Musgrave, Susan

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Nationality: Canadian. Born: Santa Cruz, California, 12 March 1951. Education: Oak Bay High School. Family: Married Stephen Douglas Reid in 1986; two daughters. Career: Instructor in English and creative writing, University of Waterloo, Ontario, 1983–85, Kootenay School of Writing, British Columbia, 1986, and Camosun College, Victoria, British Columbia, 1988–90; writer-in-residence, University of Waterloo, 1983–85, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, 1985, Vancouver Public Library, 1986, Festival of the Written Arts, Pender Harbour, British Columbia, 1987, 1993, and 1994, Ganaraska Writer's Colony, Fiction Workshop, 1988, Sidney Public Library, British Columbia, 1989, Ganges High School, 1989 and 1991, George P. Vanier Secondary School, 1991, Kaslo Summer School of the Arts, 1991, University of Western Ontario, 1992–93, University of Toronto, 1995; writer-in-electronic-residence, York University, 1991–94. Columnist, Toronto Star and Vancouver Sun.Awards: Canada Council grant, 1969, 1972, 1976, 1979, 1983, 1985, 1989, 1991; National Magazine award (silver), 1981; British Columbia Cultural Fund Grant, 1991, 1994; b.p. Nichol Poetry Chapbook award, 1991; Reader's Choice award (Prairie Schooner), winter 1993. Agent: Bukowski Agency, 182 Avenue Road, Toronto, Ontario MSR 2JI. Address: 10301 West Saanich Road, P.O. Box 2421, Sidney, British Columbia V8L 3Y3, Canada.



Songs of the Sea-Witch. Vancouver, Sono Nis Press, 1970.

Skuld. Frensham, Surrey, Sceptre Press, 1971.

Birthstone. Frensham, Surrey, Sceptre Press, 1972.

Entrance of the Celebrant. Toronto, Macmillan, and London, Fuller d'Arch Smith, 1972.

Equinox. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1973.

Kung. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1973.

Grave-Dirt and Selected Strawberries. Toronto, Macmillan, 1973.

Gullband Thought Measles Was a Happy Ending (for children).Vancouver, J.J. Douglas, 1974.

Against. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1974.

Two Poems. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1975.

The Impstone. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1976; London, J. Jay, 1977.

Kiskatinaw Songs, with Séan Virgo. Victoria, Pharos Press, 1977.

Selected Strawberries and Other Poems. Victoria, Sono Nis Press, 1977.

For Charlie Beaulieu … Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1977.

Two Poems for the Blue Moon. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1977.

Becky Swan's Book. Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1978.

A Man to Marry, A Man to Bury. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1979.

Conversation During the Omelette aux Fines Herbes. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1979.

When My Boots Drive Off in a Cadillac. Toronto, League of Canadian Poets, 1980.

Taboo Man. N.p., Celia Duthie, 1981.

Tarts and Muggers: Poems New and Selected. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1982.

The Plane Put Down in Sacramento. Vancouver, Hoffer, 1982.

I do not know if things that happen can be said to come to pass or only happen. Vancouver, Hoffer, 1982.

Cocktails at the Mausoleum. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

Desireless: Tom York (1947–1988). N.p., Celia Duthie, 1988.

Musgrave Landing. Scarborough, Ontario, Prentice Hall, 1988.

Kestrel and Leonardo (for children). N.p., Studio 123, 1990.

The Embalmer's Art: Poems New and Selected. N.p., Exile Editions, 1991.

In the Small Hours of the Rain. Victoria, British Columbia, 1991.

Forcing the Narcissus. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1994.

Dreams Are More Real Than Bathtubs. Victoria, British Columbia, Orca Book, 1998.

Things That Keep and Do Not Change. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1999.

What the Small Day Cannot Hold: Collected Poems 1970–1985. Vancouver, Porcepic Books, 2000.


Gullband (produced Toronto, 1976).

Radio Play: The Wages of Love, 1987.


The Charcoal Burners. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1980.

Hag Head (for children). Toronto, Clarke Irwin, 1980.

