Register Tuesday | November 30 | 2021

The Canonization of Millicent Travis Lane

I’ve never been to New Brunswick, and to some extent a west coaster commenting on the Maritimes is like asking your bicycle repairman to fix your dishwasher. But I can tell you what I imagine the province to be: a sanctuary for Canadian poetry. And Millicent Travis Lane is one of its sentries. Winner of Atlantic Poetry Prize, author of fifteen poetry collections (her latest was the Governor General-nominated Crossover) and a literary radical so badass her response to an all-male Canadian poetry anthology first proposed by her faculty peers was to go and plaster the University of New Brunswick English department doors with a list of women Maritime poets. 

That fierce moral temperature has translated itself into cerebral poems wrought with gorgeous figurative imagery and delicate metaphysical conceits. Critics have commented variously on Lane’s poetic intelligence, careful music and  probing honesty, obvious in openers such as “Like a ruined leaf a bird’s bones hang/ upside down in the night wind,/ a star in the beak” or the knee-weakening, brain-busting: 

From my thumb in the hole in my pocket, warm,

 to the Crab or the edge of Snickers’ dust,

 is a cold hole flocked with gossamer,

goose-quill electrons, spiral snails

of geologic colloids, gas (fern spores

for blind astronomers)— 

Her work can also be funny, evident in titles like “No One Explains Things to Dogs” or the playful echo to Dickinson in the lines, “I started out, my bright canoe/ (red crayon bobbing on a pond/ among cow lilies).” And yet, according to Toronto critic and poet [and Maisonneuve contributor] Shane Neilson, we haven’t been doing a very good job of recognizing “our most humble and reclusive, and also greatest, talent.”

That quote comes from a pencil grey, beautifully typeset monograph entitled How Thought Feels: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane. The book is part of Neilson’s larger effort to install Lane into our canon, a campaign that includes editing The Essential Travis Lane, a newly released selection of her finest poems, as well as the upcoming selection of her critical writing, due out next year from Palimpsest press. How Thought Feels resembles the policy platformfor his critical maneuvers. It includes essays by himself, Jan Zwicky and Jeanette Lynes, as well as selection of excerpts representing Lane’s poetics and a full bibliography of Lane’s publications.  

Neilson goes about his rescue project with affection, aggression and reasoned bias. He is ferocious cheerleader, citing Lane’s demographics and isolation from her contemporary literary circles as reasons why she has been under-celebrated over her forty-six-plus year career. While Maritime celebrity Alden Nowlan and his posse were off trying to convince everyone the Earth was flat (the Canadian Flat Earth Society was abandoned when it was discovered the Earth really does look flat when you’ve had three gins), Lane was writing about ecology, women’s experiences, myth, aesthetics and Christian faith. She was never much for literary mingling. Then there’s the apparent problem of Lane’s spiritual themes and how reviewers have dismissed or avoided her exploration of Christian faith as though one could sweep all that religious hokey-pokey under the rug. 

This latter point Neilson takes strenuous measures to prove wrong. His essay features a luminous close reading of Lane’s long poem “The Book of the Thrones” revealing ironic iconography where readers might expect evangelism, metaphysical intelligence where they might anticipate obscure biblical imagery. Through linguistic dexterity and musical acuity, Lane relentlessly questions the foundations of Christian belief to launch searching critiques on human ethics—“how we live and how we should live,” as Neilson phrases it. And the journey does not stop there. As Neilson shows, Lane also navigates the more tenuous and foggy terrains of semantics, Christian hermeneutics and language with extra-tough philosophical wader boots. Over a decades-long, intellectual trek, her poetry begins with thinking about the shrouded relations between God’s word and human words and ends up on the other, perhaps more secularist shore, by substituting this spiritual discourse for “the poetic word”: the mysterious ways poems mean, evoke and draw us into human community.

Jan Zwicky’s essay is likewise a foray into Lane’s semantics, but with a distinct philosophical stride. Essentially, Zwicky argues that Lane’s poetics suggest an interdependence between language and meaning. Meaning needs words to “survive.” Accordingly, poetry—a language-using act—makes meaning out of a world that could not exist otherwise. This view is close to what is usually called idealism: “interpreting, bringing the world into being through acts of imagination.” The danger here is believing everything is what we make or creatively interpret of it, which is not a view Lane would agree with. Nature goes on very well without us. There are versions of human experience a single individual can’t know. And after all, Lane’s Christian semantics would insist there is a divine world more ineffable and mysterious than human language can explain.

