This twofold celebration of the poetry of M. Travis Lane is the brainchild of doctor/poet Shane Neilson. These are the first of four books detailing Lane’s poetics and career. How Thought Feels is a book of essays, while The Essential Travis Lane is a compilation of selected poems. (The other volumes of Lane’s work, upcoming in 2016–2017, are a collection of prose writings from Palimpsest, and a selection of longer poems from Goose Lane.)
First published in 1953, Lane has underpinned the CanLit scene for longer than many of her readers have been alive. These books – a sort of redress – are meant to crown her long and mainly unsung career. The reasons Lane isn’t afforded her due are arguable. In The Essential Travis Lane, Neilson bandies about some suggestions: she’s from New Brunswick, she’s a woman, she’s political and spiritual, she’s not engaged in the “Creative Writing Dominance Strategy,” and she writes long poems.
For balance, Neilson points out “Lane’s early genius,” her “real technique,” her use of “natural symbol to make microcosmal the big, wide world,” and her “welcoming invigorating stuff.” The compliments are too abstract; Neilson comes across as a fan-boy. I get it, but he would do well to get out of the way of the poetry and explain Lane’s prowess in less gushy terms.
How Thought Feels has Neilson’s essay bookended by those of Jan Zwicky and Jeanette Lynes. These essays provide the much-needed balance and illumination of credible critical praise. Zwicky pulls from Lane’s own definition of poetry as a test of its own mettle:
Travis argues that great poetry involves not only a remarkable way of using language, but also an act of “imagination which creates for us new and powerful cluster-associations of meaning/image/metaphor/symbol.” It is these associational clusters that survive translation.
When Zwicky mentions translation, she, of course, means two things at once: both literal translation, and the act of gestalt connection between text and reader. Indeed, Lane’s poems speak for themselves in this regard and Neilson proves an excellent curator. His selection supports the claim in Zwicky’s essay that “we create only insofar as we are attempting to convey to others a whole we have ourselves sensed.”
Lane’s use of natural image, transcendental voice, and domestic concerns serves to support Jeanette Lynes’s demand: “It’s time to grant M. Travis Lane membership in the ecopoetics community; doing so will not detract from her uniqueness but rather reveal that she has been, these many years, as engaged as any other ecopoet writing in Canada.”
Again, Neilson’s curation serves to support this claim with the inclusion of such Basho-esque poems as “Astronomical”: “The night is a pond in a needle’s eye: / Plink! and a frog or a sputnik flares / under the needle; the spheroids flail / polar tad-tailed in their spindling course.”
Many of Neilson’s choices in The Essential Travis Lane underscore the prominence of the natural world in her poems; I have yet to address the ecclesiastical inflection of Lane’s work. Neilson bellyaches that Lane (like Christian Wiman) is ignored because of her treatment of spirituality, and that this “often bears the stigma of amateurism.” While this is a convenient blame game – and likely there is some truth to it for some readers – I find it difficult to believe. All Canadian poets – perhaps all poets, period – are marginalized. A statistic released recently suggested that only 6.7 per cent of adults read poetry. Looking for reasons why someone isn’t read reeks of a red herring.
Fortunately – and regardless of one’s faith/belief systems – Lane gives ample reason to read her. The questions of the faithful and the philosopher – contemplations of mystery, paradox, uncertainty, and truth – are similarly felt, if not similarly worded. This is exactly what Zwicky means in referring to translation as a phenomenon. Regardless of Lane’s faith, iconography, or other concerns, the work should and does become transcendental through its poetics.
While Neilson is an exacting curator in The Essential Travis Lane, his essay in How Thought Feels needs more perspective to become accurately critical and informative. Fortunately, both Zwicky and Lynes seal up the leaks in Neilson’s effusive rhetoric and provide an enriching view into the impressive – and, to this point, underappreciated – life’s work of M. Travis Lane.