After spending years on high alert, anticipating the worst and attempting to prevent it, Susan Musgrave is learning to live with its aftermath.
The Griffin-nominated poet’s husband, Stephen Reid, and younger daughter, Sophie Musgrave Reid, died within just a few years of each other, the former claimed by a lung infection and heart failure at age 68, the latter by an overdose at 32.
Suddenly they were gone, and with that nightmare realized, they left a yawning hole where her dread once lived.
“Stephen and Sophie living with addiction, you become hypervigilant. You try and keep control of lives that are out of control, so you’re always watching for everything,” Musgrave said by phone from her home on Haida Gwaii.
“I’m waiting for the next catastrophe or waiting for them to die, which they did. I think the worst has happened, and then it hasn’t, because they stay dead.”
Following Reid’s death in 2018, Musgrave moulded her grief into poems. The resulting collection, “Exculpatory Lilies,” was released last year and is now shortlisted for the $130,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, set to be handed out June 7.
Poetry had long been how Musgrave processed the hard parts of her life, serving as a form of therapy. But when her daughter died three years after her husband, Musgrave’s pen dried up and she hasn’t written a poem since.
“It’s almost like I’m afraid to go there,” she said.
That was unusual for Musgrave, who published her first poetry collection at 19 years old. She went on to write 19 more collections, as well as novels, children’s books and cookbooks.
“I like non-fiction and I like poetry because they’re kind of opposites in me,” she said. “One is feeding on the dark and the soulful, and non-fiction I can let myself be funny…. Fiction is somewhere in between.”
She drew on that humour for 2006’s “You’re In Canada Now, Motherf-cker: A Memoir of Sorts.” The essay collection ranges from the political — one piece explores the rhetoric used by Americans to justify war — to the autobiographical.
More than 15 years later, Musgrave said she’s not particularly interested in writing a more traditional memoir, even if her life would make for quite the read.
“It’s hard to think of your life as any kind of great story, because it’s full of doing the mundane, the everyday,” she said.
Still, Musgrave’s life reads like the summary of a TV series that reinvents itself each season. Sony Pictures seems to agree. They bought her life rights.
There is the multi-episode arc set in a Victoria psychiatric ward, where she spent a few months when she was 15. In the season finale, she and a 38-year-old fellow patient, an English professor, escape the facility and run away together to California.
Years later, Musgrave married an English lawyer, but in a later episode she left him for one of his clients— a drug smuggler with whom she moved to Colombia and had her first daughter.
“It was quite dangerous, but I didn’t know it,” she recalled. “It didn’t feel so dramatic at the time. But in retrospect, it was.”
“I think that’s the thing about my life. I live it all. I often go somewhere and have this experience, and at the time, it just seems ordinary.”
After her second husband went to prison and found God, she married Reid, who was then incarcerated for bank robbery. He had sent her an unpublished manuscript and she fell in love first with its protagonist and then with its author.
As a member of the notorious Stopwatch Gang, Reid committed more than 100 robberies in Canada and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.
A year after they wed, Reid was released on parole.
“I thought when Stephen got out of prison we would travel across America robbing banks like Bonnie and Clyde,” Musgrave said. “I’m pretty romantic. And of course, he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to write books.”
He also developed an addiction to heroin and cocaine, and in 1999 — 12 years after he was released from prison — he was arrested for another bank robbery. He remained behind bars until 2015.
They had three more years together.
At around the same time, Musgrave said, the younger of her twodaughters cut drugs for a while and embraced wellness culture — healthy eating, working out. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Musgrave Reid started to struggle, her mother said.
Now Musgrave’s life is quieter.
Most days she wears the same Irish wool sweater and gumboots from the co-op, answers emails in the morning and then goes for walks — sometimes alone, sometimes with friends.
She also stops by Copper Beech House to spend time with the guests. Musgrave owns the century-old home on Haida Gwaii, which has spent nearly half its long life hosting visitors including David Suzuki and Margaret Atwood.
As time goes on, her grief becomes less acute.
“It’s not like you don’t miss the person. But that rawness — the kind of craziness that I felt for a year-and-a-half — has just dissipated,” she said.
She hates the cliché, she said, but time does seem to soften things.
“I’m just starting to get some ideas for poems,” she said. “I’m taking it pretty slowly.”
But writing in this new, quieter version of her life presents its own set of challenges.
Writing poetry demands spending time in one’s head, rather than being in the moment.
Take those daily walks, for instance.
“It’s easier for me to go for a walk and be in my head in a poem that’s set somewhere else, in some other dimension, than it is to pay attention to what’s at my feet,” she said.
She works to counteract those tendencies, gathering berries that grow wild around her home. She looks for spruce tips, too, and collects rocks.
“I have an aspiring Buddhist practice, but it’s very hard to be a Buddhist and a writer. In Buddhism, you don’t necessarily name things. Naming something is separating yourself from it,” Musgrave said.
“But the other part of me that writes of course wants to pin everything down.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2023.
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