Susan Musgrave Essay - Critical Essays

Musgrave, Susan


Musgrave, Susan 1951–

A Canadian poet, Musgrave weaves images of death into her intense confessional poetry. She explains her use of death as a metaphor for separation, for relationships constantly frustrated. The elemental power of nature is evoked in one of her best poems, "Mackenzie River, North." Fantastic creatures created from a personal mythology haunt Musgrave's often bizarre landscapes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72.)

Marya Fiamengo

Susan Musgrave is vibrantly self-engrossed. She is not careful; she is often careless, but spontaneously, valiantly, vividly so. Miss Musgrave is a young poet and [Songs of the Sea-Witch] is a young woman's book, but there is no mistaking the authentic voice of an emerging poet. Precision of observation, concreteness of language, vitality of imagery, imaginative power, all these Susan Musgrave abundantly displays.

                My ribs are torn
                like old whores' petticoats.

she writes in "Exposure"; and in "Jan. 6th":

              The long days mate with
              the nude on the calendar.
              I have packed time like a suitcase
              and now there is nothing left to do
              but organize my boredom.

Miss Musgrave's is a narrow canvas, but while highly personal it is no mere embroidery frame. She has the ability to evoke landscapes, but she is no nature pantheist. Her land-scapes become a metaphor for a personal vision which mirrors an emotional, moral and intellectual state.

Not all Miss Musgrave's poems are equally successful. Parts of the title poem, "Songs of the Sea-Witch" are uneven. She might have been more selective; the confessional tone becomes occasionally repetitive; "North Sea Poem" repeats much of what "Mackenzie River, North" says. However, Miss Musgrave's is a young talent and I am inclined in her case to agree with Blake that this road of excess may yet lead to the palace of wisdom. (pp. 104-05)

Marya Fiamengo, in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1972.

Dreams, ghosts, magical presences and the whimsical-weird are the properties of Susan Musgrave's poems [in Entrance of the Celebrant]. They make up a bit of a witch's brew, in fact, in which the contents are arbitrary and the tone not as spell-binding (or bewitching) as it probably intends to be:

                   I share you with beetles,
                   I share you in my bones.
                   Bite into me and
                   open your mind to blood.
                                (p. 10)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 5, 1973.

Linda Rogers

Almost alone in the magic forest, Susan Musgrave blends her own weird voice with those of nature personified. Sounds of the rain forest echo poems in her skull, boiling with the witch's brew; moss and seaweed and trees twisted into toads. In her third book, Grave-Dirt and Selected Strawberries, nature, refracted off fairy lenses, assumes all the classic human disguises, goes through all the jigsaw possibilities of one living landscape….

Musgrave's wilderness is magical and she is a character in her own fairy tale, the wizard of poems which spring from her intercourse with tides and seasons in the dark woods…. The magnifying glass she presses to the forest floor enlarges into grotesques the central issues of her own life as a woman in the macrocosmic world of humans who have shaped their own impulses into myth. Her landscape is burdened with the traditional struggle of things animal and vegetable for survival. Moss copulates under the glass and becomes metaphor. Humour is the leaven of these strange couplings. The poet is a woman bleeding through all the seasons of the moon, but managing to laugh at the crazy lunar mysteries. Grave dirt is fertilizer for the new generation. (p. 121)

Lest we take it all too seriously, the fragile transformation of event into ritual is finally parodied in "Selected Strawberries". Strawberry, everyone's splendour in the grass, threatens to become mouth and gobble her whole mythical world. Tired of the discipline of metaphor, the poet dumps the whole spice-box of words. (pp. 121-22)

Linda Rogers, in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1974.

Mary Jane Edwards

Red, black, white, skulls, playing cards, and a strawberry decorate the cover of Susan Musgrave's grave-dirt and selected strawberries and introduce some themes and images which help shape each of the volume's three parts: "Gravedirt," "Kiskatinaw Songs," and "Selected Strawberries." The last is a collection of proverbs, definitions, poems, etc. about strawberries; under the heading "The genius, wit and spirit of a strawberry are discovered in its proverbs," for example, Musgrave alters Dollabella's comment in Dryden's All for Love that "Men are but children of a larger growth" to "Men are but strawberries of a larger growth." The effect of such changes is amusing and the idea is clever, but to me "Selected Strawberries" lacks the kind of wit that informs and illuminates as it amuses and surprises. The second part, "Kiskatinaw Songs," is a series of poems based on West Coast Indian lore, and the first part "Gravedirt," is a collection of poems which, like the Indian songs, use simple, strong rhythms and elemental images and explore such basic themes as love, sex, and death. The most moving poems in both parts are those that deal with sex and love, particularly from a woman's point of view…. [The] range of subject matter, form, and imagery in grave-dirt and selected strawberries creates an extremely varied landscape. The elemental power of some of these poems, furthermore, makes me think that … Susan Musgrave holds out the … promise of developing her landscape into a complete archetypal vision of men, women, and their world. (p. 43)

Mary Jane Edwards, in The Canadian Forum, August, 1974.

Stephen Martineau

[The Impstone] stimulates and disappoints at the same time. The stimulation comes from the four part structure of the book which leads progressively through the intricacies and failures of personal relationships to a spiritual world of Indian legend ("Only the dead / can lead you to the // beginning"); the disappointment comes from the stylistic limitations imposed on such far-ranging material. The style is certainly finely honed; in fact it shows a precision and sense of rhythm that is more confident and consistent than in any of her earlier work. But such an economic, polished effect often pulls against the reach towards the other-worldly, the spirit beyond the grave, and, as part IV begins, one feels the need for a change of pace and rhythm, for another perspective through which to breathe in the mysterious Indian lore and the abandoned villages of Kung and Yatza.

There is one poem in this last section, "Shadow-Shamans," that suggests the latent strength in a more varied approach: a simple, semi-prose narrative of an Indian legend is interwoven with short poetic stanzas as if the narrative provoked, insisted on a further reflection. In this way the poetic result is linked to and plays against its source, thus evoking stronger awareness of its mystic aura. But generally the style of this volume is more suited to immediate, personal situations. In this context the economy works in catching sharp moments, transfixing into...

(The entire section is 536 words.)