A Great Achievement
- Christine Wiesenthal (Author)
The Collected Works of Pat Lowther. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Mervyn Nicholson
Pat Lowther . . . Pat Lowther . . . Pat Lowther . . . Isn’t that the poet who was murdered by an envious husband, who threw her body into her favourite place on the West Coast, Furry Creek? If I described the details, the editors would no doubt it censor it. Suffice it to say that the sheer horror of Lowther’s fate has had a horrible side effect, too, by shifting attention from her writing over to her life, that is, to her death. As a result, far more has been written about her “story” than about her poetry. Her life story has generated two admirable book-length biographies, a nonfiction novel, a play, a poem sequence, and a TV documentary, in addition to short notices—not to forget the Pat Lowther Memorial Award—given annually for her. This is an iconic, even mythic figure. Even Lowther’s life has a mythic quality, given her struggles with poverty, her radical political awakening and socialist commitment, feminist consciousness, extraordinary dedication to poetry as a calling, and her interest in cosmology and multi-media. But we need to attend to Lowther the writer, not Lowther the murder victim. Professor Wiesenthal’s beautifully edited book ought to go a long way towards shifting attention to Lowther as writer, where it should be, where it is owing to her.
Lowther’s most famous poem is “A Stone Diary,” also the title poem of the book in which it originally appeared, published posthumously in 1977 by Oxford Canada and, ironically, Lowther’s breakthrough collection. The title poem, “A Stone Diary,” was picked by Margaret Atwood to represent Lowther for the new Oxford book of Canadian poetry. But “A Stone Diary” is only one of many extraordinary poems by Lowther, as Professor Wiesenthal’s edition makes plain, and Atwood should have given Lowther more space. She deserves it. For Lowther is surely one of Canada’s greatest poets.
Lowther published three collections before A Stone Diary in tiny presses and tiny print runs. Sadly, only a fragment remains of her multi-media planetarium show, The Infinite Mirror Trip, of which Professor Wiesenthal writes:
Nor can the text alone, obviously, replicate “the total art form” that was Lowther’s original “multi-media” production. Nevertheless, as a window onto an ephemeral performance piece, one of the first such shows by a West Coast woman poet, the text is valuable, providing rich new insights into Lowther’s cosmological exploration of the “relationship between inner and outer space,” and her show’s attempt to convey, in her own words, “the excitement and complexity of the natural world,” as opposed to “current concerns with mysticism and the supernatural.”
This is a creative power that shows genuine originality (look at the date of Lowther’s "multimedia" show!) and, I would argue, real genius. What distinguishes Lowther is her intensely metaphoric habit of mind. Lowther’s work is very unlike so much of Canadian poetry. She is not an anecdotal poet. She is not preoccupied with creating brief snapshots of experience, which is what Canadian poetry so often does. The anecdotal approach collects events and preserves them in words. Lowther had a different impulse. Not that she can’t write poems of that type, for she can, and does. But her creative impulse is oriented toward presenting perceptions—not describing objects or events. What can be imagined is more important in her poems than what is conventionally thought of as “reality.” She aims to make us see things and understand things that cannot be communicated by means of description. By imagining, we see.
I open this book at random and read:
In the continent behind my eyes
pretending to be birds
They fly from rise to rise
like a chain of torches
(“In the Continent Behind My Eyes,” section 1)
There is a “continent” within us: the world of our images, powers, perceptions (not to mention an infinite complexity of organs, fluids, neurons, muscles, bones), which are just as real as the world of objects outside us, but a lot harder to know and to share. But that is what Lowther does, again and again and again.
In a review of Christine Wiesenthal’s fine (2005) biography of Pat Lowther in Canadian Literature, I closed by calling for a proper edition of her collected poems, and Professor Wiesenthal has produced that needed edition. It’s a superb work of scholarship. Yes, one could wish there was more commentary on the poems or wonder where Lowther’s prose is (any letters?), because it too should be part of what calls itself the “collected works.” But really, all I have to offer is praise and gratitude for this fine book.
- “field poetics sky blue” by Sean Braune
Books reviewed: Gangson by Andy Weaver and Glengarry by rob mclennan
- Deixis / Dreams by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: A Suit of Light by Sheila Fischman and Anne Hebert, Installations (with and without pronouns) by Nicole Brossard, Robert Majzels, and Erin Mouré, and She Would Be the First Sentence of My Next Novel / Elle serait la première phrase de mon prochain roman by Nicole Brossard and Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood
- Self-Assured Catastrophe by Adam Beardsworth
Books reviewed: Mean by Ken Babstock and River Suite by Joe Blades
- L'écho humain by Jean-Sébastien Ménard
Books reviewed: L'autre corps by Michèle Gagné, Ce tremblement singulier by Agnès Riverin, and L'oeil au ralenti by Denise Desautels
- Versifications du sublime by Katia Grubisic
Books reviewed: La Lenteur au bout de l'aile by France Cayouette, Savanes, suivi de Poèmes de septembre by Joël Des Rosiers, L'Oeil de la lumière by Pierre Raphaël Pelletier, and Entre les murs de la Baltique by Dominique Zalitis
MLA: Nicholson, Mervyn. A Great Achievement. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 183 - 184)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.