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Reviews

Quill & Quire, November 1997
Selected Poems: 1978-1997. Patrick Lane. Reviewed from unbound galleys
In this 20-year retrospective of Patrick Lane's work, readers are given a selection that tends toward sentimental morbidity at its most poetic. While he is celebrated for his pioneering work in West Coast poetry circles and for his wanderer's spirit, we get very little of Lane as the multifaceted writing professional. Instead, the book is tightly focused on a way of thinking, returning again and again to poems in which Lane travels ever-darker paths to murky conclusions.

The book opens with the image of a dead dog in a field and the eerie sense that this is, in some way, a death to be wished for:

The poor, the broken people, the endless suffering
we are heir to, given to desire and gaining little.
To fold the arms across the breast and fly
into ourselves. That painless darkness. . .

The journey that follows is dotted here and there with exactly these kinds of disturbing, satisfying images; an animal skull unearthed, the severed hand of a logger clutching at moonlight, a child's beating at the hands of his father seen as a kind of communion, farm boys raping a calf, hints of murder and ritualistic torture.

Despite the surface ugliness of Lane's material, the work shows a fierce and assured talent. He digs under his own stories to get at the kind of veracity only an interesting life can uncover. One can't help but see the poet himself in these scenes, observing, participating, suffering. The voice of these lines knows too much of the hidden details of what others might assume is the truth. For instance:

That was the year my wife slept with my best friend. . .
The wreckage of that world stayed wreckage, though
we tried to build it back. The steady years of trying,
her taking the flowers I picked in the fields
and placing them in a jar where we watched them die.

In the end, this is a collection determined by sex and death and the place where the two come together. It is territory Lane has travelled, and it shows.
-John Degen, Quill & Quire

Prairie Fire Review
PATRICK LANE'S NEW BOOK OF POEMS SPANS two decades of his poetry. The book is composed of selections from six of his previous books of poetry and is divided into six sections, each titled with the name of a previous book. Selections from The Measure (1981), Old Mother (1983), and Selected Poems (1987), comprise about a third of the book. Emphasis is upon selections from his three most recent books: Winter (1990), Mortal Remains (1991) and Too Spare Too Fierce (1995).

Selected Poems: 1977-1997 provides a satisfying representation of the oeuvre of Patrick Lane. It also provides the reader with the pleasure of experiencing the deepening consciousness and versification of a remarkable Canadian poet. Reading Selected Poems underscores my sense of Patrick Lane as a poet who has a deep clarity about what is important in the mysteries of living. Many of these poems, such as "Night," "The Desert," "Balsam Root" and "Far North," convey Lane's intimate experience of solitude. Out of this experience comes a palpable empathy for the interconnectedness and fragile beauty of life as evident in "The Measure," "Chinook," "The Beauty" and "Moths."


Through the decades of his poetry, the seeds of this consciousness have grown and deepened in tandem with the mastery of his craft. With the clarity and acute awareness of a Buddhist monk he often writes poems about the violence that happens when a sense of the respect for the interconnectedness of life is broken, as in "The Far Field," "The Killer,' "Knotted Water," "Cougar," "The Calf" and "China White." He writes poignantly of the violence perpetrated upon the working class, as cogs in capitalist production, in "Just Living" and "The Happy Little Towns."

The first poem of the book, "The Measure," opens with an existential question, and closes with the powerful image: "Stark as charred bone / a magpie stuns his tongue against the wind / and the wind steals the rattle of his cry." In another poem in this section, "Just Living," Lane tells the grisly story of a man at work whose hand was cut off by a saw. He gives us a visceral image of the dehumanization of capitalist production in the lines "I thought of the saw and the flesh still / hanging from the teeth. They didn't wash it off, / just let it cook in the cants coming down / off the rig." The poem ends with acerbic understatement of the plight of the working class "but there was no work for a man / with a stump. And Claude, the boss, didn't want him there. You can see why."
The second section of the book consists of four Prairie poems and three China poems from his collection Old Mother. The Prairie poem, "A Red Bird Bearing on His Back an Empty Cup," for Lorna, is a compelling visual and reflective poem, which expresses a deep clarity about what is important in the mysteries of living:

It was almost night when I asked the land to hold in the folds of her bright skin my body, save me from the wind. But I have asked for abstinence before. The sun broke against the land, its death a witness to the thing I found: a red bird bearing on his back an empty cup.

Lane's tenderness and empathy are evident in his China poems. In "Commune Girl," a tired woman "weaves paper thread through the last firecrackers. / There are almost enough. Market day in Huang-chou." She sings, and "[a] young voice joins her from the corner of the room. / Her daughter, because of the moon / and the warm night, is restless and cannot sleep. / Already she is thinking of a man.

