It is not the poem which closes
A Tent, A Lantern, An Empty Bowl and Keeping Count, M. Travis Lane. Gordon Hill Press, 2020
Let’s begin with rocks and mud.
The poem “May Rocks,” which appears nearly midway through Keeping Count, M. Travis Lane’s most recent collection, begins with a single-word sentence: “Spring.” This is followed by rocks that “butt and push” in a lawn “jagged with dragon’s teeth.” It continues:
New stones rise up, while last year’s stones
sink under moss
as if the mud were pulling back
what it so strongly had put forth,
the mud inconstant, fidgety.
A cynical veteran of the Canadian literary community might picture “last year’s stones” as poets: the older generation, long-venerated, overgrowing with moss and sinking back into the mire. I wouldn’t put it past Lane, with that characteristic wink in her line, to have noticed this possible reading as well. But seriously, this is not the Spring a casual reader expects to encounter in a poem. Absent are crocus blooms and hyacinths. No buds, no births, no warm breezes. Just “Spring.” An emphatic, one-syllable exhalation. Read it aloud and feel the relief that fuels it. Alone like that, the word does, lightly but perceptibly, spring — it moves. It lifts.
But what does it lift, exactly? Our spirits? Our deflated, drawn-out-winter moods?
No. Rocks. Earth. The very ground beneath us. What is Spring, after all, but the Earth awaking — like a sleeping monster — after its long slumber? The lines here move exactly like a Canadian spring: gaining momentum then slowing up, changing course — girding itself before finally, decisively, shoving winter aside.
It takes a writer such as Lane to so potently enact this obvious-once-you see- it yet — apologies for the pun — groundbreaking truth in a poem. She arrives at the task armed with a lifetime’s worth of dedicated practice in: one, looking; two, taking in that which she sees — allowing it to land within her; and three, reporting her observations with freshness, clarity, and often delight. She does so with neither unnecessary adornment nor gratuitous interpretation; rather, through strikingly apt rhythm and imagery. Her report is at once familiar and revelatory.
In the poem’s second and final stanza, the house “teeters on its slab” as meltwater “erodes the city underground.” Spring’s a new beginning, sure, but that’s no promise of solid footing. Lane finally declares, “The planet itself is no sure thing, / though, mornings, I’d want to bet on it.” It’s another lift — a “spring” — but tentative, one that foretells pessimism come afternoon.
A distinct voice in Canadian poetry since all the way back to the publication of her first chapbook, An Inch or So of Garden, in 1969, Lane counts these latest offerings, 2019’s A Tent, a Lantern, an Empty Bowl, and 2020’s Keeping Count, as her seventeenth and eighteenth collections respectively. They follow the shortlisting of her most recent book, 2015’s Crossover, for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and a lengthy list of prior accolades, including the first-ever Pat Lowther Memorial Award (1981); the Atlantic Poetry Prize; the Alden Nowlan Award for Excellence in Literary Arts; and New Brunswick’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award for High Achievement in Literary Arts.
Despite this resumé, a 2019 review of Lane’s work in The Walrus was titled, “The best Canadian poet you’ve never heard of.” Her relative obscurity outside of select, appreciative, literary circles is attributed by some to an endemic lack of awareness regarding “regional” Canadian writers beyond their own backyards (Lane, born in the U.S. in 1934, has lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick, since 1960), and to the religious themes that infuse Lane’s work. Poet, scholar, physician, critic, and Lane champion Shane Neilson forcefully makes both of these cases in How Thought Feels: the poetry of M. Travis Lane, a critical monograph published by Frog Hollow Press in 2015 (and edited by Neilson himself). Within, Neilson fumes, “Indeed, it’s hard not to want to aim brimstone at Canadian critics for ignoring our most humble and reclusive, and also greatest, talent.”
If you, as a reader, have “rejected organic form,” as Lane — herself a prolific reviewer of poetry — once put it in a multi-book review reprinted in her 2016 prose collection Heart on Fist, you may have your own ideas about Lane’s public profile. She is unapologetically a poet of — again, in her own words — the “fusing of style and content,” a habit some consider “old-fashioned.” For Lane, the elements of poetry are, rather than ends in themselves, tools to employ toward lighting up the eye, ear, and consciousness of her reader. In fact, her dedication in Keeping Count is offered “with gratitude for friends, editors, family — above all, for readers.”