There are real-world ethical applications for these abstract problems. In the third essay “M. Travis Lane, Ecopoet,” Jeanette Lynes suggests that Lane’s concern with language goes hand-in-hand with a critique about the human appropriation of nature. She suggests Lane’s latter work especially “probes a dimension beyond language—‘a farther poetry’” as if to acknowledge nature’s discreteness from human language. (Perhaps this sidesteps the idealism mousetrap.) Lane urges human humility over hubris, ecological connectedness over human/nature binaries, local attentiveness over global domination. 

This might sound all very fine and Canadian. But I think Lane’s more unusual for the ways in which she related these concerns to the European colonial attitudes that enable the destruction of the natural environment and its original human inhabitants. “Red Earth”—written in the 1970s, a poem Lynes addresses at length—is spoken from the perspective of the wife of a white anthropologist who arrives at a northern New Brunswick First Nations’ reserve to study Maliseet (Wolastoqiyik) mythology. If the choice of speaker (a white woman) and this poem’s content (her attempts to understand and help the reserve aboriginals) raises both our political suspicions and our eyebrows, this is perhaps the point. Some of these speaker’s lines grate painfully with colonialism. “I want to tell them what to do,” the speaker says. And “They wouldn’t be that lonely if they’d try.” 

Well, we know what happened when the European colonizers tried to be helpful. Yet Lane does not try to satirize or lambast this speaker. Rather, her intent is to expose this colonial psyche in order to renovate it. By the end of the long poem, the speaker’s initial complicity in her husband’s projects has evolved into a humility and profound respect towards these aboriginals’ non-appropriable traditions. Lynes suggests the speaker “opens herself to a culture lived more in harmony with the land,” indicating that there may be a sense of unity in this acknowledged disunity. She means an ecological unity, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Lane is exploring a cultural politics too.  

Philosophical complexity: check. Political courage: check. Those are two qualities on my list that make a great poet. Neilson tries two other methods of argument. He takes the requisite jabs at existing poets considered great (his target is Anne Carson) and points out Lane’s superiority in craft, saying that Lane is obviously better than that form-breaking law-breaking Carson whose inattention to meter and lineation “sabotage[s] actual poetry.” He also offers us a “curated” statement of Lane’s poetics in the fourth section of the monograph: literally by excerpting passages that mention the words “poetry” or “poem” and “word” or “Word,” Neilson shows Lane’s various attitudes towards poetic composition and her aforementioned concern with semantics. The exercise doesn’t compensate for close reading or Lane’s own words. I’d rather refer to Lane’s “A Reader’s Deductions” from Keeping Afloat for an author’s statement about writing. But if its purpose is to show “how beautiful and various” Lane’s thinking is, then I believe this section succeeds very well. It’s also useful if you’re too lazy to borrow Keeping Afloat from the library.

Is Lane canon-worthy? Neilson thinks so. I think so too, and yet my postmodernist spleen twinges. There’s something odd about claiming Lane for a hierarchical idea of literature that initially wanted nothing to do her. To be fair, Neilson does not use the word “canon,” but there is certainly a canonizing intent behind this monograph, in his criticism of Anne Carson and in his comparison of Lane to “famous” poets. It makes me wonder if this isn’t quite the right way to describe Lane—or most of our Canadian writers, for that matter. It also makes me acknowledge that I’m a terrible skeptic when it comes to a cultural construction of literary greatness—a process we’ve naturalized for perhaps pragmatic reasons to do with publicity.  This isn’t to say I don’t believe in varying grades of poems or talent. Rather, to this reader, it can get very boring very quickly to talk about how this writer/artist/figure is better than that writer/artist/figure. That thinking tends to narrow the literary field rather than diversify it. Ultimately, rather than judge a writer by his or her comparable merits, I care more about what they wrote, and how they did so. 

And in that spirit, Neilson and I agree: Lane is great. She has received less attention than she deserves and I can only hope that this monograph is the first of more discussion and celebration to come. 

Laura Ritland’s poems have been published in places like Maisonneuve, Arc, the Malahat Review and CV2. She is the winner of the 2014 Malahat Review Far Horizons Award for Poetry and a recent graduate of the masters in creative writing program at the University of Toronto.