I went to pick up a couple of things at the library (I know, I know, don't tell me off, the TBR 'pile' is now two piles and a few stray ones loitering under the bed) and had the very briefest of brief browses at the poetry shelf, and came away with 'The Journals of Susanna Moodie' by Margaret Atwood. The back cover describes this as "haunting meditations on an English gentlewoman's confrontation with the wilderness", and I certainly could not have put it better. I was drawn to the book by the description on the back, that these poems are based around the life and experiences of Susanna Moodie, who emigrated with her husband to Canada in 1832, and wrote her own account of her experiences in a book entitled 'Roughing it in the Bush'. While Atwood has obviously drawn on her writings the poems themselves are her own extrapolation of Susanna's account, including reflections from beyond the grave on the progress of 'civilization'.
While I have read many of Margaret Atwood's novels I have not read any of her poetry before, and I really loved it. While I must confess to having a somewhat sanitised and naive view of frontier life, based mostly on watching 'Little House on the Prairie', I can appreciate that this was going to be very much life in the raw, and the poems do not pull their punches, the harsh realities are all there, very evocatively drawn. I think that although I have not read Susanna's books I found that the poems drew me right in to her life, the sense of how hard it was and her mixed emotions about being in such an unfamiliar environment. Atwood write a neat little 'afterword' that gives some interesting background to Susanna's story. (I find myself writing 'she' but what I mean is these are the words/thoughts/emotions that Atwood has attributed to Susanna.)
The first few poems are about their arrival and a total sense of alienation. The first (Disembarking at Quebec) ends with the words, "I am a word in a foreign language." and the second (Further Arrivals) says, "We left behind one by one/ the cities rotting with cholera/ one by one our civilized / distinctions/ and entered a large darkness./ It was our own/ ignorance we entered." In 'First Neighbours' she describes the difficulties of being accepted by the locals (even though most of them would have been immigrants too), how she says and does stupid things, but my favourite line is, "Finally I grew a chapped tarpaulin skin". I loved the image of her body physically 'toughening up', even though emotionally she was still so scared by it all. In 'The Two Fires' she describes a forest fire and a fire that destroys their home, you get a real sense of their vulnerability, but then also her determination not to be beaten, "Two fires informed me/ (each refuge fails/ us; each danger/ becomes a haven)/ left charred marks/ now around which I/ try to grow."
In the second section of the book the family have moved to Belville (where her husband is sheriff) and they live in relative comfort and safety. In 'The Immigrants' she witnesses the arrival of more immigrants and seems to feel rather ambivalent towards them, both scorn and pity:
"They carry their carpetbags and trunks
with clothes, dishes, and family pictures;
they think they will make an order
like the old one, sow miniature orchards,
carve children and flocks out of wood
but always they are too poor"
Death was more immediate and more commonplace, and the poem 'Death of a young son by drowning' is almost cold, as if she is too weary to grieve. "They retrieved the swamped body,/ cairn of my plans and future charts,/ with poles and hooks/ from among the nudging logs." And it ends, "I planted him in this country like a flag." Ageing and death are ongoing themes in many of the poems, particularly in the final section. It is obviously something that preoccupied Susanna, in several of them she observes regretfully her ageing body.
She also has ambivalent feelings about their life in the bush, feeling as if she has not adapted to it, feeling angry about the hardship she endured. In 'Thoughts from Underground' (reflections from the grave here) she says:
"In winter our teeth were brittle
with cold. We fed on squirrels.
at night the house cracked.
In the mornings, we thawed
the bad bread over the stove.
Then we were made successful
and I felt I ought to love
I said I loved it
and my mind was double."
While she is bitter about their tough life she is at the same time scornful of the privilege that she lived with in later life, seeming angry at the juxtaposition of the two halves. In 'Later in Belleville: Career' she says:
"Now every day
I sit on a stuffed sofa
in my own fringed parlour, have
uncracked plates (from which I eat
and a china teaset."
To finish here is my favourite poem of the collection. I like it because it is all about her sense of belonging and her relationship with the environment, how it tried to force her to be part of it, to absorb her. The language is so subtle, much is left unsaid, there is a real feeling of her consciousness being crept up on, but that whatever 'genteel' background she may have come from resisted this assimilation. (It is laid out slightly differently in the book that I cannot reproduce accurately, I am not sure how this impacts on the reading or meaning of the words.) I certainly came away having learnt something from this book.
Departure from the Bush
I, who had been erased
by fire, was crept in
upon by green
lucid the season)
In time the animals
arrived to inhabit me,
by one, stealthily
(their habitual traces
having marked new boundaries
by year, two
but restless: I was not ready
altogether to be moved into
They could tell I was
too heavy: I might
I was frightened
by their eyes (green or
amber) glowing out from inside me
I was not completed; at night
I could not see without lanterns.
He wrote, We are leaving. I said
I have no clothes
left I can wear
The snow came. The sleigh was a relief;
its track lengthened behind,
pushing me towards the city
and rounding the first hill, I was
unlived in: they had gone.
There was something they almost taught me
I came away not having learned.