It Takes Life to Love Life

The section of poems entitled “The Journals of Susanna Moodie” would by themselves justify the purchase of Selected Poems 1965-1975. It is based on the life of a famous, to Canadians at least, Canadian pioneer woman() who wrote poetry among other works.

Perhaps that is why the poems in this section remind me so much of Edgar Lee Masters’ masterpiece “Lucinda Matlock,” which succinctly describes the simple life of a woman from an earlier time and challenges the modern reader to be as tough as she was, to not complain about life, and to live life to its fullest.

Margaret Atwood unflinchingly looks at life though the eyes of Susanna Moodie, a pioneer woman who did seem to live life to the fullest when many others crumbled under the circumstances. The poem “The Double Voice” presents the two sides of Susanna Moodie shown in this section:


Two voices
took turns using my eyes:

One had manners,
painted in watercolours,
used hushed tones when speaking
of mountains or Niagara Falls,
composed uplifting verse
and expended sentiment upon the poor.

The other voice
had other knowledge:
that men sweat
always and drink often,
that pigs are pigs
but must be eaten
anyway, that unborn babies
fester like wounds in the body,
that there is nothing to be done
about mosquitoes;

One saw through my
bleared and gradually
bleaching eyes, red leaves,
the rituals of seasons and rivers

The other found a dead dog
jubilant with maggots
half-buried among the sweet peas.

The remarkable thing, of course, is that, as “civilized” men and women we want to forget, we, too, have these two sides. Hopefully, we all have the cultural side that seeks out plays, novels, poems, or paintings to satisfy one aspect of our soul. However, we also have to recognize what is sometimes referred to as the “dark side,” but also might justifiably be referred to simply as the “tough side,” the side that allows us to survive in a hard world where our children die before us and men are broken by the hardships and demands of life.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that in a world that demanded such toughness to survive, Susanna Moodie found the time and made the effort to create works of art, to preserve the beauty that seems to be as much a part of the human soul as the desire to survive itself.

There are many poems in this section worth discussing and quoting, but I found “Charivari” the most moving, and it fits well with the ideas discussed in the poem cited above:


‘They capped their heads with feathers, masked
their faces, wore their clothes backwards, howled
with torches through the midnight winter

and dragged the black man from his house
to the jolting music of broken
instruments, pretending to each other

it was a joke, until
they killed him. I don’t know
what happened to the white bride.’

The American lady, adding she
thought it was a disgraceful piece
of business, finished her tea.

(Note: Never pretend this isn’t
part of the soil too, tea drinkers, and inadvertent
victims and murderers, when we come this way

again in other forms, take care
to look behind, within
where the skeleton face beneath

the face puts on its feather mask, the arm
within the arm lifts up the spear:
Resist those cracked
drumbeats. Stop this. Become human.)

This poem which starts with what appears to be a shivaree, a celebration of marriage in good fun, suddenly and dramatically turns into a display of racism at its worst. These men aren’t just dressed in “savage” costumes, they are savages, of the worst kind. They kill a man because he crosses the color line, in a country American blacks fled to because it wasn’t supposed to have a color line. The image of “jolting music of broken instruments” beautifully conveys the breakdown of “civilization,” the proper accompaniment for a lynching. The subtlety of the next line, the one that reveals the racial motive, “I don’t know what happened to the white bride” is nearly as dramatic as the juxtaposed image of the American lady ironically engaged in the British habit of drinking tea commenting that it was “a disgraceful piece of business.”

The poem serves as a reminder that this violence is a part of heritage, perhaps part of our very nature, and we have to work to resist “those cracked drumbeats” of our savage forefathers. Until we do, we cannot become fully “human.”

We like to believe that we are “civilized,” that we see life through the same eyes as the artist or the creator, but unless we are conscious of our true nature we end up joining in a riot celebrating a football victory or a drinking party gone wrong. Worst of all, we allow racism to justify blowing up a wedding party of Israelis or we kill an innocent Arab at a gas station because they killed our people September 11th.

“Stop this. Become human.” Perhaps that’s all you can really say.

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