Reviewed by Melissa Dalgleish
Washita. Harbour Publishing, 2014.
Hailed by Jane Urquhart as “our most essential poet” and by Lorna Crozier as “a damn fine writer”--a statement that rings true even though Crozier is, as his partner, understandably biased--Patrick Lane is rightly considered one of Canada’s foremost poets. He is also one of its longest serving: his most recent collection, Washita, is his twenty-eighth book of poetry since 1966 and his first in more than seven years.
That those years of service to the Muses are catching up with him, and with his writing, is clear from the outset of Washita, a collection much concerned with time and death. This Lane is not the Lane we once knew. More than two decades ago, Louis Dudek wrote in The Globe and Mail that Lane’s poetry unpleasantly “reeks of blood and carnage, mangled animals and people, and the tone of his voice has the hard reality of an executioner's bark.” Lane pronounces much the same verdict on himself in Washita: “A woman I know spoke to me once of the violence in my life./Your poems are the disfigurement of innocence, she said” (33). But while Lane’s violent outrage and hard reality are still very much present in this most recent collection, they are significantly subdued, considerably contained. The collection is notable, rather, for its tightly wound lines and a restraint that verges almost on constraint.
This is good old physical constraint, however, and not the newer (trendier?) Oulipian. A shoulder injury coupled with his brain’s inability to spatially identify the keys when typing with his left hand meant that while composing Washita Lane had to visually search for each letter before he could write it. The effects of this change in praxis are evident on every page of the collection, particularly in its slow pacing and its meditative tone. It is evident even in the sometimes excessive repetition of images and phrases across poems, as though it were easier to copy and paste than to compose anew.
Lane also metacritically transforms the conditions of composing the collection into the contents of the collection, making Washita as much about writing as it is about anything else. An early poem uses the metaphor of a child learning how to use an axe to represent the process of re-learning how to write by eye:
The child splitting kindling in the cold shed at dawn
Lane quite literally does not have the energy for superfluous language given the physical and mental effort needed to write when he cannot “go past the eye” (15). As a result, “The process of writing each poem was exquisite, each letter, each word, and each line meditations rare and beautiful. My imagination became an eddy in a meadow creek, a thin trout in turning water. Each letter was a dry fir needle circling above slow brown fins” (77). That slowness, that circling, that meditative approach, strongly mark each poem of Washita, as does Lane’s ability to capture the unromantic reality of mortality.
As much as he is aware of the limitations of the body, Lane is equally aware of time, of space, and of the way that all three intertwine to create the structural frame that the collection’s poems hang on. As befitting his embrace of simplicity, Lane organizes Washita alphabetically, but his thematic and linguistic consistency are such that, even given this seemingly arbitrary arrangement of poems, the collection of its own accord offers up its central preoccupations to the light, weaving itself together by circling back, like that dry fir needle, to key images and phrasings. Dust, the dead, a pair of hands, the outcast, and the displaced return again and again. “Each season has its song” (43), Lane suggests, and the song of the season of age is the sound of the hatchet and “the chainsaw’s scream” (43). Recurring images of pruning, carving, chopping, and wearing away (“Boxwood” , “Drinking Stone” , “Limbo” , “No Stars, the Wind Out of the North” ), of the considered minimalism of bonsai trees (“Bonsai,” 14), and of the “brush stroke only” (43) of calligraphy frame the years of writing Washita as a time of paring back old growth, of adopting a minimalism of language and form (both bodily and poetic) that is simultaneously spare and strong.
This feeling of sparseness defines the collection. But when coupled with Lane’s gift for writing with directness and energy, the result is not wan or thin. It is, rather, a collection that is both “rare and beautiful” and worthy of as much time spent reading it as Lane spent writing it.
Melissa Dalgleish is the Program Coordinator for the Research Training Centre at The Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute and a PhD candidate in English at York University. She co-edits the #Alt-Academy project Graduate Training in the 21st Century, which focuses on the changing nature of graduate education, and writes for the feminist academic blog Hook & Eye. She primarily researches and writes about the myth-obsessed poets and theorists whose work dominated Canadian literature in the 1950s and 60s.
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