Reading Magpie—Patrick Lane

  • Patrick Lane, Donna Bennett (Editor) and Russell Morton Brown (Editor)
    The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane.

Lost in the dark forest where dry wood

Leaned ready to lay their hollow burden, I am unable

To articulate the longing, loneliness, the savage tenderness

Of love, the sight and smell of death as it blossoms

In the poet’s hand or how he witnessed the mystery

Of the last breath. Walking arm in arm he lays down

His pen inviting the lines as if the pen itself was a cowboy’s larret.

The rope captures the wind and breathes fire in to his pen.

He rejoices as the page eats his thoughts. He lives to write

Repeatedly. Repeatedly, the poet invites the reader

To nest in his cradle of creativity. He says, “Here. Hear.”

As if he was an old warrior that took the heart out of his

Victim’s chest to shake at the sky. Only he holds it in

A whisper allowing the words to startle, to awake

Where so many attempt to hide. Like a boy, he

Watches from the page.

(original poem by Louise Bernice Halfe in response to book)

Lane is the master of what is elementally human. That has been his grace and his gift as a writer. Patrick Lane’s writing career began in the 1960s. Self-educated and with a need to find expression, he navigated the foreign territory of poetry. Lane writes from self-reflection, self-condemnation, and observations from his daily life. Lane advises all, “Go beyond who you are to who you are not. // What would you conquer / if you do not conquer yourself.” And so the poet continues to invite the readers to those uncomfortable places of the unexplored.

In Lane’s early writings, the poem Calgary City Jail addresses not only the discovery of the written word but also acknowledges the universal fear of being unacknowledged, forgotten, or even erased from life. Elephants, shares the knowledge of this animal with an alcoholic truck driver, who in turn laments the forgotten history of his people. Compassionate and empathetic, he beseeches those who are entering eternity to leave him a path to follow when he writes, “[y]ou are near enough to death / please tell me / where the beginning is.”

At no time is Lane an indifferent observer. Life is Patrick’s mistress and his muse which relentlessly purse him as much as he pursues life. His poetry reflects choices and consequences, of action and thought, no matter how difficult. He masticates, swallows, digests, and regurgitates. The burden of this process is not an easy task. Hence, there is a need to find a space to release and to seek refuge. He asks the reader to be aware of their actions and surroundings. “O Reader You,” he implores, “his burning you can heal” as he too desires and needs healing.

Patrick doesn’t hide his alcoholism nor does he dwell in self-pity, and he doesn’t ask for forgiveness. His life is driven by memory. What was wanted was unattainable and lost, in particular the desired enduring relationship he so aspired to have with his kin. His poems are driven by the psychological and physical scars that were inflicted by his murdered father; they penetrated deep and festered. The survivor of any death is often left with unanswered questions. Anger and grievances make one yearn for retribution. These inflictions fester, and the groan that escapes into his poetry and can be heard is raw and visceral.

The subject of death follows him into nature, the ugly and beautiful caught in the thralls of a last breath. In the poem You Learn, the poet states “[d]ying is serious business” and In Unborn Things, Lane imagines his burial He details it and is aware in his body’s decomposition transformation occurs. Hence, he continues to live through rot.

Butchering animals in order to eat is frankly brutal. One must ready their instincts, and prepare for the sights and smells of death. In The Killing Table little detail is spared. Lane’s sympathies are unusual for white culture as he identifies birds as brothers and evokes a kinship with life.

In other instances, the poems are tender, loving, light and joyful and mixed in with this is sex violence. Nothing in Patrick’s life is left unobserved and unexplored. Sometimes Lane’s ruthless honesty can make for uncomfortable reading. In Knotted Water, he introduces the reader to an ambiguous expression of love. He kisses his firstborn between the legs, as he wishes to be the first man to do so. One wonders if this poem is meant to justify an adult’s attraction to the innocent. It is definitely provocative. Is it a confessional? Is the poet seeking redemption? What is the impetus?

Love can be perceived as a terrible emotion, though everyone craves, wants, and needs it. In “The Mother,” a hen plucks feathers from her body to build and warm her nest. The sacrifice and the pain of being bare-breasted in order to encourage life doesn’t escape Lane’s eye. Whether or not the hen actually feels love, or is directed by instinct, is not a necessary revelation. To the human heart, it is an act of love. In Lane’s words, “[i]t is not for nothing we love.” Even the hen is directed to life. Love has no desire to be captured, and yet all artists attempt to do so in in writing, song, music, dance, painting, and sculpture. In “SHE,” Patrick speaks of love as a god in female form. He loves women. “I have no god but you,” he professes.

Lane’s ability to enter the psyche of his characters is remarkable. Many experience a disconnection from reality, where lucidity is hanging “by the skin of the teeth,” Lane uses this unreality to write Dostoevsky and slips back and forth between the character and his own observations. “He knows he is mad. / He does not/need the crescent moon to tell him this. / . . . Who is Dostoevsky? / He wants to answer that.”

Patrick’s participation in bestiality mirrors society’s underworld depravity. It appears he was goaded into this action. He isn’t a simple by-stander. Perhaps because he was unable to untangle himself from the bullying, or was afraid he’d appear a fool, or sought to satisfy his own curious perversion. In light, the writing is self-flagellation. Ultimately, the reader is left with his or her own reactions. As time marches and age hangs onto his flesh, Lane’s poetry shifts to meditation and prayer. The Prayer does not take him any further than the dark places he has already haunted. Yet, he finds beauty with insects, on the prairies, in rain and snow, even beauty suffers its death. How difficult it must be to live in that place. Yet the poet demands that we all must.

This review “Reading Magpie—Patrick Lane” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 134-36.

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