A Tent is organized into three sections named for textiles: Quilt, Banner, and Tent. Note that rather than pretty, lacy fabrics, these are practical and durable. The poems here contain a familiar mixture of nuanced forays into the natural world — many subtly underpinned by (or remarking frankly on) our failed stewardship —; ekphrastic poems that vibrate with the kinetic energy of two art forms colliding; richly layered devotional pieces; and poems written to, for, or about friends.
In A Tent’s opening poem, “Imagine a Quilt of Water” (Lane goes for direct, rather than clever, titles), she sees forms of water as “squares” “stitched on the page of afternoon”: “a mountain lake / layered by wind”; “the pin-pricked surfaces of snow”; “blue-brown water / fussing below a bridge”; “the mud-opaque of ocean waves”; “the watery slick” parking lot “iced over / knobbed like a rhino’s hide”; “a valley of rain through a window screen”; “a bathtub filled; on its edge a cat.”
Is this a poem about the shape-shifting, life-giving element of water? Alternatively, is it about quilts? Such questions aren’t all that productive. As Lane declares in her afterword to The Crisp Day Closing on My Hand, the 2007 selected volume of her work edited by Jeanette Lynes for the Laurier Poetry Series, “a poem is not a message, but a sharing.” She has also declared, this time right in a poem itself (“A Reader’s Deductions,” from her 2010 book Keeping Afloat), “A poem says how its words feel.”
So how do the words in this poem feel? “Stitched.” “Layered.” “Pin-pricked.” “Knobbed.” “Iced-over.” Ever-changing, then, and at the mercy of outside forces. Yet also gathered and arranged into a pattern (like the words of a poem) — an ever-undulating element laid over the planet.
Such intricate interconnectivity is a hallmark of Lane’s writing. Take “The Voice of a Bird,” in which, after we encounter late winter’s “re-glassed” sidewalks “narrow and dangerous”:
A bird calls out from the shattered hedge —
a pre-seasonal song,
like the summer shirts
they sell in the malls on St. Pat’s day —
(the only green’s on the fingernails
of the market girl, where I buy my eggs.)
The poet (hilariously) links this “pre-seasonal” birdsong with tacky holiday T-shirts and outlandish nail polish. It’s as if she’s calling back to the bird: You’re trying too hard! Her mischievous humour butts up against the agony of waiting, that “matter of sunlight, of lengthening days,” giving the poem what I’d call a Lane-esque effect: serious while playful; attuned likewise to reverence and irreverence; alert to the line and what’s between it. Between these lines lies a different agony, tied to the season of Lent, the sombre six weeks in the Christian calendar that precede Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, a sacred period of waiting — of dread and hope — that Lane humanizes with such frank, stark (yet musical!) statements as, “I pick my way through the parking lot / with a steel-point cane.”
I could continue through A Tent poem by poem in this fashion. The phrasing is vigorous and pointed; imagery pops. In The Far End, “The gravel’s sprigged with minute flowers,” and seabirds appear, in brackets, as “(torn paper fluttering on tide fringe).” In “Down at the Lake” far-shore lights are “cat-tail candles.” In “The Observers,” an osprey is “a kite let loose” and water withdraws from the shore “like a fist in gloves.” In “Cap D’or” “Mist clings to the blackened, copper cliffs / as if a pinioned god / dangles, half-blind, glittering.”
Some might find her too particular, the poems crammed, like a curiosity shop or old-fashioned mystery, with objects, details, angles, twists. I caution that these quotes, extracted so brutally from the poems they call home, achieve barely half their effects. This is the usual hazard with any review, but the diminishment feels especially potent with Lane. Jan Zwicky, in her essay on Lane’s work from How Thought Feels, delves into poetry’s ability to form a gestalt: “an articulated whole, a kind of ecology” — the sort of wholeness that we grasp in such things, Zwicky explains, as melodies or compelling phrases. “When we read such a phrase,” she writes, “we don’t notice first one of these components, then another, then another, and add them up: we grasp the gesture of the phrase as a whole . . .” In Lane’s work we often encounter the truly “powerful gestalts” that lie, as Zwicky notes, “at the heart of great poetry.” For me, Lane’s gestalts are typically characterized by a narrow-eyed, lowkey, late-in-the-day form of wisdom — an often self-deprecating wisdom that dances along the line, altering from jig to foxtrot to waltz, depending. This “wisdom dance,” let’s call it, is embedded in her craft; it propels poem after poem in both of the books under question here, and in Lane’s work as a whole.
