Review of Patrick Lane's Collected Poems

Feb. 21, 2017

Originally published in Journal of Canadian Poetry 28.


PATRICK LANE, The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane. Edited by Russell Morton Brown and Donna Bennett. Afterword by Nicholas Bradley. Madeira Park, British Columbia: Harbour Publishing, 2011. Cloth. Pp. 544. $44.95.


In fifty years as a poet, Patrick Lane has won numerous awards and enjoyed the respect of his peers while suffering serious academic neglect. There are a few articles on his work, a thin monograph by George Woodcock from 1984, and virtually no scholarship about Lane’s poetry in the last fifteen years, even though he has published seven collections in that time—there are now twenty-seven in all—and his newest poetry is as accomplished as ever. Accordingly, the appearance of the Collected Poems is a call to reassess not only Lane’s career but also the kinds of critical attention his poetry merits. In that regard, the Collected Poems invites scholars not least to consider Lane’s work in relation to a rich ecology of Canadian poetry in which he has long been an important and deeply interconnected figure.

He has also been an unforgiving critic of his own writing, a result of which is that although The Collected Poems runs to 544 pages, it is nowhere near a complete record of his published work. Rather, according to its editors, the volume contains merely “all the poems that Lane wants to preserve.” So, for instance, of over fifty poems in his first collection, Letters from the Savage Mind (1966), Lane has collected only one here. Such winnowing is itself savage but fair; the first book was clearly an apprentice work, heavily influenced by the Beats and Henry Miller, and Lane’s regional eye had not yet come into focus, with poems such as “Here in the West” and “Pacific Edge” as vague in their geographies as their titles suggest. In contrast, Lane’s second collection, Separations (1969), receives generous representation, with poems from it such as “Similkameen Deer” and “Ten Miles in from Horsefly” embracing the toponyms of the British Columbia interior and claiming the area as Lane’s poetic territory.

It’s in selections from Separations that Lane’s prodigious gifts for narrative also come to the fore. Poems such as “Elephants” and “Wild Horses” tell stories with a plainspoken economy that has become a hallmark of his work. Quotation doesn’t do such poems justice, as the texts don’t reveal their pleasures in a single line or stanza but rather gain their beauty from the elegance of their whole, animal-like movements. The best narrative poems in The Collected Poems, whether from Separations or subsequent volumes, tell deceptively simple stories, often involving some moment of physical violence, while intimating parabolic meanings and metaphysical consequences. For instance, “Detail,” a poem from Mortal Remains (1991), tells of a man imprisoned in a cell so small he has no room to sit, while a caged light hangs above him. Meditating on the grain of the cell’s wooden door, the prisoner imagines

     he would tell this story years later

     and when he did this would be the place

     where his listeners would shake their heads,

     understanding the attention to such detail,

     his legs swelling, the light,

     and the thin cage of wire

     he kept trying but couldn’t reach.

One of the poem’s marvels is that it works equally well as a political commentary on the cruelty of incarceration and as a self-reflexive text about the poet’s metier as he tells stories in tight structures.           

Meanwhile, although Lane remains known for his class-conscious evocations of down-and-out lives, represented amply here in poems such as “Bottle Pickers” and “On the Bum” from Separations, this aspect of his poetry increasingly appears to be an early preoccupation rather than career-spanning. In later decades, as Lane has ventured from the B.C. interior to explore other geographies such as China, South America, the Prairies, and Vancouver Island, his work has become more introspective, more grounded in literal and figurative gardens. But Lane has never wavered in his attention to animals. As a zoographer he has returned again and again to snakes, hawks, deer, dogs, horses, chickens, flies, and saw-whet owls, until each species has gained a nearly totemic status in his work. He is particularly attentive to animals as victims, and although his innumerable representations of their suffering though the decades might seem to constitute an aesthetic tic, they’re a foundation of Lane’s poetics, which associates an irreducible cruelty with creaturely existence and insists on bearing witness to the afflictions that cruelty engenders.

Lane is strikingly self-aware about his impulse to identify with animals and his simultaneous complicity in the violence they suffer. He also recognizes his occasional use of animals to mediate his engagement with other people. For instance, in the poems of Unborn Things (1975), a collection that documents privation in the Andes, Lane’s speaker sometimes finds the gaps between himself and South Americans insurmountable. In one poem, “At the Edge of the Jungle,” images of suffering prove too much for him, and he retreats to “live inside the eyes of a rooster / who walks around a pile of broken bones.” The speaker observes of the bird: “Children have cut away his beak / and with a string have staked him / where he sees but cannot eat.” While the rooster’s species-difference might appear to make his suffering insurmountably alien, the speaker nevertheless takes it to be more accessible than that of his fellow people, even while the animal’s situation comes to emblematize human suffering. Consequently, the poem becomes in part a meditation on the power and perils of metonymy and analogy.

