poet – Two Poems by the Great Canadian Literary Icon Susan Musgrave

Canadian poet Susan Musgrave featured in her famous car covered in glued-on figures! Photo Credit: Barbara Pedrick

from Winter ii

Across the river, children
are eating snow, their lips
the colour of tiny kingfishers
in the numbing cold. The delight
they take in the melting of each
snowflake on their tongues reminds me
joy is there, in everything, and even
when we can’t see it.

Susan Musgrave (1951 – ) from Obituary of Light, Leaf Press, 2009

I so cherish this poem by poet Susan Musgrave. Especially how it embraces joy in spite of Susan’s many experiences with grief in her life. And how it reminds me to keep remembering to see joy in spite of today’s news headlines that seem devoid of it!

This joyous mouthful of a poem from her book of seasonal meditations carries none of the grit often associated with her poems! As an example in 2011 Toronto writer and blogger Lil Blume posed the question: What is the most wrist-slittingest poem ever? This was her answer: the MOST wrist-slittingest, where’s-the-nearest-bridge poem ever written has to be Susan Musgrave’s poem “Here It Comes – Grief’s Beautiful Blow-Job”. I have copied the full poem below and it is a wrist-slitter for sure. Filled with events in a woman’s life no woman should have to endure.

I thought of Here it Comes when I read a recent interview with Susan in Inspired 55 + Lifestyle Magazine. She mentions it when talking about the devestating grief she has experienced with the death of husband Stephen Reid last year. Susan was married to Stephen for thirty-two years but many of those he spent in prison serving two major terms for armed robbery.

My literary work is affected by everything I do, and some of what I don’t. Certainly, Stephen gave me the grief I seem to thrive on. ‘Like grief, there’s never enough,’ the last line of a poem I wrote called ‘Here it Comes – Grief’s Beautiful Blow-Job.’ I am still not sure I agree with that line. How can there never be enough grief?

In the version of the poem I have the last line is slightly different: Grief’s never had it so good. But it adds up to the same thing. A narrator in the poem who seems to experience unlimited grief. Not just the grief of her husband’s death and his prison time but also of her daughter’s struggle with addiction recounted in her award winning poem The Goodness of this World  which was included in the Best Canadian Poetry 2014 Anthology. How to fathom it: a mother writing so almost matter of factly about her daughter’s life as an addict and street worker. The poem begins like this: You 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. Ouch and double ouch.

What an extraordinary life Susan has had. So many difficulties she has overcome. And in typical fashion she manages to make light of so many of them. For example, she has told the story of a time in her early writing years after a bout in a mental institution a poet visited her and said: You’re not mad. You’re a poet. We are so lucky for her kind of madness!

Susan’s writing career spans almost 50 years. Winner of many writing awards and nominated twice for  Governor general’s Award she has written 30 books including novels, non-fiction, kids books and nineteen poetry collections.  In 2015 she published her acclaimed cookbook  A Taste of Haida Gwaii – Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World. Susan has lived on and off in Haida Gwaii for more than forty years where for many years she has run a b&b called the Copper Beach House. Since 2005 she has taught creative writing in the University of British Columbia’s Optional Residency Master of Fine Arts Program.

One of my favorite all time quotes on poetry comes from Susan in an interview with Joseph Planta in 2014: Poems always seem to know more than I do and to be wiser than I am, as far as I can see. That’s also what’s magical about writing. Where do these things come from? Who knows that answer?! But I am sure glad they come to Susan Musgrave. And I am gald that in spite of the tough trials in her life she can write a poem like her epigraph poem. That she can write:

joy is there, in everything, and even
when we can’t see it. 

This woman is national treasure. An extraordinary human being!

And now, here, is her wrist-slitting poem:

Here It Comes – Grief’s Beautiful Blow-Job

Last night for the first time
you told me you loved me less.
I put on a child’s dress, pinned
a half-moon to my breast and walked
uptown. The streetlamps kept on
whispering of you as I waited
for one who would love me anyway.

How little it takes to mend, how little
to break. The first man who gave me a ride
had a valentine the colour of blood
under his shirt. He took me for a drive
down the wrong side of the road playing
“Here Comes the Night” so loud I didn’t
even hear the real night come crashing
in on me the way it did. Dress of gauze
over my right eye, two fist-shaped moons
under my left. He left me for dead
but it didn’t even hurt

not the way it hurt to be
loved less.

Motif of passion-flowers at the
HooDoo Motel, the kitchen comes
fully-quipped, the bed has Magic
Fiters. Everything but my heart comes
equipped. The philosopher in the bomber
jacket who says, “‘No’ means bondage, bitch,”
he’s equipped. He is a realist – he had
a real whip. He gave me everything
except a rag to wipe the blood up with.

He made me strip
then took his realistic jiggler out
and told me there was no one cause
for any human act of degradation.
I’d thought no one could match
the artfulness of self-abuse until he had me
licking my own blood off two cheap passion
flowers on the white lino

but nothing could have prepared me for this,
to be loved less.

When I was a child my father butchered
my first pet – a wild rabbit I’d tamed
and fed every day until she grew big
enough herself to eat. Then he killed her
with his long hands and dressed her
and made me eat; everyday of my life
he forced me to keep eating until
there was nothing left. It was a lesson
in sufficiency, he said.

But when you told me you loved me less,
I didn’t know how to cure it.
The bed became smaller than cruelty
with just enough room for the two of us
and the night came over me
like a backhand over the mouth
like my father with steakblood
in the corner of his mouth
holding up a photograph of his
shy, wild daughter.

I wanted to give reasons why I tried to love you
more each day, but it all sounded
so ordinary, like taking a piece of bread
and cutting it. Even this simple act
brings a knife into play

so the moon packs her bags and moves
away. Not me, I’m here for the duration.
Grief’s never had it so good.

Susan Musgrave from The Embalmer’s Art, Exile Editions, 1991

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