The Dancing Chicken. Toronto, Methuen, 1987.


Great Musgrave. New York, Prentice-Hall, 1989.

Musgrave Landing: Musings on the 'Writing Life. Toronto, Stoddart, 1994.

Editor, Clearcut Words: Writers for Clayoquot. Victoria, British Columbia, Hawthorne Society for Reference West, 1993.

Editor, Because You Loved Being A Stranger: 55 Poets Celebrate Patrick Lane. N.p., Harbour Publishing, 1994.


Manuscript Collection: McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.

Critical Studies: "The White Goddess: Poetry of Susan Musgrave" by Rosemary Sullivan, in Contemporary Verse 2 (Winnipeg), 1975; "Susan Musgrave: The Self and the Other" by Dennis Brown, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 79, 1978; "Desire and Death: Susan Musgrave" by Jon Pearce, in Malahat Review (Victoria), 53, 1980; by Jeanette Lynes, in Profiles in Canadian Literature, edited by Jeffrey M. Heath, Toronto, Dundurn, 1986; "An Archetype of Pain: From Plath to Atwood and Musgrave" by Catherine Ahearn, in Still the Frame Holds: Essays on Women Poets and Writers, edited by Sheila Roberts and Yvonne Pacheco Tevis, San Bernardino, California, Borgo, 1993.

*  *  *

I happened to have an opportunity to speak with Susan Musgrave when I was trying to obtain her volume of poetry Forcing the Narcissus. Nervously identifying myself, I reminded her that I was the critic who on reading her early volumes had feared that she as well as her poetic persona might succumb to dark suicidal impulses. Her obsessive, poignant treatment of death, insanity, and blood reminded me of Sylvia Plath's poetry in Ariel. I recanted this judgment in the third edition of Contemporary Poets (1980), however, and although subsequent volumes continued to work in the starker vein of the early poetry, I knew better than quickly to confuse art with life. She laughed, saying that if I feared for her well-being then the fear would probably resurface when I read this volume. "It is dark," she said, or some words to that effect, but the darkness is largely a function of the publisher's will. Her editors removed the lighter verse, choosing to give the volume tonal unity, but in doing so they denied the reader the opportunity to hear a more carefree voice. The volume is full of images that strike with the force of a lash; they bring blood and pain, but they also bring beauty, forgiveness, and transcendence.

Looking back at Musgrave's works, I can see why the comparison to Plath's writings was almost unavoidable. The feminist stances of the two poets were similar; so were their attitudes toward men, lesbianism, and sex. Musgrave's imitation of Plath's "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" in her poem "Exposure" was unmistakable. She was the celebrant of death, "the spilled child," and all she looked at was transformed into death. In "The Opened Grave" she placed herself at the "edge of things." Her poems of witchcraft read like strange and deeply disturbing myths of blood rites and sexuality pervaded with violence. The inhabitants of her witch kingdoms resembled those in Gustave Doré's illustrations—beetles, white moths, and figures with bloated heads angling out of hunched shoulders and shriveled torsos, shaking their gnarled hands, leering at their prey. These lines from "Finding Love" are chilling:

From my bed I could hear
the ripe wound open, the thick sea
pouring in. I told you, then,
the first lie I had in my heart;
the carcass of a dull animal
slipped between our sights.

The poem "MacKenzie River, North" is another work imbued with terror.

What I failed to recognize was that, although Musgrave's range was limited in Songs of the Sea-Witch and Entrance of the Celebrant and although her themes were obsessive and derivative, her sense of the bizarre and her ability to evoke the mood of bewitched kingdoms could serve her well in an entirely different vein of poetry. In the earlier collections she used these gifts to evoke strange, disturbing worlds fraught with psychological significance. In the third section of Grave-Dirt and Selected Strawberries, however, she transforms them to create a high-spirited, bawdy, and wonderfully affectionate pastiche of poems and prose in celebration of the strawberry. Musgrave gleefully parodies herself and writes in the best eighteenth-century traditions of comedy, bringing some of the writings of Erica Jong to mind. In her fanciful history the strawberry is her picaresque hero. His origins are traced, his baptism marked, and his emergence in the writings of others duly recorded, and all the facts about him that every strawberry lover would like to know are cataloged. Musgrave feigns an anthropological tone and hilariously records the harvest customs of the strawberry, its method of reproduction, its behavior in captivity, its sense of fellowship. The collection is giddy, witty, and full of good fun. It could not be more unlike her other poetry.

