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The Delicate Violence of the Dance
review by Hilary Turner

The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane
Russell Morton Brown and Donna Bennett, eds.
Harbour Publishing, 2011.


 

In his 2004 memoir, There is a Season, Patrick Lane explored the proposition that “the power the body has to go willingly toward pain is something no one understands” (148). The present volume, which contains five decades’ worth of poems by Lane, and which runs to well over five hundred pages, stands in relation to the former work much as physiology does to anatomy. The Collected Poems, in other words, roundly presents the testimony, the exhibits, the corpora delicti of the troubling human attraction to the very things that hurt us. Though Lane’s long career has been complex and multifaceted, and though we cannot now fail to see the trajectory of his poetic development and maturation, this remains the subject towards which he has gravitated most often, and has rendered in the most various of voices, keys, and dimensions. It has been a lifelong preoccupation. Lane recalls from boyhood his mother’s retrospective bafflement at the pain her father inflicted: “can you imagine? she’d say”—and he remarks: “I’ve spent my life inside her question” (There is a Season 61).

The pain that results from a loss of innocence has been the preoccupation of Romantic poets from Blake to Dylan Thomas. Many of Lane’s poems too depict a loss of innocence, but where the Romantic mind contrives an eventual “strength in what remains behind,” he rejects the facility of any consolation born of thought. Rather, Lane insists that memory preserves both the original loss and its afterimage in the mind’s desperate effort to regain its former state: for this reason, he says, “thinking has never been a stay against the dark” (There is a Season 66). Even such an early poem as “Surcease,” in which the speaker drunkenly mourns for “the sudden / years, pits I’ve placed my dead in,” refuses point blank the balm of introspection:

I want
to ride with your body and celebrate
the darkness and my pain.
Forget the past.
Play with me gently, woman,
I’m made of glass (64).

Similarly, the speaker of “At the Edge of the Jungle,” who has watched a horse beaten to its knees and a rooster whose beak has been torn out by children, concedes: “the garden I dreamed does not exist,” and thus acknowledges that there is nothing to be gained by attempting to recover lost innocence at some higher level of contemplation:

What reality there is resides
in the child who holds the string
and does not see
the bird as it beats its blunt head
again and again into the earth. (115)

Readers who are attuned to the conventions of Romanticism may find this denial of transcendence abrupt, even self-flagellating. Yet remaining stubbornly upon the plane of physical perception is probably Lane’s most characteristic feature: as George Woodcock pointed out more than twenty years ago, he “never offers us an abstract thought… the act of abstraction is not part of the role the poet accepts” (21).

This is not to say that we may lock eyes with pain indefinitely. Certain more visceral kinds of pain seem to compel an aversion of the gaze, however brief, however futile. In poems where animals or humans are subjected to calculated cruelty, and more especially in poems where the speaker feels an intimacy or complicity with oppressor, Lane habitually engages in a structural change of direction. He is well aware of this manoeuver—more than merely self-protective, it is something of an artistic signature. In his epigraph to the Collected Poems, verses entitled “Poets, Talking,” Lane refers to the “bat and the consequent moth / I create to keep my world whole a little longer.” In this raw symbiosis, there is a necessary elusiveness, of course:

I watch the delicate violence of the dance,
the bat, and the moth too, veering. (21)

The veering away from assured destruction, or from a pain that cannot be confronted (not now, not yet) becomes, in the mature poems, a kind of super-caesura, the equivalent of a rhetorical blink, wince, grimace, recoil, or reset. It is very effective.

To take an initial simple example from a complex poem, “Pale Light” recounts at one point the torments that magpies maliciously inflict upon an immature gopher, surprised outside his burrow. Able neither to escape nor dive homeward, the small creature is stunned, and the more knowing speaker veers away from the destruction:

Such play was theirs. I couldn’t stay to watch the death and I didn’t drive the birds away. Surely I am like that tidings of magpies. I won’t let go what I hold. I play with it, my life a coin in a magician’s hands. It seems at times I play with death.” (485)

The same poem then hurtles on towards a recollection of a human death, that of the speaker’s mother. Because her image now seems irretrievable, he laments: “Why can’t I see her? I swear I’ll kill my sight” (487). Again, there is a veering away, a conspicuous failure to confront reality—and then a suicide attempt: “I sank a dozen times and each time my body rose again to the surface, refusing to let go of its hold on things” (488). In the end the speaker accepts that such evasions are pointless. To attack the imperfections of memory is to lose forever all that remains of the priceless thing itself:

You died and I have nothing here but words. I make of them a memory to you who sang to me and sing to me still, your voice as bright as the sharp points of the moon before it’s gone, that blade of light that holds the heavens, crescent-shaped, like two arms holding on to what it knows.” (490)

