Some people just don’t know when to quit. Whether it’s George Foreman dragging his overweight, over-age self back into the ring for one more doomed-to-failure comeback, or Pete Rose batting .219 at age forty-five, or Gordie Howe returning to the NHL at fifty-one to score forty-one points, there’s something pitifully undignified about a one-time champion trying to recapture glory in his golden years. In poets, the correlation between advancing age and diminishing performance is not as inevitable or as pronounced as with athletes. Some poets continue to write brilliantly long past the age at which many people can no longer write a cheque, showing almost no sign of attenuation, as was the case with the recently deceased Czeslaw Milosz. Most poets, however, seem to have a heyday of ten to twenty years in which they compose their best poems; before and after this, their work is subpar. But because their skill set is not strictly physical and the means for evaluating performance are generally more subjective, poets tend more often than athletes to outlive themselves.
Go Leaving Strange
by Patrick Lane
Harbour Publishing, April 2004
Irving Layton is a perfect example of this. At his peak, from around 1945 to 1960, Layton wrote arguably the greatest poems of any Canadian at any time. From the sixties through the eighties, however, Layton reads like a poor imitation of himself, but to all appearances he was still convinced of his own unflagging genius. And though Irving was born only a year later than Milosz, and is still living, advanced infirmity has kept him from writing since 1989, a situation that can only be paradoxically described as a cruel mercy.
Patrick Lane has long been one of Canada’s most highly regarded poets. He has staked his reputation on themes of sex, death, violence and the hard lives of the rural and urban poor, writing mostly in a quiet, reflective, meditative mode. There is a poignant truthfulness and a spare elegance to his best work that make it stand out from the crowd and stand up to the passage of time. In Go Leaving Strange, Lane returns to his customary themes.
But his treatment of those themes is not up to past standards. The book is divvied up into two sections: “After” and “The Addiction Poems.” The former contains mainly long and rambling pieces written in likewise long and rambling lines. There’s a rhythmic persuasiveness to Lane’s methods here, which include run-on sentences whose clauses are all connected by the conjunction “and” as well as refrainlike iterations of natural inventories, as in this excerpt from the poem “Weeds”:
And the woolly burdock blooms in the yard and beside the grey boards of the fence and in the wasted fields beyond and the absinthe and the nodding thistle also bloom there with pigweed and tumbling mustard and prickly lettuce and they are weeds and the poor live among them
and believe them flowers just as they believe the quack grass and the wild oats, the downy brome and foxtail barley, and the witch grass are lawns,
and the children of the poor pick the tall buttercup and the low larkspur, water hemlock and wild carrot, death camas and yellow locoweed,
and bring them home to their mothers as bouquets
and their mothers place the blooms in milk bottles
and the children look upon the blossoms there in the kitchen and laugh as children do when they have made their mothers happy
and then they go back out into the wasteland and play their games, for it is summer, and it is good to be a child there on the beaten clay among the glacial stones and broken branches of poplars and aspens and I can see them there and part of me is made glad by their fierce joy, and part of me is not, for I know what it was to endure there and that happiness was rare in that world and not to be imagined or wished for.
The looseness of this kind of lope-along line, however, is prone to slackness, in the form of banal repetition and prolixity, as with “water glasses / beaded from the sweat of air when the cold meets it.” One wants to scream at such wordiness, “CONDENSATION!” Similarly, one wonders why redundancies like “vitrified glass” weren’t caught and excised. The long lines can obscure these flaws, but do not excuse them. Also, Lane goes to the well far too often in “After,” so that what starts off as incantatory becomes, after several poems composed in like manner, hypnotically dull. Consider the first section of “Weeds”: the poem is 463 words long; 62 of those words are “and”—and, and, and it is followed by five sections employing similar syntactic strategies. But the most significant problem with these poems is that the technique and style don’t so much belong to Lane as they are cribbed from Ernest Hemingway. Let’s do a comparison:
and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain.
The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with the autumn. There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountains and the trucks splashed mud on the road and the troops were muddy and wet in their capes
And when I was a child in that world, the wasteland of barren fields, the deserted shacks and burned-out houses, and the creeks
with the rusting bodies of Fords and Packards drowned among the cattails and milfoil, the clasping-leaf pondweed and marsh horsetail, and mosquito larvae in the broken bottles jutting their jagged necks from the mud,
and pieces of machinery, transmissions and oil pans, gas tanks and differentials, bled their oil and gasoline into the puddles
One quote is from Go Leaving Strange, the other from A Farewell to Arms, with line breaks added by yours truly for camouflage. Can you see the difference? I’ll give it away: the only real difference is that Hemingway is good enough to give the reader respite with the odd period. I didn’t have to look long and hard to find these nuggets, as Lane’s book is chock-a-block with signature Hemingway elements. He even has the gall to use a quote from Hemingway as the epigraph to one of his poems! Elsewhere, he paraphrases Hemingway’s “iceberg” theory of fiction: “A story is what you require, a plot, / where what you leave out is more important than what you tell.” One wonders if the section wasn’t originally entitled “After … Hemingway.” This goes far beyond influence into the realm of pure imitation, which may be the sincerest form of flattery, but is pretty bad form for a senior poet. As Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
“The Addiction Poems” is wholly different in style, though not, unfortunately, for the better. If “After” mimics Hemingway’s prose, “The Addiction Poems” copies his famous tough-guy pose. In a much earlier poem, Lane once wrote, “That whole life / was violent but it didn’t seem so at the time. / We were just living, you see.” The kind of restraint implied by this statement is what makes Lane’s earlier poetry successful. And it is precisely that restraint which the failing older poet jettisons in “The Addiction Poems,” trying to shock his readers now he can no longer sway them with greater subtlety:
Babies died back then and no one said a word
though you could tell by the missing eyes
what daddy kept his girl too close to him.
These poems have all the bathos of bad country and western songs, right down to titles like “Crying Time Again” and “Hurting Song,” in which latter we receive the instruction to “[g]o break your heart and then with crazy glue / spend your hours healing what is broke.” In one poem, we are treated to the singular observation that “Pity is hard. So is shame. / … / Pity or shame, they’re both hard.” Just before this flat declamation, the speaker experiences an earth-shaking epiphany: “I knew looking at her I wasn’t Jesus and never would be.” I hate it when that happens.
Most of these poems have the feel of one-offs and draft notes; despite their brevity, they manage to occupy even more useless space than the longer poems of the first section. But in the midst of the refuse-strewn, weed-choked fields of the first section and the knife fights, coke binges and beatings of the second, there is the odd glimmering indication that Lane’s muse has not yet abandoned him completely, such as this gorgeous passage from “My Father’s Watch”:
So white, so white her dance
in that room of fluttered light.
Dark earth, a staghorn’s prance
among the fallen leaves at night.
How small her gentle feet, her glance,
wet willow leaves, her hands, their slight.
One wonders if such formal constraints, otherwise not much in evidence in the book, might be the key to an eventual return to form for Lane. The book’s title poem also stands out from the rest of the dreck:
Hounds run silent till they catch the spoor.
It’s why you close the door
and when your woman asks what’s wrong, say
nothing, the sky inventing clouds
where no clouds are, the light in the thin pines
turning pale and the hounds lost in their steady run.
Again, here Lane gets away from singing the sad-sack song of his self-image and manages to get some serious, stubborn poetry written. If he has more poems like this in him, he should save them up before rushing his next book into print. If not, he should think about retiring from active duty to devote more time to minor-league coaching.
Halifax-based Zachariah Wells is the author of Unsettled, a book of Arctic poems from Insomniac Press. The Zed Factor appears every second Monday.