Patrick Lane. Witness: Selected Poems 1962-2010. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour, 2010.
Reviewed by Shane Neilson
I’ve always been uneasy about Patrick Lane. His work is violent, tough, and masculine; it is sparse and lyrical; it has an honest emotional centre. But I’ve been left after reading his work with the suspicion that that’s all there is. Dynamics are necessary to carry a career-spanning selected edition of a poet’s work, some kind of other-register that suggests the talent is multifaceted. Sadly, it appears when reading Witness that Lane has indeed written only one kind of poem his entire career, or at least decided that only one kind of poem was worth broadcasting here. The poems are good, even beautiful; there is wisdom to be found. But they are very, very repetitive, and the insight tends to be the “life is hard and then you die” variety. Let me itemize Lane’s strategy. The first poem has a dead bird in it. The third poem states, “Last night in darkness someone killed our cat. / Dipped her in gas. Set her aflame.” The fourth poem states, “Nothing moves / as the stallion with five free mares / runs into the guns. All dead.” I could go on and on with this taxidermy of animals meant to convey that the world is a lonely killing field, and to portray Lane as some kind of witness, and sometime participant, to that death. In fact, here’s the key to Lane’s kingdom from “A Murder of Crows”: “Innocence, old nightmare, drags behind / me like a shadow and today I killed again. // The body hanging down from its tripod. / My knife slid up and steaming ribbons of gut / fell to the ground. I broke the legs / and cut the anus out, stripped off the skin / and chopped the head away; maggots of fat / clinging to the pale red flesh. The death?” Yes, I ask the same question. The death? Death is the star character here. Almost personified in the book, death is the book’s personality, morose and poignant the tone. This book of poetry is almost a procedural. The poetry is enhanced by its darkness, its clear pain note. But it is indisputably monotonous. Lane has either only one gear or he has only one formula, the dead animal-I’m in pain-here’s a beautiful image kind of poem that’s won him lots of awards and acclaim and which, in its near-perverse lack of deviation, suggests a kind of odd heroism that in the prose world finds a brother in David Adams Richards, whose work is also hard, spare, elegant, hardscrabble, and unchanging over time. What Lane needs, at this late stage in his career, is a change in theme: he’s done the little allegorical animal death poem to death. He’s done the hard livin’ poem to death. He needs to write beautifully of something else. He needs to blow up the lyric and discover other poetics. He needs, finally, Rilke’s advice. It’s not too late. Lane has perfected to the realm of routine one kind of poem. He can perfect the discovery of others, too.