There’s a saying that death lies in the crease of your sleeve. Death is similarly woven into the pages of Patrick Lane’s latest book, Washita. From the opening poem where the dead arrive not with gilded fanfare but “like turnips pulled winter-burned and cold from the soil” to the final poem in which the narrator cuts a doe’s throat under an apple tree, tragedy and loss underpin this quietly devastating collection.
If all things must disappear into death and decay, at least the eye that Lane casts on life’s brutality is a reverent one. In fact, Lane’s treatment of a cultural taboo is nothing short of masterful. There are nods to Mandelstam and Milosz, but more significant is the influence of Asian philosophy, Taoism and early Zen writings. Even the cat is named for the great Japanese poet, Basho. Lane’s stance that the world is “best seen from the knees” shapes a body of work that reads like a humble meditation on mortality.
The narrator reveals a desire for simpler times, and there is the sense of someone putting his affairs in order, of parsing experience with haiku-like restraint. Poems are ordered alphabetically from “Arroyo” to “Wishing Not to Be Aloof like Stone,” with most lines end-stopped to create the effect of narrator as sure-footed witness. In his afterword, Lane recounts how a frozen shoulder made typing excruciatingly slow, each letter “a dry fir needle circling above slow brown fins.” The poet’s endurance is palpable.
Interestingly, Lane’s returning gesture to the theme of seeing and not seeing recalls the work of the late Argentinian poet, Borges, who eventually lost his sight. According to Lane, life begins and ends in blindness, and the poet’s view of the world is eclipsed by a creeping penumbra, through veils of gossamer, muslin and the dragonfly’s “pellucid wing.”
Like poems in search of nameless being, Lane’s work seems to capture the timeless passage of water on stone. Incidentally, Washita is a type of sharpening stone quarried from the Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas. But even stone has an inherent violence, with references to a father’s lung condition caused by long-term exposure to quartz crystals. What remains of us when even rock can disintegrate?
The ranks of the dead (poets, old flames, family members, slaughtered whales, even the corpse of a hermit warbler) pile up to cast a long shadow throughout. Nothing escapes their inevitability. And yet the book teems with the earthy beauty of plum blossoms, spider webs, moss and little brown bats “gorging on fragrant moths”. Despite the omnipresence of death, Lane’s poems reverberate with the shock of life’s insatiable appetite for itself. They present a clear vision of the world in all its brutal, sacred wonder: “It was a trout rising made me see what a day is, a ripple only.”
In Washita Lane reminds us that what animates us is precious and fleeting.
Anouk H. Henri holds a Master’s in Poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts and currently lives just outside Montreal.
ARC IS THE BEE’S KNEES!