Saturday, January 11, 2014


Editor's (and Author's) Note:
I switched computers while in the middle of preparing this issue.  As a result, I ended up writing a second version of the same review when, on the second computer, I thought I hadn't finished my review of this wonderful book.  I present both versions here -- for I loved the book this much:



What the Stones Remember: A Life Rediscovered by Patrick Lane
(Trumpeter / Shambhala, Boston & London, 2006)

What the Stones Remember, Patrick Lane’s memoir about his first year of recovery from alcoholic addiction, is simply profound. Its scope is huge, its depth is breathtaking—because it addresses the specifics of the topic at hand (recovery from alcoholic addiction) while also becoming a larger commentary on the human condition. Its muscular, albeit tender, narrative is heart-forged from an impressively intense and examined life. It’s unfortunate that the life examined revolves around so much tragedy. But the author accomplished what only masterful poets can do: rise above its raw material to create Art, Poetry, from the ashes of experience—in this case, a stunningly moving, lyrical memoir. To read this book is to enter its own well-developed world.

The memoir’s structure takes it beyond the genre of such memoirs for two reasons. First, while the period is supposed to be the first year of recovery, sufficient flashbacks and meditations to as far back as the author’s early childhood makes this book also an autobiography of a prolonged life. Second, the recovery year also revolves around the poet’s creation of a garden, including his engagements with nature:

I have just come into the house after gathering dandelion leaves to mix with our salad tonight. Washed, they rest in the colander, a tonic for spring. They will be a little bitter now. Only the very richest of leaves are sweet, but a wisp of bitterness is good in spring. It clarifies the blood. A little vinegar and herbs, some extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, and the leaves of spring augmented by some early red-leafed lettuce. Was there such pleasure in spring before I quit drinking? Did I kneel in wonder in the garden then to pick dandelion greens, arugula, and herbs?

What this healing has done is bring the past from obscurity into light. It appears in me in stunned cameos, in anecdotal fragments. Each memory seems colored like some mad child’s painting of spring. What is it in me that can make of a memory joy and of others regret and shame?
(Pp. 84-85)

The back-and-forth narratives between his garden encounters and meditations to his childhood, early marriages and other past lives that facilitated (fueled?) his alcoholic addition create an engrossing overall narrative with many individual interesting results:

Perhaps my father’s generation lamented my generation’s ignorance. I know my father was confused by my brother and I becoming writers. What he might have wanted me to do with my life, I don’t know. When I was in high school I asked him to help me when I was faced with my girlfriend’s pregnancy. His response was, You made your bed, now lie in it. He was driving me to high school when he said that. A month later I was married. I wasn’t angry with him. I simply felt helpless. I was responsible, I knew that, but I also knew I was not ready to take on a family. I tried to make the marriage work for nine years, but it was obvious in two or three that it wasn’t going to last. I had done as my father told me, knowing even before the wedding that the marriage was doomed.

I thought at the time that he was casting me aside, just as he had my two brothers when they had their shotgun marriages six months earlier. My mother said nothing. I took her acceptance of his edict and her lack of support as a betrayal. Also, I think my father was a little in love with my first wife. It’s strange to say that now. I understand it only because I have grown older. My father then was not yet fifty years old. He was still a man in his prime. But perhaps I am mistaken and what he felt was only a deep affection for her. It was all a long time ago.

Generations change and histories disappear. Language does the same. The names of things, like wren and cleavers, disappear too.

Why is the Pacific bleeding heart called steer’s head or the vanilla leaf, deer foot? The common touch-me-not’s other name is jewelweed or policeman’s helmet and the skunk cabbage’s more beautiful name is swamp lantern, a name I love for the way it conjures how the bright yellow bract illuminates the mottled shade of fens, bogs, and swamps; a light to guide the spring wanderer. The origins of names are often lost in folklore yet their meanings are still alive, even if my students likely would not know the policeman’s helmet being referred to is that of a London bobby of a hundred years ago and not the one worn by a copy on a motorcycle. Should they know that? Without a knowledge of where words come from, things disappear, history is lost.

