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.
- Things Made Beautiful by Renée Hulan
Books reviewed: green girl dreams Mountains by Marilyn Dumont and Rainbow Dancer by Heather Harris
- Voir le visible by Cyril Schreiber
Books reviewed: Le silence est une voie navigable by Catherine Fortin, Les Rives claires by Michel Létourneau, and Lointain écho de la petite histoire by Olivier Labonté
- Candid and Curious by Tanis Macdonald
Books reviewed: Poets Talk: Interviews with Robert Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouri, Dionne Brand, Marie Annharte Baker, Jeff Derksen, and Fred Wah by Pauline Butling and Susan Rudy
- The Printed Page by Susan Fisher
Books reviewed: Alphabetical by P. K. Page
- Ce que révèlent les lieux environnants by Ariane Tremblay
Books reviewed: Nid de brindilles by Carmen Leblanc and Fragment d'eau by Pauline Dugas
MLA: Nicholson, Mervyn. A Great Achievement. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 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.