Musgrave's writings from Equinox through The Impstone reflect continued growth in the kind of poetry that won her acclaim. "Memorial to a Lover" (Two Poems) imitates Plath. Others feature her interest in Indian lore and witchcraft. The moon poems, like the "Kiskatinaw Songs" (Grave-Dirt and Selected Strawberries), experiment with rhythms from songs, chants, and ballads. Poems like "The Firstborn" and Equinox represent Musgrave's best handling of the world of nightmare and demons, in which dark rituals are enacted between the self and its demon other.

The personal love poetry in Cocktails at the Mausoleum is softer and more mellow in its tone, some of it becoming much more loving. The shift in tone and Musgrave's widening of her range suggest that some critics were too quick to condemn her for the alleged antimale stance they detected in some of the poems published in A Man to Marry, A Man to Bury (1979). Many poems explore her private domain, her personal friends, and her journeys on the lecture circuit. These poems, such as "Black Morning," "We Come This Way But Once," and her Salmonberry Road poems, are reminiscent of the poetry of Frank O'Hara, in which personal material, friends, and particular geographical locations are cited to create the sense that direct personal experience is being recorded. These poems employ a colloquial idiom; they make references to private materials that mean something quite different to the poet than they can ever mean to the public. And they depict a landscape of experience in which the city or creek or street is named simply because the very act of naming prevents the named thing from finally being appropriated.

Musgrave Landing (1988) continues to combine an erotic poetry with the poetry of her dark imaginings, a poetry full of torture and dismemberment. Some of the poems are less controlled than usual, exploring almost wantonly the material of her dreams. Some of the dramatic monologues recall the humor and wit displayed in her collection of poems about the strawberry. They are fanciful, brash, and bawdy. "My Boots Drive Off in a Cadillac" is told from the point of view of a prostitute. It and other poems in Tarts and Muggers, particularly "Boogeying with the Queen," show us Musgrave writing a tough, cocky poetry.

Some of Musgrave's poetry is still written too much under the spell of the style as well as the subject matter of the confessional poets. Her poem about her trip to Plath's grave and another poem called "Salad Days" demonstrate that she can move beyond this mode, however. Her poem about her own father, "You Didn't Fit," has an original cast to it. Nonetheless, she remains highly indebted to John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, and even Erica Jong. Her poems about environmental issues or the drug trade give voice to her social consciousness but remain too rhetorical and predictable. Only the "Requiem for Talunkwan Island," written from the point of view of a Haida ghost returning to the island, has a powerful and original voice, giving force to her complaint against a logging industry that has caused erosion of the land and made reforestation impossible.

Forcing the Narcissus is a heart-wrenching volume of poems. Many have appeared before, some are revised, and others are new. In "The Gift" the speaker foresees all of the harrowing lessons from hell that an infant born of a drug-addicted mother will come to know: "After nine months of happiness / you're learning withdrawal, what it's like to be / fully human, how your mother only gives you / all she's got to give." The poems in the section "From the Wet Heart of the Wound" chart the raw emotions of a child brutalized by her father or of a child reliving the loss of her father and the estrangement from her mother. "Family Plot" exudes the chill of the graveyard, calling forth painful memories and delving deeper into the storehouse of memory and the depths of graves. "The Spirituality of Cruelty" voices Musgrave's credo that art transfigures violence and pain. It is a restatement of Yeats's theme in "The Circus Animal's Desertion." All of the ladders start with, all beauty comes from "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." Musgrave's poetry is full of terror, and from it beauty is born.

—Carol Simpson Stern