My brothers and I vied with each other for knowledge when we were boys and young men. It was a competition arising from childhood and the attention we never seemed to get from our parents. We yearned for something we thought we’d been denied. Dick quit school at fifteen, a troubled boy, and I barely finished high school. Johnny left school at fifteen as well. As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, Dick and John and I lived in Kamloops with our new wives and kids. The three of us worked and lived close to each other for two years. They were the happiest years of my young manhood. On the wall in my cold-water flat I had nailed a list of authors I wanted to read and understand. One list survives from that time.

Anacreon, Pindar, Euripides, Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Theocritus, Aristotle, Catullus,Virgil, Ovid, Juvenal, Taliesen, Caedmon, Aldhelm, Li Po, Tu Fu, Liu Tsung Yuan, Han Yu, Po Chu Yi, Bragi, Jehuda Halevy, Su Tung-po, Basho, Issa, Abelard, Bertrand de Born, Beroul and Thomas, Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, Bocaccio, Hafiz, Chaucer, Villon.
(Pp. 137-139)
As you can tell from the above, what also keeps the reader interested is Lane’s writing style which is gorgeous, “poetic” in the best sense of the word and seamless in its leaps between the fragments that make up a life. Here’s another example:

A few delicate marsh violets have appeared out of nowhere below the holly tree and I transplanted them yesterday with care, for they can be fragile when disturbed and can die away. As Wordsworth said, “With gentle hand / Touch—for there is a spirit in the woods.” I put them in the shade garden. They’re a lovely addition to this quiet spot and I hope their spirits prosper there. They spread by seed, of course, but mostly by rhizomes and creeping stolons. Their flower is the most delicate white, although one plant is showing the palest mauve on its petals.

I love it when plants appear from nowhere. I’ve no idea how the violets came to be here, but they fit into the shady habitat I’ve moved them to. They love the moist and the damp. Bogs and wetlands are their joy. They complement the early blue violet and the Alaska violet, both of which inhabit my garden. They all flower in late March, but all three are still blooming here and there in garden beds and in the lawns. They appear as if by magic.

All the violets are perennials and are more than welcome. They are shy, low-growing plants and love the dappled, dampness of the semishade. In Europe violets were sometimes worn in wreaths around the neck. It was said they were a cure for drunkenness, something I didn’t know before and wish I had. My mother should have knotted a wreath around my neck when I was born.
(P. 109)

The memoir covers one year, during which the poet grows stronger, heals and ends up marrying poet Lorna Crozier who was then his partner for over two decades. Thus does the book end as a beginning. May the life off the page have been and be less painful, and otherwise be “better” in the many ways the poet might choose to define the word, than the past life/lives described in the book.




What the Stones Remember: A Life  Rediscovered by Patrick Lane
(Trumpeteer Books / Shambhala, Boston & London, 2006)

What the Stones Remember, Patrick Lane’s memoir, is simply profound.  Its scope is huge, its depth breathtaking. Its narrative is forged from an impressively intense and examined life.  It’s unfortunate that the life examined contains so much tragedy.  But the author accomplished what only masterful poets can do: rise above the raw material to create Art, Poetry, from the ashes of experience.

Specifically, What the Stones Remember recounts the first year of Lane’s recovery from decades of alcoholism.  The structure facilitates taking the memoir beyond the genre of such memoirs as the reader is also treated to Lane’s loving engagement with nature—and, at times, as an ars poetica—through his garden:

When we bought this house, this bit of land was the bones of a garden. I studied it for a year before I began to plant. The day we moved in I squatted on the paved driveway below the kitchen window and looked out on a neglected garden. There was an old vegetable garden lying under tall first, but what flower beds there were had gone back to weeds. Trees had been planted that were cute when they were small saplings, firs and cedars, a redwood, and, worst, eight Lombardy poplars along two fence lines, trees that were better served on the plains of France or Alberta where the eye can see for miles. They were not trees for this small half-acre bounded on all sides by roads and houses. In my mind I eliminated the trees I didn’t want and stared instead at the earth itself. The ground sloped away from the house toward the eastern fence. That day I began to formulate the garden I wanted to end up with ten years later.

