On the cover of Patrick Lane’s Witness, a poetry collection of his most powerful verse, there is a picture of a barn owl staring at you with those wide-set eyes that are so effective at seeing in the dark. This owl is the perfect metaphor for a poet who does just that. Despite the darkness of mortality, alcoholism, and a brutal family history, Lane’s speakers perceive the beauty that underlies violence and the unspeakable.
Lane’s father was an alcoholic who was murdered seemingly at random by a man pointing a rifle through a store window. His brother, another poet of the notorious Lane family, committed suicide. He was also divorced–all this over a few years in the 1970s. As a result, Patrick Lane fell deeper into his own dependence of alcohol. Finally, after marrying his wife Lorna Crozier, he found his healing through the act of gardening, adopting his body to the cyclical rhythm of nature.
Lane’s poetry reflects his alcoholic past and the ultimately redemptive power of nature. His poems shock you with their violence, to “leave you not just shaken, but shaking,” as the Vancouver Sun remarks. From the first poem “For Ten Years,” we encounter dead birds, the merciless season of winter, and the pain of divorce. Though it may be tempting to say that birds are a symbol of beauty and innocence in Lane’s poetry, it would be almost immoral to ascribe the term “symbol” to the sudden violence of a bird hitting a window and perishing, “his beak … a crust of ice / that melted as you breathed.” Lane’s poetic breath can do nothing to prevent this bird’s death. His is an anti-academic philosophy that resists complicated interpretations: his poems just are. They breathe and then they die.
Invoking Canadian landscape and wildlife in almost every poem, Lane feeds off natural imagery. But he also includes heart-rending reflections on his relationship with his father in “The Killer” and “Fathers and Sons.” When I studied Lane at McGill, my professor Robert Lecker told us how his last class had cried upon reading the latter poem. Other poems such as “The Changing Room” and “The War” express the implicit codes of silence the govern relationships between men, while others like “The Happy Little Towns” describe gaping, bloody wounds and the attempt to suture them and heal.
Given the sobering power of his verse, I thought Witness could provide a fine introduction to poetry book reviews on my blog. Though it is not the normal fare of fantasy novels up for review, I wish to remind my readers of my abiding interest in Canadian literature.
Since each poem in Witness resists attempts at interpretation, I thought Lane would be a fine poet to introduce yourselves to, if you are not the sort to read poetry. It will likely change how you think of poetry and beauty itself. I would only advise a quick word of caution that some of the poems contain violence and perverse sexuality. Of course, the violence if part of the deal with Lane: how he causes you to see the beauty in violence. Not in a Quentin Tarantino way, but in a way that accepts that violence resists style, yet strives to demonstrate the more bitter, complex beauty behind brutality. If this understanding of beauty shakes your values, then be prepared to be “shaking.”