The worst pain of all—and on this subject Lane speaks from experience, in the voice of the former addict—is the recognition that “we have seen the enemy, and it is us.” Many poems, among them Lane’s most powerful, attest to this sly and humiliating identification with the thing that is feared and despised. To veer away in the presence of such knowledge is most forgivable, and requires the greatest poetic agility. In Lane’s work, this kind of on-again-off-again confrontation is often associated with dead animals and dismembered bodies, both human and animal. In “The Day of the Dead Horse,” a man botches the job of cutting a dead horse so that the corpse does not explode under the pressure of what is within. He is, at the same time, saving what can be saved of the flesh—to feed the hungry. The physical body, both dangerous and valuable, is the counterpart to what the speaker feels about himself, and the poem pursues this analogy, but circuitously, seeing it and then glancing away:

Remember, I was dry drunk. It’s the kind of drunk you have
that waits till you drink again, the kind that eats you,
the skin flowering with seeds that crawl like barley
under your skin…
So I cut and cut again, stupid,
looking for blood and not finding it, cutting through
the throat and down into the chest… (363).

And here it is, the veering away, a self-deprecating shake of the head that both admits and denies full entry to the fearful thing:

It was just a horse on the damned road
killed by a truck. It was a road that went nowhere,
not Damascus, not Ithaca, not anywhere.
South as far as Kamloops, north to Jasper or Prince George.

Nevertheless, having pinpointed the experience geographically, having measured it against grander revelations, the speaker turns back again to see it for what it is, to give it its due:

I lay there wishing I might have saved more,
that the knife could have healed the horse enough
to make of his body for all our lives a meal
that might have lasted longer than the one
we were to eat. (364)

Perhaps the most memorable of such poems of self-recognition is “What My Father Told Me,” a climactic piece in the volume, and biographically important as well, given the long absence of Lane’s father during the war years, and the difficulty of knowing the man when he returned. At long last, father and son have a conversation—or perhaps a sparring match—in which the flashpoint is a sexual encounter the father recounts from his participation in the liberation of Holland:

And him looking slyly up at me, a look that was complicit,
that told me we were somehow
in the story together, that I was his son, a man now
though I was barely twenty-two, married, three children,
and I knew they had raped her, the German, that woman,
and my father seeing me staring at him,
angry, saying, No, and I knew
when his eyes slipped away, that he had lied.” (503)

Moments like these are, for Lane, part of the poet’s necessary vision—to see what others might willfully ignore, to shun self-deception. He draws attention to this aspect of his art self-consciously and repeatedly: “The gift / I have been given is to see what’s left behind” (“Apples in the Rain”); “That’s the hard part, knowing the darkness is there /and singing anyway” (“False Dawn”);“Sometimes a poem is all we can know, part of me struggling to escape/ the violence of simple things” (“Old Storms”); “I feel sometimes my heart in its cage / not screaming, just going on steady, / one beat and one beat going on” (“The Truth”). In this stance as poet-as-witness, Lane resembles Neruda, a poet he much admired.

Although this collection will be gratefully welcomed by readers and scholars who desire to see “all the poems that Lane wants to preserve” (23) together in one place, I am as unconvinced as the editors of this collection that it is time to deliver a full accounting of his career. Lane has come back from the grave (or near it) more than once; and one suspects he has plenty more to say. I note, for instance, that his productivity continues apace, with fully one third of this text taken up by poems written since 2000.) Thus, editors Brown and Bennett have provided ample biographical and contextual information, in both an interpretative introduction and in a set of endnotes; and, while giving Lane his due as having played “a distinctive role” in Canadian poetry, one that has been “independent of schools and movements” (23), they do not aspire to be definitive about his legacy. The same might be said of Lane’s brief autobiographical contribution to the volume, “A New Awakening,” which ends not with a summary, but with an open-ended list of his concerns. Likewise, Nicholas Bradley’s afterword to the volume, “Furious Snow Swirling” is an appreciative essay, not a summative appraisal. These and other editorial decisions have been undertaken in exactly the right spirit, offering aids to the reader but no premature academic embalming.

Any full accounting of Lane’s contribution to the literature of this country would (among other things) have to examine the formal properties of his verse, enumerate his many subjects and the many places he has depicted (in Canada, in Latin America, in China), and explore the links between his personal tributes and elegies and the life he led and the company he kept. The Collected Poems furnishes most of the necessary materials for such an undertaking, and is thus a valuable resource. But more than a mere catalogue or index of Lane’s accumulated poetic works, the volume is arranged to provide a sense of the whole. It gives us a body of work in both the organic and objective senses of that word. It captures a lifetime of poems that, as Lane has said, themselves attempted to capture “the animals, the plants, the birds, the insects and spiders, frogs, rattlesnakes, the moss and lichens, the rocks, the stones, the suffering of the world and its peoples and the life…spent wandering among them, the ‘journey old as the trails that lead us again to the world’” (517).

Works Cited:

Patrick Lane, There is a Season: A Memoir in a Garden (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart), 2004
George Woodcock, Patrick Lane and his Works (Toronto: ECW Press), 1984.

Hilary Turner teaches English at the University of the Fraser Valley.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #16