Thursday, December 7, 2017

Museum of Kindness - Susan Elmslie (Brick Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Museum of Kindness.  Susan Elmslie.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  2017.

And what if I did run my ship aground;
oh, still it was splendid to sail it!
                                                                                                 Henrik Ibsen

Those are the words Susan Elmslie wants us to consider before opening the door on her Museum of Kindness.  Well Ibsen is a real Crackerjack by any standards and Today's book of poetry loves Henrik's quote.  Close enough to our world view that we would tattoo it somewhere.

Today's book of poetry has worked in several museums including the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian War Museum.  But we've never been in a museum like this.  By the time you're finished reading about Elmslie's Museum Today's book of poetry is convinced you will agree that both your time and your money was well spent.  Enthusiastically.

The Museum of Kindness is built out of the blocks of human toil, suffering and joy, the blocks of human experience both good and bad.  This museum has many rooms.  In some of them Elmslie's poems are taking on the fight against cancer, in another the battleground is the health of a child.  Having a healthy child is a generally safe assumption when you are having a child.  That's the way it is until you are on the other side of it.  Elmslie's poems struggle the human struggle, create empathy in the search for the same.

School Shooting

          Dawson College, September 13, 2006

          for my daughter

When shots blanched the corridors and a small throng
of students and another teacher crouched on my office floor,
some under desks, some receiving calls or text-messages
until I commanded, "Turn off phones in case they give us away,"
there was an instant, between the first shot that ruptured the silence
and our release by the SWAT team that chalked an x on my door,
that I met the dark eyes of the girl nearest me and beheld
you--and knew whatever happened to me it'd be
all right, your dad, harrowed, would raise you, I'd live
in memory, fading with time, all right. I felt
from one side what looked like faith and,
from the other, unforgivable: I could go
true as a tree felled by lightning.
Not as one who parts seas but as one who splits,
child of a God who seems to have abandoned us perfectly,
and can do no wrong.


I can tell you there is a static silence
between reports of a gun; bullets

pierce drywall; we were too afraid to move
a filing cabinet to block the door;

when the smooth-jawed SWAT officer
ordered me to hold it open for my students

then swung around to cover my back I felt
his core hot and trembling through Kevlar.


The Museum of Kindness takes a close look at what happens during a school shooting--and what comes afterwards.  The rest of the world loses much meaning when the bullets are flying and you are under a desk.  Susan Elmslie takes the reader where you've never been and gives you lots to think about.

Having said all that, and some of the other difficult subjects Elmslie handles with alacrity, she does have a very good sense of humour hidden in a dark, dark place.  She lets it come out to play from time to time in the hallways and backrooms of the Museum of Kindness.

Today's book of poetry had Milo, our head tech, check the stacks to see what else we had on hand by Susan Elmslie.  Milo came back with three previous titles. When Your Body Takes To Trembling (Cranberry Tree Press, 1996), I, Nadja (above/ground press, 2000) and I, Nadja, and Other Poems (Brick Books, 2006).  Today's book of poetry has been aware of Elmslie for a while.  We're very happy to report that in our opinion Museum of Kindness is a landmark title for Elmslie.  

When you can write gems like "To Mark the Day I Saw I Could Slip This Skin" and then repeat the process repeatedly for an entire book you are entering special territory.  Splendid, just splendid.

To Mark the Day I Saw I Could Slip This Skin

          for Billy

"That's impossible," I sneered at my brother, one
Saturday spent bantering in front of the TV.

The remark that sparked such incredulity in me
is lost to the darning pile of memory,

along with my sundry worn-out resentments from 
growing up the scrawny four-eyed baby of the family.

Though I do clearly remember his reply,
sing-song, prepackaged: "Nothing's impossible,"

in a tone somewhere between Mom's pep talk
and the mischief-nicked baritone of Jack Palance

hosting Ripley's Believe It or Not.
I had to bite:

"Some things are. A snake driving a car."
I thought I had him, but he didn't skip a beat,

he pointed at the TV, which was showing a cartoon.
And without a thread of triumph, impossibly cool,

he said, "Look," just as a snake hopped into a car,
coiled about the steering wheel and sped out of sight.


This morning's read followed a light dusting of snow here in Ottawa.  As Christmas nears you can see children looking skyward trying to bargain for snow.  The Today's book of poetry staff ate the Museum of Kindness like they were kids visiting their first museum.  Everything looks grand.  The gang read through these poems like they were opening presents.  And in a sense they were - Elmslie really has bargained with some higher/alien God because this book shines even when the poems grow dark.

The Worst

          Then was all care at an end, and they lived in great joy together.
          --The Brothers Grimm

What you thought you couldn't endure
you lived through and something else
became the worst--all at once
or in increments. The worst telescopes,
may be happiest in the future, barely
detectable, like a shadow on the lung
below the whorl and grain of ultrasound.

We learn that hubris connects Sisyphus and schlep.
In Greek mythology we say nemesis.
In therapy we say lifestyle and rock bottom.
An anagram for ruined is inured.
The waxed doorknobs of semantics!

How do we get a handle on the worst
when it's a moving target, always beyond
the baldly conceivable and
unimaginable--beyond lynchings
and postcards of lynchings?
It must be that there are more worsts
than ways to parse them:
the personal and the collective, the local
and the global, and the worst is where
they overlap. I think of that
bus in New Delhi and can't think.
What pill blurs the mismatch
between our need for meaning
and our inability to find it?

When what feels like the worst happens
to us, I wish us an eye
of oblivion that we can enter
like a licked thread
and somebody ties the knot.

A pendulum swinging to and fro
between boredom and pain,
is what Schopenhauer thought.

What if the worst,
rather than always receding
like the mirage of water on the road ahead,
is more like a threshold
so what we thought was the worst is
only an opening?


As good as Museum of Kindness is, and it is very, very good, Today's book of poetry sees now that Susan Elmslie has entered Sue Goyette, Julie Bruck territory.  This is stratified and rare air stuff.  

Today's book of poetry thought Susan Elmslie's Museum of Kindness was so fine we were reluctant to leave.

Susan Elmslie

Susan Elmslie’s first trade collection of poetry, I, Nadja, and Other Poems (Brick, 2006), won the A.M. Klein Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the McAuslan First Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Award, and a ReLit Award. Her poems have also appeared in several journals and anthologies—including the Best Canadian Poetry in English (2008, 2015)—and were collected in a prize-winning chapbook, When Your Body Takes to Trembling (Cranberry Tree, 1996). She lives in Montreal and teaches English literature and creative writing at Dawson College. Museum of Kindness is her second poetry collection.

“… These poems are so acute, so clear-eyed in their brutal wisdom, that I had to put the book down to rest between poems, like a woman in labor, entirely wrung out…. a masterpiece of loss transformed by love into some of the most greathearted, lyrically daring poems I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. ” 
     — Rachel Rose

“Susan Elmslie has written a remarkable collection. Many of these poems deal with some of the more demanding elements in the lives of women, of mothers. These are poems that will speak to many people with power and dignity and a healing touch.” 
     — Marge Piercy, author of Woman on the Edge of Time

Susan Elmslie
Reads from I, Nadja, and Other Poems
Video: Brick Books



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