Taking its title from the 1985 movie about a housewife who gets amnesia and is mistaken for a drifter, Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang’s anthology charts the wildly diverse lives, experiences, and perspectives of Canadian poets exclusively called “Susan”. Like the movie, the collection is constantly asking questions and trying to discover (or rediscover) identities, both in terms of the individuals poets, and in terms of Canadian women’s poetry in general. It’s an unusual but fitting premise for an anthology, especially when you take into consideration that the Susans (and Sues, Suzies, and Siouxs) featured have won just about every Canadian literary award there is, from the Gerald R. Lampert to the coveted Governor General’s. It seriously got me questioning whether there was a correlation between a person’s poetic sensibility and their name, and if there was, that perhaps I should think about changing my own.
A number of the poets have already blazed their way into the Canadian poetry scene and pioneered its direction including Susan Musgrave, Sue Sinclair, Susan Glickman, Sue Goyette, and Susan Elmslie. I was not disappointed at the poems they brought which fluctuated through meditations on everything from death and sickness to the role of children in their lives to the private mythologies of a litchi fruit. Every voice in the book comes from a place of honesty and is authentic in its ‘desperation’ to fully grasp the importance or significance of the daily nuances they encounter. There’s a gathering wisdom that draws out of itself and tries to see itself through a reflection, and in doing so often arrives at a place that is both lonely and accommodating of that loneliness, like Goyette’s poem that ends “every step you’ve taken, every long shadow, each appears briefly to bow before entering”.
This is a collection that is unapologetic in its exploration of the feminine as a means of triangulating the expectations and experiences of mothers, daughters, lovers, and thinkers alike and is constantly renewing the definition of what it means to be a woman. The definition is an organic one. We feel what they feel, but without circumscribing a protocol of behaviour – Elmslie’s poem about breast cancer feels darkly humorous, and because we don’t know how to feel we understand the humour in her metaphors as the character’s only means of coping with something so overwhelming.
Although I really appreciated the simplicity of Tsiang’s ideas for an anthology of only Susans, I did question the format which separated the poems into four chapters whose title’s were different variation of Susan (Sue, Suzanne, etc.). I couldn’t understand the decision, since there didn’t seem to be any underlying theme or connective narrative to tie all the different poem and poets together. On one hand I felt like it might have allowed for a stronger coherence across the collection if all the poems by a single poet were put together (as per convention, but convention is more exciting when it’s subverted). On the other hand, having the poet’s works peppered throughout gave the impression of a conversation between all the different Susans, which imbued it with its own internal narrative pattern. A poem by Stenson, for example, might seem to respond or work off of the emotion or topic held in a previous poem by MacLeod.
Regardless of my finicky criticism of the structural layout of Desperately Seeking Susans, I was all but utterly enchanted by the range of talent and content, as well as multiplicity of poetic forms, that Tsiang managed to bring together into one unified piece of work. More than that, being a poet and having seen a number of these woman read their own work, I felt like an anthology of this nature has a crucial role to play in bringing a strong feminist voice to the forefront of Canadian poetry. One of my favourite (and at this stage in my life, most trusted) credos is that “poetry is inherently political”. By that standard, Desperately Seeking Susans is proclaiming something about women in Canadian culture, and we owe it to ourselves to listen.