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Witness: Selected Poems 1962–2010

by Patrick Lane

Witness is Patrick Lane’s fourth selected poems in about as many decades, and his first since 1997. It includes more recent poems, and some earlier ones that the previous volume excluded. 

At 96 pages, it’s a slim volume for a poet as prolific as Lane, but one can’t help thinking it could have been thinner. The first 10 poems are among Lane’s weakest (seven of them feature the same aesthetic punch line of an animal, usually adolescent, being killed or mutilated). The collection should have started with the wonderful “At the Edge of the Jungle.” I was also surprised to see eight poems from Lane’s Winter series here, none of which is especially memorable. But the book does include a number of his masterpieces, the most important of which – “Stigmata,” “Albino Pheasants,” and “The Witnesses” – are as hallucinatory as ever.

It’s lovely to be reminded how spectacular a prosodist Lane really is. In “A Murder of Crows,” he recreates the field dressing of a carcass by disemboweling his signature blank verse, spilling it sonically over the lines: “My knife slid up and steaming ribbons of gut / fell to the ground. I broke the legs / and cut the anus out, stripped off the skin / and chopped the head away; maggots of fat / clinging to the pale red flesh.”

But he can be a bit humourless. In “The Calf,” for example, he doesn’t so much as smirk when offering up a group of country bumpkins enjoying a sporting bit of late-afternoon bestiality. In his hushed, reverent monotone, he shows us the young men with “one hand gripping the curved / bone of her hip, the other holding in a fist / her tail to the side, their white buttocks / pumping in the sun.”  The poets who have benefitted from Lane’s influence – Ken Babstock, Karen Solie, Dean Rader, and Steven Price among them – have handled similar material with more savvy and sophistication.

But that’s the point. Whatever quibbles we may have with his work (I’ve always hated the imprecision of “talks” in his otherwise classic line “A bird is a poem / that talks of the end of cages”) only testify to his influence. We’ve seen his approach rehashed, renovated, and perfected by countless successive writers. As with all major poets, we can disagree with him, but we cannot ignore him.