Forcing The Narcissus
by Susan Musgrave
by Susan Musgrave,
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|The Business Of Hope
by Phil Hall
RHETORICAL drone may break my hones but no Envious Prig, no eunuch, no blasted jelly-boned swine of a slimy belly- wriggling sniveling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulseless book reviewer [is] going to hurt me."
Echoing Rabelais, Robert Burns, and D. H. Lawrence, no less, Susan Musgrave, in her latest book of non-fictions, Great Musgrave (1989), has thus given fair warning of her solid armour to those with a task such as mine. I like that, and so will proceed not timorously, but with assurance. Luckily, I also like both of these new books of hers.
Readers Would do best to throw off any preconceptions that Musgrave`s name suggests to them. She herself is playful and derisive of the images that surround her work: Medusa hair, prison marriage, nude photos for Saturday Night, the "muse of the grave" that her last name suggests. All that.
I would rather speak of, and point readers toward, the strength and skills
I of Musgrave`s work in these two divergent genres. In these brief essays notice the offering up of the self as brunt and example; in these new poems notice the horror-flirtations couched by resilience and hope:
In us grows the strange
and the wild covered by skin
yet I think how much thinner
is the membrane between myself and the world.
("Forcing The Narcissus")
Musgrave Landing is, like its predecessor, a compilation of humorous columns originally written for newspapers and magazines. Don`t pooh-pooh such work as hacking endeavour. Remember Hann O`Brien`s Irish "Myles" columns, or Harlan Ellison`s television criticism columns of the late `60s (The Glass Teat). Also note that Bronwen Wallace`s Kingston Whig- Standard columns have also recently been published (Arguments with the World). Such quotidian writings are often the ones that people save and pin up on their fridges for inspiration, reference, and refreshment.
By my count, eight pieces have been reprinted from the earlier book. Six of those are in the middle section, "Welcome Susan Musrave," so if you`re familiar with the earlier work, that section, with its intentionally misspelled title, will he a quicker read.
While entertaining, Musgrave`s essayettes also gather many wonderful quotes. ("Fear ringed by doubt is my eternal moon." Malcolm Lowry) And I am grateful to discover the source of "just don`t call me late for supper"
(Auntie Maine). I laughed out loud once, and am grateful for From "Writer`s Retreat":
Next there is a story ... about an old lady alone in an old folks` home. She is waiting for her children to visit., although she seldom gets visitors anymore. She feels that life has passed her by. Her only hope is that one of her children will remember to visit today, because it is a special day -- her birthday. She is going to be turning forty.
The humorous tone of these pieces might blind us to the fact that they are well-constructed, whole things. There is a puppeteering of one`s own self going on here that serves a generous social function. Much in the same way that Tom Wayman has "Wayman" become a crank or write a Nobel acceptance speech, Musgrave takes us on book promotion tours and National Book Festival jaunts with her. We are spared the disappointments and ego-bruises. While the woman who writes the non-fiction is a mother, wife, homeowner, famous (notorious) author, baker of Rice Krispies squares, etc., the woman who writes the powerful poems is not a personality or a persona, even, but rather a desperate, optimistic self sifting history and "the spiritualization of cruelty." The horrendously crisp family poems that begin the book are balanced by the hard stories of stability lost and found that close it. Musgrave writes a clear, clipped narrative line whose force is lyric and driven by metaphor that often extends itself just one association beyond dailiness into dream epiphany:
You cry, too, for the wounds closing
It`s metaphor, of course, or a bad
where we only use love to hurt each
It`s a risk to feet anything here, inside.
("The Mountains Above Hope")
The reader is exposed to a personal, pagan, meaty, beast-with-two-backs brand of metaphor that is reminiscent of Patrick Lane`s early poems, but this is not done to evoke B-movie ketchup-and-thigh images. Instead these poems lay bare the gruesome and complicated business of hope we are all in.