An Important Book
- Christine Wiesenthal (Author)
The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Mervyn Nicholson
This is a depressing book. Not because it isn’t a good book. It is. In some ways, a great book. No: it is depressing because Pat Lowther had such talent—I doubt Canada has produced any poet as good—and she had genuine greatness as a human being. Yet her life was hardship hardship hardship. Poverty, insecurity, incessant struggles to stay afloat psychologically and financially. And then, of course, that disastrous marriage. His emotional problems were so massive that he made her life a hell unimaginable even to a poet. Then he murdered her. He smashed her head in with a hammer, mutilated her body, threw her in a canyon. Afterward he presented himself as victimized by her. So offensive to his ego was her success that only her death could be a sufficient oblation. The subsequent trial gave him the spotlight he craved, grandstanding and holding forth about his wife’s wickedness and the neglect of his genius. Even today, legal professionals involved remember Roy Lowther and shake their heads.
The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther is an extraordinary work of scholarship. Impressive skills of research, organization, and interpretation are everywhere evident. Not only a comprehensive biography but a literary-critical commentary, it surveys Lowther’s writing from juvenilia to last words. And more: it considers the responses of writers, critics, and society. Despite minor weaknesses (was Lowther really a postmodernist? do we need to know that Neruda was a cad? do we need to kick Dr. Johnson?), this is a book we have been needing for a long time, and the author deserves our gratitude.
But isn’t it interesting that this is the second biography of Pat Lowther?—after Toby Brooks’s warm appreciation—after a “non-fiction novel” about Lowther (Keith Harrison, Furry Creek)—after Swann, a novel that obliquely refers to Lowther, by Carol Shields, author of the curiously named The Stone Diaries (cf. Lowther’s A Stone Diary)—after The Pat Lowther Poem by Gail McKay—and a film, Water Marks—and oh yes, wasn’t there a play about Lowther? Not to mention the annual prize named after Pat Lowther. Yet almost nothing has been written about her poetry, as I discovered myself when I became hooked by one of the masterpieces of Canadian literature, the title poem of A Stone Diary. Apart from my 2003 article on Lowther and reviews and a very few graduate theses, there are maybe three articles since 1975, amounting to about 30 pages. The Half-Lives’ attention to Lowther’s poetry is painfully overdue. Ironically, it is a biography that gives us the most comprehensive discussion of her poetic oeuvre.
Ignoring Lowther’s poetry is like a second murder. Wiesenthal lays out the basic problem of Lowther studies: she has become a symbol, a myth. Her death has eclipsed her life, her life’s work. She reduces to the poet who was bludgeoned to death by her envious husband. When her murder is privileged, her poetry is metamorphosed into an adumbration of it; hence even when treated as a writer, Lowther becomes the poète maudite, cut off before her “promise” was fulfilled. Wouldn’t she want to be remembered for her poetry and not her death? Like every good writer, she would want to be read, to be a source of power and pleasure to readers. Wiesenthal’s demonstration of Lowther’s intelligence and scope is, for me, the central point of her book, even apart from all the useful information (for example, Lowther’s title Milk Stone is not as it appears. “Milk,” we learn, is a verb here, not an adjective—a dramatic difference in meaning.)
Wiesenthal’s key strategy is to put the murder-and-trial first, well before we get to Lowther’s life. That way her life and work do not become a mere preface to her murder, a locating of her significance in that event. The sections that follow do not only treat Lowther biographically-chronologically, but approach her work in phases, revealing different facets of Lowther—her political commitments, her conscientious parenting, her publications and work for the League of Canadian Poets, and interestingly, her scientific-cosmological-environmental concerns. The picture that emerges is of an extraordinarily intelligent person, someone who was sophisticated, widely read, inventive and creative—and courageous. The strategy of putting the murder/trial first has definite benefits, but it also reinforces the problem, namely the orientation of everything about Lowther to her murder. A tiresome deconstructionist would say that Wiesenthal reinscribes what she rejects. Throughout, the murder remains a point of reference; the horror of the monstrous husband is a continuing beat in the background, to the point where even the reader begins supplying the mythical links. For example, when Wiesenthal quotes from “The Dig”: “Will our bones tell / what we died of?” (Lowther’s italics), is it possible not to think of Pat Lowther’s skull on display at the trial, with the murderer’s hammer next to it?
The problem is huge. We have to read Lowther and appreciate her poetry instead of privileging her death. Yet that death is going to remain in the reader’s imagination demanding attention. Only one thing can counter it: the poetry itself. This is the weakness of Wiesenthal’s study: the book does not answer the question, why read Lowther? Why is she important to read? The importance of this fine book may lie in stimulating the interest in Lowther as writer that she has always been denied. Now, how about a collected edition of Lowther’s poetry?
- Test, Quest, Conquest by Cheryl Cundell
Books reviewed: Sisters in Two Worlds: A Visual Biography of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill by Hugh Brewster and Michael Peterman, Measuring Mother Earth: How Joe the Kid Became Tyrrell of the North by Heather Robertson, and Hunting for Empire: Narratives of Sport in Rupert's Land, 1840-70 by Greg Gillespie
- Who Were Those Masked Men? by Dermot McCarthy
Books reviewed: Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger by Richard Lemm and Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel by Francis Mansbridge
- More Brilliantly Alive by Faye Hammill
Books reviewed: Carol Shields: The Art of a Writing Life by Neil K Besner
- Love and History by Jennifer Chambers
Books reviewed: A Canadian in Love by Isabel Overton Bader and Roseann Runte and Mrs. King: The Life and Times of Isabel MacKenzie by Charlotte Gray
- Visualizing Vancouverites by Anthony Adolph
Books reviewed: Facing History: Portraits From Vancouver by Karen Love and Underlying Vibrations: The Photography and Life of John Vanderpant by Sheryl Salloum
MLA: Nicholson, Mervyn. An Important Book. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #191 (Winter 2006). (pg. 132 - 134)
***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.