Another standout animal poem from Unborn Things is “As It Is with Birds and Bulls,” which Lane dedicates to Margaret Atwood. The poem begins with a description of a Colombian cockfighting ring where the men have “left their women in the dust / outside the sanctuary of the pit.” Eventually the speaker addresses his own presence, saying:

     I gamble on the smaller bird

     because it is afraid.

     Survival lies in the death you make

     believe. As it is with birds and bulls

     so with men. They do not hate what they are

     they hate what they cannot be. (116)

The reference to “survival” is hardly incidental, given that Atwood’s 1972 book Survival includes a reference to Lane during her discussion of animal victims in Canadian literature. Atwood observes that in Lane’s poem “Mountain Oysters,” as in others such as Alden Nowlan’s “The Bull Moose” and Irving Layton’s “The Bull Calf,” animals repeatedly suffer and die. She notices that they’re often castrated, too. Although she resists connecting the dots by pointing out that the poets she identifies are all male, in the passage above from “As It Is with Birds and Bulls,” Lane does connect those dots by aligning men in particular with the titular bulls. Another poet might have been driven from his animal theme by Atwood’s recognition of its prevalence in Canadian poetry, but Lane chooses instead to converse with her ideas by writing further poems on the matter.

It is through such conversations that Lane shows himself to be clearly a Canadian writer, not merely a writer in Canada. To be sure, his poetic vision is local rather than national in most respects. In fact, the word “Canada” appears only once in the whole of The Collected Poems. But Lane is an extroverted poet with a distinctly Canadian peer group that often motivates his work, and he frequently names his peers in his writing. The Collected Poems includes texts dedicated to Earle Birney, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Susan Musgrave, P. K. Page, and Andrew Suknaski, among others, while Lane’s long poem “The Weight” engages with the writing of authors such as Purdy, Suknaski, George Bowering, and Robert Kroetsch as it meditates on the history and literary identity of the West. By apostrophizing such figures and incorporating their words into his own, Lane makes his poetry a discussion between poets that is also a national conversation between regions, as when Lane’s speaker warns:

     watch out Ontario

     we have left that place         behind

     to find a world of which you know nothing

     we may not go back / to the country of our defeat Al

And in the past decade, Lane has consolidated such nationalizing work with a remarkable series of elegies to Canadian poets such as Milton Acorn, Gwendolyn MacEwen, John Newlove, and Bronwen Wallace. These elegies are at once personal remembrances, literary appreciations, and continuations of poets talking.

Lane’s most important conversation with a fellow Canadian poet has been with Lorna Crozier, his partner since the late 1970s. The Collected Poems is only the latest in a line of books and poems to be dedicated to her, and the relationship’s impact on Lane’s poetry has been evident since the beginning. In 1979, he and Crozier—then Lorna Uher—published a joint collection, No Longer Two People, constituted by poems written back and forth to one another. The Collected Poems includes all of Lane’s contributions to the joint volume but leaves out Crozier’s, so that there isn’t the same sense of a dialectic as in the original volume. But that sense is there abundantly in No Longer Two People: for example, Crozier’s speaker repeatedly corrects Lane’s in his determination to cast her as a predatory woman against whom to define himself. He never quite seems to relent, but Lane’s subsequent poetry features conspicuously less of the machismo that characterized his previous work, and he omits from The Collected Poems various early poems that reduce women to objects of male desire. His more recent poetry still isn’t quite convincingly feminist—an attention to breasts in over thirty of the poems since 1980 in The Collected Poems suggest his speakers’ view of women could be aimed a little higher—but, as in his poetic conversations with Atwood and other Canadian authors, his collaboration with Crozier seems to have sparked a development in his work. Indeed, in that regard it’s notable that one of the most well known passages from Lane’s corpus, the opening lines of Winter (1990), is indebted to Crozier’s writing in No Longer Two People. In the earlier volume, Crozier’s speaker observes: “we await / the forgiveness of winter: drifts / to bury all the dead we left behind.” Lane’s speaker then contradicts her, claiming: “There is no forgiveness.” But eleven years later, Winter begins: “The generosity of snow, the way it forgives / transgression, filling in the many betrayals.”

In “Poets, Talking,” a poem that prefaces The Collected Poems, Lane recognizes such a dialectic as integral to his poetics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he describes it in terms of animals:

     These days the poem comes much as the first bat does

     in the false dawn. Its flight the mental stumble that I love.

     . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

     The moth, its wings so white they startle me, escapes.

     For the moment.

                            I watch the delicate violence of the dance,

     the bat, and the moth too, veering.

The bat-and-moth metaphor as a figure for poets talking to themselves and each other is a lovely summation of Lane’s poetics, as well as a salutary corrective to the notion that poems come only from isolated, autonomous authors. Lane is also correcting himself: while his early work often creates a world of subject-object binaries—one in which Lane’s speakers struggle against the alienation that their acceptance of such binaries creates, not least in relation to women and animals—his later poems embrace a more porous boundary between self and other. 

