Reviewed by Joel Deshaye
The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane. Harbour, 2011.
Like Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy (2000), The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane is a big book whose length is a sign of Harbour’s commitment to Canadian poetry, especially to poets with links to British Columbia. Having published several earlier volumes of Lane’s work, Harbour could by now co-own most of the rights to it, but even then a book of this size is not cheap to produce. I like Harbour for encouraging sustained readings of Canadian poetry, even if in Lane’s case the experience is emotionally gruelling.
Some critics think that, over time, Lane has achieved a balance in his work—as the flyleaf claims, “in turn despairing and rejoicing, tender and brutal,” etc. Indeed, this balance is partially evident in keywords that reappear over the course of these 469 pages of poetry. The words that jump out at me are beauty, praise, strange in all its derivations, and isolate as an adjective (a usage he might have learned from Ralph Waldo Emerson; Charles J. Woodbury notes the adjectival usage in his 1890 book Talks with Ralph Waldo Emerson). The diction calls attention in this case to a traditional poet’s penchant for idealizations that he creates in seclusion but can rarely see in himself—though they can be seen quite often in his poetry.
Ruining the positivity of beauty and praise, however, are Lane’s obsessive memories of loss and violence, normally those associated with death. There is a risk in collecting so many poems by an author as thematically and technically consistent as Lane. The effect of reading his poetry consecutively and more or less representatively from the 1960s to the 1980s is to challenge the reader’s morale, and it is difficult to recognize his later relative serenity after a long depressing beginning. Lane’s early persona is inconsolable: “I have seen only shadows playing by the fire, / have cried out this and this, yet the dead plague me. / Not women, wine or words will ease me” (“Temenos” 148). In his self-reflective essay at the end of the book, Lane reminds us that at least some of the extraordinarily bad luck he describes was biographical: the poverty and violence, the untimely death of his brother, the murder of his father, the dissolution of his marriage, his suicide attempts. Accordingly, lightheartedness until sometime in the 1980s seems never to have been an available mood, though some poems arguably contain symbols of hope, such as the sun that blinds the speaker to the dark birds in “A Murder of Crows.” A rare few, such as “Her Laughter,” seem optimistic and even happy. With “The Weight,” the first poem of the collection to deviate significantly from the short climactic lyric, his technical range widens, becoming much more open-ended, deconstructive, and allusive to new influences such as George Bowering and Robert Kroetsch. Ending “The Nineties” section with the similarly long but much denser “Neurotic Poet,” Lane shows that he can let loose and have fun—but this is 347 pages in.
The afterword, by Nicholas Bradley, adds an interpretive element to the chronological introduction supplied by editors Donna Bennett and Russell Brown. Bradley writes that Lane’s poetry “fuses regional concerns with self-examination. The Interior [of B.C.] is both his geographical subject and an apposite description of his perpetual theme: the bleak, remote regions of heart and mind” (521). Although this book prompts me to disagree mildly with Bradley’s suggestion that “At times Lane seems the Beckett of Canadian poetry” (521)—Beckett is often absurdly funny and Lane is not—I agree that the effect of Lane’s poems is substantially attributable to their “dismal conclusions” (522). Lane’s declarative lyrical endings are typically morose and frequently too pat, but again the impression of excess might be the result of the quantity of poems in the book and a choice of poems that are almost unrelentingly serious and controlled.
Some editorial choices could give readers too much of one thing, and some too little of another. The front matter contains a complete list of Lane’s books and their years of publication, but the table of contents lists his poems under headings for the decades of his career without specifying their provenance or specific years, except when a poem shares a title with another and must be distinguished from it. Organizing his work by decade has a precedent in Lane’s 1987 Selected Poems, published by Oxford, but his Selected Poems, 1977-1997, published by Harbour, specifies the original books and when they appeared. Harbour very likely changed its approach to conform to Oxford’s precedent because Bennett and Brown are affiliated with Oxford and might have wanted to retain their earlier minimalism and its resultant editorial flexibility. Consistent with their preferences, they state in the preface that “several” poems were “revised for this publication” (23), but they don’t identify them, and in their introduction they include quotations “sourced from unpublished email communications” with Lane from November, 2010, without specifying the day of the month or the recipient(s). These omissions are not flaws, only inconveniences for scholars, and perhaps for balance Lane and the editors include ten pages of explanatory notes about the poems. The balance is never perfect for every reader.
Although I dislike Lane’s tendency to overwrite his explicit metaphors—e.g. “The silence of the dead is what we own” (402) and “The sound of the moon on snow is a whispering” (501)—I very much like a relatively large number of his poems, especially those that prove Lane’s imagination is not helpless in the face of disturbing social problems. In “The Book of Knowledge,” a young man sticks his arm full of needles, hides them beneath his sleeve, and goes down to breakfast unacknowledged by his arguing family. “Sitting there he realized for the first time / how dangerous he was” (305). In the context of recent school shootings, “The Book of Knowledge” is an astute diagnosis of the alienation that can underlie violent behaviour. Another ambiguous epiphany happens in “Without Innocence” when the speaker swims to the centre of a lake at night and slowly breathes out until he sinks into darkness, “thinking how I have never / done that until now” (329). Of course, figuratively, Lane has done this again and again, and one of his great skills is to renew the sense of urgency associated with personal revelations so that they often feel like “the first time.” Reliving them is not easy, but sometimes—perhaps through the same troubling repetition—the poet and reader can gain an understanding together.
At press time: Joel Deshaye is an assistant professor at Memorial University. His articles and reviews have appeared in various Canadian and international journals. He is the author of The Metaphor of Celebrity: Canadian Poetry and the Public, 1955-1980 (2013).
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