The third section of the book contains poems from the new poems section of Selected Poems (1987). These poems express a movement toward a more contemplative verse. In 'The Beauty" Lane asks, ?This too, the beauty / Of the antelope in snow. / Is it enough to say we will / Imagine this and nothing more?" The poem "Night" begins with these reflective lines: "In the bright room where Albinoni's adagio / plays its endless variations, my friends, / the few who know what silence is / and know this music is the pain / Alden Nowlan felt as he stumbled toward death."

The move towards a more contemplative verse is continued in the section from his book Winter, a book that consists of forty-five poems entitled "Winter." In "Winter 7," the subject of an icicle is creatively described as a "bare bone of winter" and as "a small floating rib." "Winter 40" blurs reality and dream as a northern woman finds her dream man "given to her by the snow," and cuts off his fingers, "only these small bones and the twenty-six / teeth for her necklace.

They will be her medicine, something to shake over the bellies of women / in childbirth... How real this dream, the blood on the ice."

The fifth section contains a selection of poems from Mortal Remains, in which Lane writes with extraordinary insight about his father's murder in 1968, and his father's violence towards him, as well as about other terrible events that occurred in the B.C. towns of his youth. "The Far Field" was where Lane was taken by his father to be whipped. Lane writes of his love as a child for a distant and violent father. "I stood there in my bones wanting it not to be / over, wanting what had happened to continue, to go / on and on forever, my father's hands on me. / / It was as if to be broken was love, as if / the beating was a kind of holding..."

Lane uses metaphor brilliantly in "Father" and "The Happy Little Towns" to connect readers more closely to the violence of his father's murder and the violence of working class life. He imagines the bullet exploding in his father's heart as "a broken sail, / the centre suddenly torn and the strong wind rushing / through him, his blood taking him nowhere / at last, his body a whole vessel." In "The Happy Little Town? he juxtaposes the image of butterflies "drinking sweet water with their tongues" and the violence of working class life in which a man views his axe wound causing "a boot full of blood" as "nothing more than the end of a day." This poem ends with Lane, as company medic, stitching him up, "the curved steel needle entering his pale flesh / pulling behind it a thread thin as a butterfly's / tongue, him saying he was sorry, and me knowing / for the first time in my life what that must mean." That a man would apologize for being wounded while at work is a poignant expression of his subservience and disenfranchisement.

Despite the darkness of most of the poems in this section, moments of beauty and light are evident in some of the selections from Mortal Remains, as in the poems "Fragility" and "Dinner." I am glad the unbearably dark poem "Wet Cotton" was not included in this section.

Selected Poems culminates with eighteen poems front Lane's most recent collection, Too Spare Too Fierce. The poems are consistently brilliant visual and aural pieces of profound depth. The writing is marked by the formal control and elegance of a fully empowered voice that has continued to develop over three decades. The first two poems of this final section celebrate solitude in nature and affirm the mystery of life. "The Desert" opens with "How beautiful to rest in such light / a fire brings to the night, a beetle / clambering from beneath a stone, / a jackpine's roots / so deep / they have found the water that will make the wind / come alive in dry branches." In "Balsam Root" the narrator says, "I had gone into those hills / to live away from things, a bed alone / under ponderosa pine, the stars / as they were before the cities put them out. / She came walking barefoot on the shale, / some man's daughter, fierce in her choice."

"Knotted Water" and "Wisteria" are about fierce yet understated abuse. A father abuses an infant daughter in "Knotted Water" - "When it was a week old he had kissed it / between the legs, saying he wanted to be the first man / to do that. At three weeks it was dead." In "Wisteria" an old woman endures cruel mistreatment:

You say wisteria and something plunders you, a mouth heavy with blue as if it had spent the morning eating grapes...as if you were speaking to the grandmother you never knew who sat strapped in a chair for the last years of her life asking for fruit from a tree that wasn't there.

The poems "Cougar" and "Far North" are placed side by side in counterpoint to each other. Men gratuitously shoot a cougar from a tree for sport in "Cougar," and "shoot their rifles at the sun" when she falls, while in "Far North" a moose steps "so carefully over a creature / he had never seen before, afraid / that he might waken it, an animal / who had not yet risen from its sleep / into the quiet grace of the light."

Although I would have liked a section of new poems included in this volume, I believe it is well worth the investment, even if you already have the six books from which it is derived. Selected Poems provides an exciting record of the further development of a poet's consciousness and the sureness of his craft. My overall sense of this book is one of resonant depth and a meditative clarity.
-Cloe Cormie


On Patrick Lane:
"Patrick Lane shouldn't just win the Governor General's Award, he should be canonized."
-Geist Magazine

"He's the best poet of his generation."
-Charles Lillard

"Patrick Lane has always walked the thin ice where truth and terror meet with a kind of savage intuition."
-Vancouver Sun