You're In Canada Now: A Memoir of Sorts

by Susan Musgrave
256 pages,
ISBN: 1894345959

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She Made Her Bed in Canada
by Gordon Phinn

Thirty odd years ago I essayed the poetry of Susan Musgrave and found it wanting. It wasn't, I might add, an uncommon experience in those days, when small publishers the country over, flush with arts council monies, were pumping out volume after volume of unremarkable and derivative verse. A creative fervour was in the air, and certainly with the exemplary lyrics of Cohen, Newlove, McEwan, and Purdy decorating the forecourt, some could clearly envision a temple of CanLit under construction.
Unfortunately, the rampant cultural nationalism of the day effectively throttled any meaningful critical dialogue, leaving us with the evil twins of thematic criticism and CanLit boosterism. The product was mediocrity above and beyond the call of duty. When I wasn't devouring the American and British stars of the day (in bed, at night, with the door firmly closed), I turned to fiction for a reprieve from all that snow, alienation and the deeds of the dastardly male. Even the first couple of novels by the then unknown Carol Shields offered relief.
Musgrave's contribution to all this, in fresh retrospect, still seems very much a poetry of poses struck and attitudes adopted. It roils with pretension, gratuitous violence, and the tiresome conjunction of sexual activity and death. Witches and their craft are oft alluded to. Graves are wont to beckon. The stanzas themselves are cloaked in that spooky black fabric so favoured by those mystery girls in high school with the heavy eyeliner and pale faces. Or else they strive to replicate the turmoil of that dark Atwoodian universe so familiar to readers of '70s Canadian verse. The gruesome allure of sudden violence stalks the pages. This is a world where skulls wink, animals couple with humans in howling winds, and men are only to be quickly married and then buried, in case they roar off to war or some other extracurricular activity.
In the earliest verse (the publication of which was eased, we now find out, by Robin Skelton, whose children she babysat) one can forgive the overdoses of teenage melodrama ("she is mistress of nettles/tearing her eyes in the dark to find/her blood run wild with knives"), but moving not so quickly to maturity (using 1991's selected The Embalmer's Art as guide) one finds one's youthful judgement to be not so far off the mark. Certainly that era's unchecked torrent of feminist cant resulted in embarassingly bad writing from many mature sources who should have known better, but caught up in the heady rush, forgot to strap on their bullshit detectors. Perhaps singling out Musgrave for the gaffes of a generation is unfair. Admittedly, some of the later verse, though still obsessive about blood and graves, is tempered by observations about the ironies born of just getting by in the real world. Still, one continues to feel keenly the careless movement over that fine line between exploring the dark side and rubbing the reader's face in it; Musgrave slips over a bit too often for my taste.
Fortunately, at some point Musgrave took up journalism and the insistent demands of the genre jostled the poseur right out of the writer, leaving us with someone, who is just beginning, at this late stage, to jettison her youthful tendencies and explore her talents¨humour being one them. And when it isn't serving as a mask for her free-floating ire, it's most welcome. Welcome To Canada is her third volume of columns and essays, follwing Great Musgrave and Musgrave Landing. Like its predecessors, it is a diverting collection with perhaps half a dozen pieces destined for at least a measure of posterity. The column genre, while impudent and entertaining, rarely transcends its court jester status.
Given her residence on the Queen Charlotte Islands there's the usual measure of Left Coast grooviness, as if the rest of us couldn't suspend trading activity long enough to embrace a beautiful sunset or admire clouds scudding across a blue sky. I've been listening to half-baked broadsides on the moral and aesthetic superiority of rural poverty for decades now, and I've come to the conclusion that the argument is hogwash. Rusty pick-ups, cantankerous wood stoves, drafty damp domiciles, and scarcity of any but the most basic of consumer goods does not, per se, elevate one to either genius or sainthood.
The aesthetic template for the modern female columnist was established by Erma Bombeck, whose daffy tales of domestic woe charmed the stay-at-home moms of the '60s and '70s, eventually making titles like The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank instantly recognisable. Her columns, most of them still available in book form, may seem ever so quaint and dated now to our new millenium ears and eyes, and yet recent local collections such as Patricia Pearson's Area Woman Blows Gasket (2005) reveal just how little the genre has actually evolved over the past two decades. The references may be more literary, and the horror more prickly and surreal, but the well-to-do Anglo-Saxon territory of domestic tribulations is still clearly defined. A way forward has been charted by the fearless Heather Mallick, whose 2004 pillow book Pearls In Vinegar really takes the lid off, well, just about anything that needs its lid removed.
Musgrave falls somewhere in the middle, neither tamed by a domesticity nor truly challenged by the world's dance of inchoate demands. When poisoning the homey charm of Christmas with heroin, or blaming hubby's reincarceration on her daughters' jibes, she appears to subvert the polite parameters of the genre, but as these accumulate they take on the form of an extended rant, the wild remonstations of a tigress pacing the cage's perimeter. Except that the cage is entirely self-constucted. Her other half, obviously fancying herself as a smart Dorothy Parker-ish ironist, cannot seem to cut loose from the genre's typical curmudgeonly clatter, and we are left with hastily manufactured wit, jottings for quick returns, where the whole is significantly less than the sum of its parts, and whatever enjoyment is initially derived quickly palls on the shelf.
There are a handful of more sustained meditations and some lovely recollections of writer-friends (Skelton, Purdy, Bisset) . These are deeply considered, well worked essays in search of a spiritual autobiography, one of an iconoclastic wiccan nature no doubt, but certainly one that could stand proudly beside Annie Dillard's Pilgrim At Tinker Creek and Teaching A Stone To Talk: Expeditions and Encounters.
Returning to the title, on the front cover is displayed You're In Canada Now: a Memoir Of Sorts. On the back and elsewhere, we're given "You're In Canada Now Motherfucker." This, it turns out, is the arresting statement of an RCMP officer to a fleeing American drug smuggler (as it is later revealed to the author in the midst of her abortive love affair on the run with the drug smuggler). Musgrave has always been fond of outrage as a tactic, but at this stage in her career, such teenage rebel yelling slips from the tendentious to the merely tedious.
Musgrave is notorious for marrying, right there in the hoosegow, the junkie bank robber Stephen Reid, who, after some years of law-abiding marriage, is now once again behind bars for further drug-induced pistol-firing antics inside a financial institution. Musgrave is not the first woman unable to resist the allure of the rakish outlaw, but I suspect she's the first Canadian to write about it so unrelentingly. She rails at everything but her own foolishness. Is this the passive female of a traditional family, striking out at the role repression and lunging for the heroic myth of romantic obsession? Given Rosemary Sullivan's biopsy of that particular psychic tumour in Labyrinths Of Desire (2001), and Musgrave's mention of "bone-handled flatware handed down from William the Conqueror," I'd be inclined to say yes.
Musgrave's life has been fraught with the type of peril and insecurity one would expect, and while the author is entitled to evoke its stresses and strains, her hard-done-by hectoring will not win her any new friends from the ranks of the law abiding and steadily employed. And as rueful mothers are wont to say, she has made her bed and she should lie in it. That she now moves in a direction of greater subtlety and complexity is evidenced by her most recent novel Cargo Of Orchids, an impassioned and evocative plea on behalf of impoverished innocents caught up in the parallel universe of, guess what, drug smuggling. One hopes that this initiative will soon be carried over to her non-fiction. ˛

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