Tarts and Muggers: Poems New and Selected
Maggie Helwig was a freelance writer and Professor of Pre-Industrial Arts, UPRPU, Peterborough, Ontario.
Since she began to publish at the age of 18 Susan Musgrave has held a recognized position in Canadian poetry — our own enfant terrible, the young woman with the awful visions of darkness. Her recent collection, Tarts and Muggers, however, raises the question of whether a recognized position is necessarily a significant one.
Tarts and Muggers is not arranged chronologically — an unusual step which may frustrate the academic but which gives the poetry a unified movement of theme and mood uncommon in a book of this nature. It also allows an important observation: it is very difficult to distinguish Musgrave’s earlier poems from her later ones.
All centre on the same themes of dismemberment, burial, cannibalism, and a deadly struggle between the sexes. All share the imagery of walking corpses, bloody hearts, bones, mats, ghosts. The sea is always something in which people drown, the forest someplace they are murdered. Musgrave seems to have been having and writing about the same bad dream for the last 13 years.
Admittedly, she writes about it powerfully; she evokes terror with a polished skill that is quite her own. But Musgrave is no longer 18 and it seems about time she learned to extend her gift into other areas. The very few poems in which she attempts some affirmation fall flat through simple lack of energy. Once, indeed, in “Requiem for Talunkwan Island,” she moves beyond the somewhat self-centred orbit of most of her poetry to create a magnificent apocalyptic vision that portrays a death on levels individual, national (in the destruction of the Haida people), and universal, but even so, it does not pass beyond a towering negation.
We need visions of negation, perhaps. We need our Cassandras. But I suspect if Cassandra had not died young, she would have run out of doom to prophesy and gotten very boring. I hope the same will not be said of Musgrave.