As though to honour such developments in his work, the most generously represented decades of Lane’s career in The Collected Poems are the two most recent. And in fact, some of his most impressive poetry has come since 1990, including Winter—happily collected in its entirety—which, although it never names Canada, deserves to be studied alongside Glenn Gould’s radio documentary The Idea of North and the films of Zacharias Kunuk as among the profoundest evocations of the nation’s nordicity. Equally powerful are poems from Mortal Remains exploring Lane’s relationship with his father. Lane represents him as cruel but also as another victim, and indeed the man was murdered by a virtual stranger in 1968. Given that fact, it is remarkable that in the decades after the killing, certain words recur innumerably in Lane’s poetry—among them  “blood,” “flesh,” “bone,” “heart,” “silence,” “explode,” “wind,” “sky”—and that in Mortal Remains, when Lane writes explicitly about his father, suddenly those same words pack every line, as though finally spelling out their autobiographical force. Consider the opening of “Father”:

     My father with his bright burst heart, the bullet

     exploding in him like some gift the wind had given him,

     fell from the sky he’d climbed to, the blood

     rushing into him from his startled flesh

Similarly, as the speaker of “Fathers and Sons” imagines resurrecting his father, he declares:

     I will hold you then, your hurt mouth curled

     into my chest, and take your lost flesh

     into me, make of you myself, and when you are

     bone of my bone, and blood of my blood,

     I will walk you into the hills [. . . ]

These poems suggest strongly that Lane’s relationship with his father, in both life and death, has provided key emotional and lexical materials for Lane’s poetry. The suggestion is similarly strong in “The Birth of Narrative,” also from Mortal Remains, which tells the story of “[t]he boy’s father killing the cat in the garage”—a seemingly originary case of the human violence and animal agonies that distinguish Lane’s work.

As for the years since 2000, Lane has increasingly straddled the border between poetry and prose. The poems have grown longer and so have their lines, a shift that parallels Lane’s publication of a memoir, There Is a Season (2004) and a novel, Red Dog Red Dog (2008). At the same time, Lane has exhibited a philosophical shift: while his early poems suggested an outlook that could be taken for nihilistic, his more recent work manifests a greater willingness to embrace life’s consolations. In “False Dawn,” he writes: “I think misery is mostly / what we know. Yet there are days I overflow with love.” And in “Weeds,” after considering the wretchedness of children in poverty, he declares:

     but there are days when the children break the thick stalks of burdock

     and bring the blue thistle heads home in bouquets to their mothers

     and those are the days when beauty is made possible and that is enough for them

     for the children do not know they are poor and they do not know they suffer.

Compare those lines with ones from “The Measure,” published over two decades earlier:

     . . . . . . . . . In the field the rare

     stalks of grass stick stiffly into air.

     The poor, the broken people, the endless suffering


     we are heir to, given to desire and gaining little.

The imagery and concerns are the same, but the outlook differs. In the newer poem, only the stalks are broken, not the people, and not the speaker, who is able to find comfort in what he observes. An openness to solace is similarly evident in Lane’s later vocabulary: although he has never lost his preference for Anglo-Saxon, monosyllabic, elemental words, and for dwelling on things in the world rather than abstract thought, his more recent poems addressing the immaterial evoke not just “innocence,” “mysteries,” and “hunger”—concepts that have preoccupied him throughout his career—but also, increasingly, “grace.”

The Collected Poems is markedly a reader’s edition, not a scholarly one, but it includes an insightful afterword by Nicholas Bradley, who draws compelling connections between the regionalist and existentialist qualities of Lane’s work, observing: “The Interior is both his geographical subject and an apposite description of his perpetual theme: the bleak, remote regions of heart and mind.” Lane himself also contributes an essay, “A New Awakening,” in which he refers approvingly to a comment by the poet Sharon Thesen that his work is concerned with “the disfigurement of innocence.” In Lane’s dialectical fashion, this comment from another poet sparks his own observation that his writing betrays a “desire to salvage some beauty from a fallen world.” Meanwhile, the editors of The Collected Poems, Russell Morton Brown and Donna Bennett, provide a fine introduction that situates Lane among the Canadian poets who have influenced him and those whom his work has influenced in turn. Brown and Bennett also provide explanatory notes about the poems—elucidating, for instance, why camels inhabit British Columbia in “The Trace of Being”—while placing the notes discreetly at the back of the volume and choosing not to clog the poems with superscript numbers.

Brown and Bennett observe that Lane has revised several poems for The Collected Poems, but they give no more information in this regard, and the present dearth of scholarly attention to Lane’s work means it may be some time before an enterprising critic takes up the task of assessing the emendations rigorously. Likewise, the state of book publishing in Canada makes it unlikely that we will ever see a Complete Poems in print, no matter what renaissance Lane scholarship enjoys. However, the possibilities of electronic publishing let us imagine such a text online, along with annotations that comprehensively explore the links between Lane’s work and others’. Such an exploration would be bountiful, for although The Collected Poems is a superb testament to Patrick Lane’s achievements, his poems insist that they cannot be considered fully outside the context of his poetic antecedents, friendships, collaborations, and ongoing discussions.