I did not try to impose myself too much upon this space. I didn’t want an architectural rigidity. I wanted a natural flow, I didn’t make changes to the land other than to raise a bed, lay a stone path and here and there plant a small tree or generous shrub to make a visitor move to shade or sun, pond, or flower, shrub or bamboo. For me, the art of the garden is to assist a natural order. I wanted the forgotten gods to return to this place.

Done well, a garden is a poem, and the old lesson of gardening is the same in poetry: what is not there is just as important as what is. This autumn I will move the myrtle bush and cut the forsythia back. If it still seems crowded I’ll take the forsythia out altogether. Eyes that wander the garden should be able to rest occasionally. There are no empty spaces in a garden. You also see what isn’t there.

The back-and-forth narratives between the poet’s childhood, early marriages and other lives that facilitated his alcoholic addiction with his encounters in the garden create interesting results:

Last year I watched a slender wisteria vine flail in the breezes coming out of the south. The tendril slapped against the high, flat wall at the front of the house. Each day it grew and each day it reached a little farther until, finally, it found a thin crevice in a shingle. The tip of the wisteria tendril curled into the thin slit and took purchase there.

A year later, I watched the same wisteria vine send out new tendrils from its anchored spot, each one seeking another point in the closely shingled wall. They too found purchase and now hang there, their leaves yellow. Next spring the process will begin again. There is a tenacious beauty in this garden.

There are times I seem to stumble about, unsure of what to do. My father seemed to know. My mother too. Yet I wade into my garden at times and flail about, insisting that the plants do what I want even though I know it is against their nature. I feel like the monarch Latimer was trying to teach. I feel like the carpenter with a chisel who ends up with a pile of shavings and no beam left to hold up the roof. I feel like a mason standing among rock chips with no stones left to build the wall with. I approach my garden at times with the same kind of violent insistence Latimer warned against.

I carry my sobriety into a new year. I remember getting up that early morning a year ago and drinking thirteen ounces of vodka, then searching for more, my hands stumbling through the bookcase. Did I hide a bottle behind the books on myth, or was it behind the poetry books? All I know is that the bottle I drank was not enough, never enough. I’d already drunk two bottles in the night and there I was with another while my hand slipped along the thin spines of poetry books in search of more. Then the morning, the spasms, the wretched collapse of a body gone so far past life it was a thing and nothing more. Tears, but not for anyone. I licked them in hopes they were tears of alcohol, I licked my skin for the sweat of alcohol.

But as you can tell from the above excerpts, what also keeps the reader engaged is Lane’s writing style which is gorgeous, lyrical, “poetic” in the best sense of the word. 

The memoir covers one year, during which the poet grows stronger, heals, and ends up marrying poet Lorna Crozier who was his partner for 22 years.  Entonces, the book ends as a beginning. May the life off the page be less painful, and otherwise be “better” in the many ways the poet might choose to define the word, than the past life/lives described in the book.


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor. But she is also pleased to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her books.  Her 2013 book, THE AWAKENING was reviewed by Aileen Ibardaloza at OurOwnVoice; and her 2004 book MENAGE A TROIS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, was reviewed (along with Joi Barrios' poetry) through the essay "The Self Revolution of Radical Love--Externalizing Internal Worlds of Freedon in Filipina Poetry" by Michaela Spangenburg at OurOwnVoice.  Eileen invites you to her new blog, EILEEN VERBS BOOKS; poets are invited to participate in three of its features: "Poetry and Money," "What Are You Reading?" and "What Do You Re-Read?"

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