canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Go Leaving Strange
by Patrick Lane
Harbour Publishing, 2004

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

There are three kinds of poets. The first (and largest) group never find a ‘voice’, or more specifically that means of expression peculiar to the individual poet, a set of thematic and technical mannerisms imprinted on every poem. Such poets spend their talent-challenged lives crafting nondescript and derivative poems that could have been written by anyone. Then there is a second grouping of pets who manage to acquire a voice but, after finding one, are doomed to repeat themselves in book after book. In the most extreme of cases, like that of Al Purdy, a mentor of Patrick Lane, the ‘voice’- once so inimitable, unmistakeable, lively- devolves into perpetual self-parody. Finally, there is a third grouping of poets that, upon acquiring a style, first exhaust and then relinquish it in favour of seeking out another. 

Patrick Lane is a distinguished member of the second grouping of poets. He has found his ‘voice’, and he has honed and perfected it throughout the course of his 20-odd books, all of which reflect an undeviating sameness, a fixed propensity to deal with subject matter like violence, substance abuse, physical labour, poverty, and wildlife. Lane’s poetry, when taken in totalis, is monumentally monochromatic.

After reading the Lane oeuvre a few years ago, I felt that the biggest limiting factor to his career as an artist has been the inability to evolve. In order to become an international player, I thought, the old voice must go, and a new one must take its place. I therefore hoped that his next book would be a departure; I wanted a few poems about cows on the moon appearing next to political poems and villanelles. Anything surprising and, well, strange.

Instead, Go Leaving Strange shows that Patrick Lane, after thousands of poems and two dozen books, isn’t about to change now. The places the reader is taken are familiar, for Lane has written multiples of these kinds of poems already. He starts of his collections stereotypically with "Howl":

The wolves howl with a loneliness that is only theirs.
The coyotes howl with the same wish.
The solitary loons too on the mountain lakes.
I have heard them among the hills and the far valleys.
There is no sound like theirs.
I know you cannot imagine what it is like.
I know you cannot believe anything alive can make that sound.
But you will, you will.

So: wolves, coyotes, mountains, loneliness - these images and feelings are Lane’s stock in trade. The sixth line is, no doubt, meant to be taken at face value, but I confess to being credulous. I can imagine what "it" is like, because Lane has done "it" before ad infinitum. The last three lines seem to be saying that "the rest of the book will show you what loneliness really is" but they do not acknowledge that we have already been shown. And, I regret to say, we’ve been shown "it" better.

The book is divided into two sections, the first composed of glaringly under-edited and overlong prose poems compromised by unmediated anecdote. What these poems attempt is to tell stories, and they were best meant for that form. For example, "The War", a poem about Lane’s meeting and exchanging of life stories with an immigrant potter, derails when Lane interrupts the telling with,

…The heat/ and a single fly he caught in the middle of the telling, his one hand/ holding what was left of the bread and his other, the left one, coming/ behind the fly and then sweeping slowly, catching the fly as it rose/ backwards as flies do when they first lift from what they rest on, bread/ the crumbs fallen on the slick surface of the table, a lick of wet butter./ He held his fist to my ear so I could hear the buzzing/ then flung the fly to the floor, the single sharp click of its body/ breaking there. And the story going on, the fly an interruption…

This is a paragraph of a digression; is there room for such monster-size digression in a poem? Unmusical, with awkward phrasing ("backwards as flies do when they first lift from what they rest on") and irredeemably prosy, Lane crams in too much anecdotal detail, overburdening the poems with content.

Yet when not strictly ‘telling the tale,’ so to speak, but rather editorializing/kitchen-table philosophizing, Lane can compound his blunders with mystical groaners like this one in "Weeds": "…The poor/ do not make wishes, for wishes are seen as luck and luck is by its nature/ always bad and brings consequences and so wishes are not made…" Or how about this bit of gloopy nature-spiritualism from "The Wild Self": "There is no understanding why a thing can stop a man in his life,/ but it can… but most often it is a thing that comes from the sea or the land,/ and so has some purity to it, some part of it retaining its wild self,/ and because, even though it is broken, it is still wild,/ and every man senses that, and that is how meaning begins…" This reads like a new age treatise for self-improvement, an Iron John variant. It does not make for vigorous poetry.

If it seems I am unfairly focusing on certain narrative elements of these poems, it is only because Lane himself makes so much of them. He writes in "Weeds": "…And that is how it is with stories and sometimes the teller of the story will/ try to make the story better, make it more real, and sometimes leave someone/ out, or describe something different from what it was…" Isn’t this a strange thing to say in a poem? It seems to me the game has been given away, that most of these prose ‘poems’ have an undue internal and overt emphasis on story. In the poem "Shingle," for example, the word ‘story’ and its variations appear five times- a deadening repetition that bludgeons the reader into acknowledging that, yes, Lane is trying to tell a story. Just in case we don’t comprehend, more advice on the story comes in "Choices": "A story is what you require, a plot,/ where what you leave out is more important than what you tell."

Indeed. But whither the poetry? It appears that Lane is unconcerned. Would that he have heeded his own advice, for there is much that needed to be suppressed in his lengthy book’s 117 pages.

In The Addiction Poems, the second section of the book, Lane makes a modest recovery. This is because the poems here are shorter, tighter, and more controlled. His lyric mode offers less opportunity for garrulity. The ‘stories’ of these poems, if there are any at all, are contained by the poem, as opposed to being the purpose of the poem, and this is how it should be.

The blood-alcohol level and violence-ometer -two trusty diagnostic devices when reading Lane poetry- all read depressingly high in this section, even for Lane. "Match Stick" is typical from a thematic point of views: "The drugs and whiskey/ keep the table alive. Everyone is quiet/ in the stone of their lives. You hate/ her weakness, take her in the mouth, her gagging, the rest watching…" Lane’s canvas here in poems with titles like "Kids and Coke" and "Curse" and "Dead Baby" is dull and mean; the Lane voice is especially harsh, permitting little beauty. These are difficult conditions for poetry; many poems read like once-off violence ditties or random crime graffitis and are exacerbated by a grimy aimlessness. Bad things happen, perpetually; there is no purpose. In a poem, blood can be "in a boy’s head" and a bullet can be "in a man" but we never hear of either again. Yet there are a few poems in this section that transcend their sordid environments and constitute the real poems of the book, poems that do achieve a purpose- an artistic one. Such a poem is "Tight Smoke:"

Her closed eyes talked to the walls in a bar
I don’t want to remember, her man
with his one hand held to her throat
like tight smoke burning,
her broken bird wings
thrashing above the sawdust floor…

In this excerpt, the subject matter (violence against women, substance abuse) is familiar, but here Lane has a unity of image (a woman in extremis with "broken bird wings") and mood (the resignation of "Her closed eyes talked to the walls in a bar"). Image and mood are punctuated by a hopeless burst of adrenaline ("his one hand held to her throat/ like tight smoke burning.") Unfortunately, there is not much of this kind of success to be found in the book as a whole.

Patrick Lane has become an institution in this country, and that is exactly Patrick Lane’s problem. Go Leaving Strange does not list an editor on its title page; this unedited state is not doing his poetry any good. On the evidence of his latest book, it is essential for Patrick Lane to do two things: he must find an editor capable of prompting him to go in new directions, but more importantly, Lane must forsake everything he knows so that a new voice can emerge.

Shane Neilson is a poet from New Brunswick.







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