Margaret Atwood's poetic reimagining of the hardscrabble life of Susanna Moodie, a British settler who emigrated to Canada in the 1830s, is vivid unto itself. It groups Moodie's experiences into three sets of poems: the first covers her arrival in Canada and primitive subsistence on a farm near what became Peterborough, Ontario, the second covers her somewhat more civilized existence in the town of Belleville, and the third is actually a posthumous set of reflections that concludes with her spirit inhabiting that of an old woman on a bus travelling along St Clair Avenue in Toronto in the late 1960s. Throughout, Atwood gives Moodie a grittier and more emotional voice than what comes through in Moodie's prim accounts in "Roughing it in the Bush" and her subsequent memoirs.
While Atwood's poetic account of Moodie's adventures and experiences is vibrant by itself, it is further enhanced and animated by the typographic and graphical innovations of artist Charles Pachter, a longtime friend and collaborator of Atwood's. Interestingly, Atwood and Pachter originally applied for a grant in 1970 to allow him to design a special edition of the collection of poems, but the application was turned down by the Canada Council. Atwood went ahead and got the poems published by Oxford University Press, but she and Pachter held onto the hope that they could one day collaborate on a more fully realized rendition incorporating his ideas and work. Several years later, the University of Toronto Library financed a venture that saw Pachter and two Spanish master printers, Abel and Manuel Bello-Sanchez, bring Atwood's poems to life in a 120-copy limited edition that combined complex silkscreening, calligraphic and typographical effects. In the early 1980s, examples of this unique work were exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada. By the early 1990s, it had also been translated into French.
Finally, in 1997, an edition was produced capturing the original text and graphics, with an account by Charles Pachter and a foreword by noted University of Ottawa English professor David Staines. This edition effectively encapsulates the history and collective heft of this work, and puts it in context with Staines' enthusiastic framing of the work as a uniquely Canadian livre d'artiste. Topping it all off is Pachter's ebullient account of being inspired by the genius of his friend Margaret Atwood to produce a work of genius of his own, to which the poems are inextricably linked.
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