Reading (and rereading) Keeping Count — which progresses from “inside” poems, to “outside,” to the “way out,” to “end note” — I’m struck by a delicious sense of revisiting sights and sounds, a series of ordinary journeys tinged with renewal, an always fresh seeing. I suspect I grasp this aspect of Lane’s work more fully than ever this year, reading it during pandemic lockdown, as, morning after morning, I embark with my son on the same walk around the same local streets, park and small wetland. Lane, more effectively than perhaps any poet I know, articulates nature’s moods. And she does so with breathtaking precision.
Many winds blow through Keeping Count. In “Murmuration,” “A loose concentric of tiny birds” silhouetted in a bare tree resemble “small consonants the wind obscures.” We later venture with Lane to “Lamèque,” a place almost painfully “Whittled by wind into barrenness.” Then comes the marvel of “March Wind,” which “opens the day, an enormous door.” Later in this same poem, “light shrieks out / from the leafless trees.” Turn from that shrieking to the softer light of “Late Fall,” when “The long boughs of the dying elms / are draining the sky of its evening glow . . .” Or into the “yellow-gold parentheses” of the “unclad windows” below. Circle back through this paragraph and you’ll see variations on leafless trees, as well. Here’s another, in “Meduxnekeag,” in which bare trees “seem tarnished by the late afternoon / that flickered among them like a bird.”
Lane is that bird, flickering from tree to wire to shrub to fence, missing nothing. She notes a far-off lit cigarette; she prods silence; she pokes fun at herself; she even, crow-like, indulges in sarcastic social commentary, as in “Market,” which begins, “A market almost without food: / some green bananas, biscuits in bright tins, / baskets of strident, knitted gloves…” Though she is not especially given to confession or autobiography, when she does veer into personal history, as in the moving poem “Her” (from A Tent), her observations are frank and piercing: “I was never at home at home, you see. / Looked after, I was, and loved, I guess.” Regardless of her subject, she doesn’t gush or effuse, but her own moods do infiltrate. In “Scar,” for example, “A foolish rain sluices the street, / erases it.” In “Erasures,” she writes, “As if we were lice, / the ocean combs us out — / a sort of scummy litter on its fringe.” This is the nearest Lane comes, I think, to expressing outright fury over the ecological devastation humanity has wrought. As if in penance, she gives her disgust to the ocean itself to wield.
Mortality and death are nothing new in her poetry, but they gain poignancy in these later books (Lane is now in her late eighties, after all). And poems for friends (including those ill or lost) abound. To revisit those aforementioned variations, perhaps her most devastating depiction of wind resides in A Tent’s “Pass,” an elegy situated at high elevation, seemingly teetered on the very edge of existence. In this poem, two friends on an outing are forced to pause at the timberline, “high enough” (a delightful Lane-ism, a making-do that is by no means a giving-in):
Wind trembled the car as we huddled there,
a picnic in the mansion of the air;
(whiskey, cold chicken, and carrot sticks) —
your mansion now. An eagle’s pass,
pass-over, now. Just wind.
Trembling, huddling: do you feel the fear, but also the togetherness, in those compressed, shuddering sounds? The friends know what’s coming (or the poet does now, in retrospect); they hunker in the car, feasting while they can. Those short ‘i’ syllables (picnic, whiskey, chicken, sticks) bristle with anxiety. Then a gap (the stanza break) and the “mansion of air” is redefined: “your mansion now.” What a way to announce a death! All the sounds are softer in this final stanza, aas and esses, the friend’s “passing” transformed into “an eagle’s pass”; her new one-ness with the air affirmed in the heart-stopping understatement, “Just wind.”
In “Diary,” toward the end of Keeping Count,
Nothing will last,
and most things don’t repeat,
except in somewhat variant form.
Those “variant forms” constitute Lane’s home and the wellspring of her poetry. She closes Keeping Count with a wrenching sequence of very short poems called “The Injured Mouse in the Parking Lot.” The mouse is the subject of the final piece, which I offer here in full:
I saw it
running in a tight circle, nose to tail.
Dying, I thought.
Its passionate running —
But to use “close” is incorrect, as Lane herself once wrote, in the final line of “A Reader’s Deductions”: “It is not the poem which closes, but the reader who is let go.”
I have been gripped, and am hereby “let go.”
— Anita Lahey
is a poet and the author of The Last Goldfish: A True Tale of Friendship.