Poetry and Fiction Reviews
Washita: New Poems
by Patrick Lane
Toronto: Harbour Publishing, 2014
80 pp. $18.95
In his latest collection, Patrick Lane explores familiar territory through the lyric poem, but the whole book is tinged with a recognition of the changes that come with ageing. One of predominate motifs is dust, and Lane suggests that dust is what comes from life. The tone is pensive as Lane ranges through nature, poetry, family, and time.
The poems are arranged alphabetically by title, from “Arroyo” to “Wishing Not To Be Aloof Like Stone,” with an irregular number of poems for various letters. The words of the titles may or may not appear in the poems, so the titles may have been created to fit the order in the book as there is a hint of movement in the poems that goes beyond simply reading the pages in sequence. As expected, the natural world infuses the poems with a solidity while at the same time demonstrating the constant flux of life.
A “washita” is a sharpening stone, and these poems feel like stones against which life is sharpened. The words are like blades slicing through perceptions and questions. The word “washita” is used in “Swarf,” and this poem integrates two of the main concerns of the collection: Lane’s father, who suffered from silicosis, and Lane’s own increasing blindness. By reading into the past, the poems develop continuity while also increasing the sense of loss, both past and present.
Most of the poems are less than one page, usually around 13 lines. The longest poem is 34 lines, and it has the longest title: “The Unbearable Beauty of Despair Albert Camus Wrote of in his Last Nights.” Lane writes of his parents and the power of story. He imagines his mother bathing his ailing father while the son is a baby in a drawer: “and though this is a story I have imagined again, / one I have told over and over until it has become a song / that has invaded me, the words repeating inside me, / it is the first where I’ve placed my father in the corrugated washtub and my mother / washing him [ . . . ].” Such tenderness infuses the poems but they are also full of shock and pain. In “Informis,” a boy earns money by putting his hand in an ant’s nest: “I stood aside as the men from the highway crew watched his flesh / become another thing, a red swarm screaming.” Pain and decay reside with beauty, may even create it.
That the book was written at all is something of a miracle as Lane endured frozen shoulder and was unable to type win his usual one-finger, right-hand manner. That he has done so much with one finger is incredible but to have to switch to his left hand, a process he describes in the Afterword as “excruciatingly slow.” But the slowness opens him to possibilities mediated by time and the process becomes “exquisite, each letter, each word, and each line meditations rare and beautiful.”
The method of production matches the results.