Authors: Anne Szumigalski
Tags: #Fiction, #Non-fiction, #Abley, #Szumigalski, #Omnibus, #Governor General's Award, #Poetry, #Collection, #Drama
selected and edited by Mark Abley
© Estate of
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit www.accesscopyright.ca or call toll free to 1-800-893-5777.
In the works of fiction, in this book, names, characters, places, and incidents ei
ther are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Selected and Edited by Mark Abley
Cover Design by David Drummond
Typeset by Susan Buck
Printed and bound in Canada at Imprimerie Gauvin
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Szumigalski, Anne, 1922-
A woman clothed in words / Anne Szumigalski ; edited
by Mark Abley.
I. Abley, Mark, 1955- II. Title.
PS8587.Z44W58 2012 C818'.54 C2012-900049-3
Available in Canada from: Coteau Books,
2517 Victoria Avenue, Regina, Saskatchewan
Canada S4P 0T2
Coteau Books gratefully acknowledges the financial support of its publishing program by: the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Government of Canada through The Canada Book Fund.
Anne Szumigalski died in 1999, and a year later Hagios Press published a book of her prose fables,
Fear of Knives.
In 2006 a collection of posthumous poems,
When Earth Leaps Up,
appeared from Brick Books, and in 2010 Signature Editions came out with
A Peeled Wand,
a modest volume of selected poems. Why in the world, you might be wondering, would Coteau want to publish yet another posthumous book? Shouldn’t the woman be allowed to rest in peace?
It’s a legitimate question. Anne played a crucial part in the growth of Saskatchewan’s literary culture and its wider artistic community, and I trust most readers of Canadian poetry would agree that she was a talented, original writer. But she was not so important a poet that all of her utterances, all of her first drafts, all of her attempts to breathe life into words need to appear in print. That’s what archives are for. If Anne chose to publish none of these writings in book form, does this final volume deserve to exist?
Here are a few reasons why it does.
The first is that it offers, as no previous book has done, a panoramic overview of Anne Szumigalski’s career – her writing life through four decades. Her debut collection,
Woman Reading in Bath,
was so polished, so accomplished, that it gave no hint of the struggles Anne had endured as a writer. It appeared in 1974, when she was over fifty; by the time her second collection came out, she was nearly sixty. Some of the poems for which she is best remembered are the harvest of her old age. But her accomplishment was hard won. Like so many writers, Anne had long struggled to find and fine-tune her voice. The poems published in the first section of this book may not always be successful, but they are always interesting – and the interest derives partly from the hard labour they reveal. The disappointments and false starts that she suffered made
Woman Reading in Bath
She did not always write as “Anne Szumigalski.” As a child she was Nancy Davis (informally) or Anne Howard Davis (officially). When she began to send poems to Canadian magazines at the beginning of the 1960s, she called herself “A. Szumigalski,” feeling, I assume, that male editors would be more likely to accept her work if they believed she was a man. “M. Atwood” did the same. The strategy worked: two letters survive from Milton Wilson, the managing editor of
in 1961, accepting the poems of “Mr. Szumigalski.” The third time her work appeared in the Montreal magazine
the editor, Louis Dudek, wrote a patronizing comment informing his readers that A. Szumigalski “is a woman. Owes her name to a Polish spouse…. No relation to Sarah Binks.” Anne published nothing in
after that. The typescript of “The Pit” shows that she entered it in a literary competition under the name “Howard Davis.”
The handwritten notes on these early poems tell a story of imaginative hardship and artistic isolation. As a housewife and mother of four, living in a cramped house in an unfashionable neighbourhood of Saskatoon, she fought to maintain a sense of herself as a poet – someone whose work might, in the end, find readers. “Sent in for lit competition. No luck,” says a scribbled note on “Theo’s Mother.” “No-one likes this either,” she wrote above another poem – “nor I.” Anne never took success as a writer for granted. Even in her last years, after she had won a host of awards, she gained sustenance from writers’ groups. The affirmation she earned by workshopping her poems helped her develop as a poet in the late ’60s and early ’70s; so did the stringent criticisms. She thrived on both friendship and contention.
Anne liked to identify herself as a “prairie poet,” but many pieces in this book suggest that the role did not come naturally to her. She worked to master it. In her imagery, her cultural references and her use of language, her early Canadian poems are still thoroughly English. Unpublished work alludes to Highgate Hill and Charing Cross Road, in the evident hope that her readers, if any, will understand the London references. Admittedly “Three Facets of the Poet’s Dilemma” mentions a dollar, not a pound, and talks about ice splitting a river in spring. But it also contains phrases like “the count was got up as Christ,” “if you were to stop” and “I’d better make haste,” revealing the deep Englishness of Anne’s voice.
Only gradually do the prairies take over her imagination and her language – “Lion in the Salt Mine,” probably her first attempt to ground a poem in the Saskatchewan landscape, contains an inexplicable lion and a British “blasted.” By the mid-1970s, when she was writing poems about her father’s death, her voice and most of her settings had become those of a prairie writer. Yet “On Being a Stranger” (published in the 1988 book
includes the admission that “I am truly a stranger, not quite/At home anywhere. /Always some part of me/Away in another country.”
A State of Grace,
a tantalizingly unfinished novel, takes place in the dreamt-of England of Anne’s youth. But one of its characters imagines himself as a kingbird, and kingbirds fly only through the Western hemisphere.
A further reason why I think this book is necessary: it gives rich and perhaps surprising proof of the variety of forms in which Anne worked. Of course she was a poet before all else. But as long ago as 1974 the dust-jacket of
Woman Reading in Bath
declared that “she is currently at work on a collection of short stories,” and beginning in the early 1980s, prose would infiltrate and enrich all her books of poetry. Indeed the volume for which she won the Governor-General’s Award for poetry is largely made up of prose, some of it excerpted from her novel-in-progress. In her last decade she completed a memoir
(The Word, the Voice, the Text)
and a play
and spent a good deal of time translating theatre pieces from Catalan and Dutch.
A Woman Clothed in Words
includes that never-completed novel along with a text for dance, an unfinished play, a children’s fable, excerpts from a radical liturgy, several essays, and a few pieces that straddle the disputed border between prose poem and short story.