Time Capsule:
New & Selected Poems

255 pages,
ISBN: 1896095259

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In the Dark Peninsula of Self
by Eric Ormsby

Sometimes, with unwitting prescience, a poet crystallizes his or her destiny into an almost mythic concision. This happens with rather chilling frequency in several of Pat Lowther's poems. Beyond her concerns with political events-their urgency long past and even half-forgotten-beyond the equally transient poems prompted by everyday domestic life, a more naked, almost archetypal self emerges briefly into the light to articulate its own unmistakable truth. Thus, in one terse stanza (from a poem not included in the present volume), Lowther writes:
I stood in a servant's posture,
And my hands were like
Five-pointed stars,
And my body was a shaft of light.
For this-
To be quenched in darkness?

These words occur in the posthumous collection entitled (by its editors) Final Instructions: Early & Uncollected Poems, which appeared in 1980 (and simultaneously as Vol. 15, No. 2, of the West Coast Review), some five years after the poet's murder. (Four poems from this collection are gathered in the present volume.) The force of the lines I have quoted resides not only in their strange epitaph-like timbre but in the exquisite severity of that final, and solitary, verb, "quenched", with its oddly jostling nuances. For we quench, or slake, our thirst just as we also quench or extinguish a light, or a life. It is as though the poet had glimpsed herself in the receding but immemorial perspective of the dead; there is something epic as well as spooky in the glimpse. Several of Lowther's poems achieve this piercing effect.
The present selection, lovingly compiled and edited by her daughters Beth and Christine Lowther, extends the body of Lowther's work considerably; in particular, because of the addition of a number of previously unknown poems which turned up in the proverbial box in the attic, in the home of Alan Domphousse, Lowther's son from her first marriage. These "new" poems-thirty-one in all-appear here with selections from each of Lowther's other books, beginning with This Difficult Flowring of 1968 and continuing into A Stone Diary, the last book she herself prepared for publication, which appeared posthumously in 1977. The book also contains a brief biography of the poet and moving essays on their mother by both Beth and Christine Lowther, together with an afterword by Lowther's long-time friend Lorraine Vernon. Time Capsule thus may be said to represent a summation of the poet's work as well as an apt testimonial to her influence as a writer, mother, and friend. Polestar has done a beautiful job; with its elegant layout and design the book is a pleasure to read.
Even so, Time Capsule is a difficult book to review. One cannot read these poems in willed ignorance of their author's fate. By the same token, however, one wishes to accord the poems the respect of a dispassionate, if sympathetic, gaze. The ghastly carnival which has swirled around the work of Sylvia Plath for over thirty years now should stand as a caution. Sad to say, it is currently almost impossible to offer any meaningful or even sensible evaluation of Plath's work, so enmired has that work become in gossip, invective, and bad faith. Thankfully, such distortions seem not to have befallen Pat Lowther as a result of the cruel and brutal circumstances of her death, though there is an occasional tendency (understandable, if misguided) to crown her with a martyr's aureole. Lorca and Mandelstam, among many possible examples, were also murdered; their tragic deaths are present in our minds as we read them, but in the end it is as poets rather than as victims that we revere them. The sincerest accolade a reviewer can pay such artists is a critical clarity.
Lowther's work, to be sure, will not bear comparison with Lorca's or Mandelstam's. When she died, she was just beginning to sound a distinctive note. When we read her, we sense that with luck and work she might have developed into a strong and original writer; as it is, on the basis of the present book, read in conjunction with the few dozen poems not included there, it must be said that she will probably be best remembered for a handful of modest but impressive poems. It has become almost obligatory to note that Lowther was just "coming into her own" with the publication of A Stone Diary but I am not convinced that this is true. Of course, many of her earliest poems are weak but among them are several which are as good as her last work. Indeed, the later work with its rather forced exploration of political themes often seems to me to represent if not a decline then perhaps a false direction. The example of Pablo Neruda, whom Lowther revered, proved especially destructive to her work, injecting false notes of condescension and political self-righteousness into her otherwise rather pure, if restricted, lyric voice.
With respect to "voice", most of Lowther's poems, even when they are not very good, reveal that nearly indefinable quality. In the notion of voice, there is the sense of an individual uttering some entirely irreplaceable truth about him or herself and doing so in an inimitable way. From the beginning, Pat Lowther had a lot of "voice", and it was this quality which perhaps drew favourable attention early to her work. In the later poems, at moments, the voice takes over or threatens to ossify into a slick shell of attitude:

Often now I forget
how to make love
but I think I am ready
to learn politics.
("Regard to Neruda")

Here the stripped diction becomes merely sententious and we are a bit surprised to observe that a minimalist manner can turn pompous even faster than a more elaborate one. Lowther's poems on political themes all now appear hopelessly dated. There is the poem for Neruda, lines of which I just quoted, as well as a few further, rather uneven poems to "Pablo" (several others that appeared in A Stone Diary have been, mercifully, excluded from the present volume). Worst of all perhaps is the long and tedious poem "Chacabuco, the Pit", about Chilean politics in the time of Allende, and which serves mainly to remind us who read it now that a sincere but forced indignation betrays itself with the passage of time:

is God blinking? are you
shuttering your eyes, tourista?

Lowther at her best strikes me as an elemental poet, by which I mean, quite literally, a poet of the elements. She is strongest when she deals with dense, obdurate, opaque, and numinous entities. No wonder that the stone in all its impenetrable integrity remains her ultimate totem. No wonder too that hands are perhaps the predominant image of all her work; hands that touch and graze and stroke and caress surfaces, both rough and smooth. Lowther is a supremely tactile poet. Indeed, her recurrent use of hands and fingers and gloves strikes this reader as virtually obsessive. In one of the newly discovered poems ("Imagine Their Generations"), she writes, "Feel their shapes in your mind," and she speaks of "the hands contracted to a calyx." In another of the new poems ("The Chinese Greengrocers"), she says:

They know with their hands
and noses the value
of all things grown.

In "Their Hands", which I quote in full, she writes of hands as

sinewy pentacles, agile
as things with their own lives
five prongs of bone
knuckled, woven with
loops of muscle
a tough pad of flesh
the play of the bones is
eloquent as faces
the nerves of the finger ends
are knowledgeable,
exercise memory and discretion
the thumbs in their
oiled sockets transform
the organs, infinite shape-makers
stubborn and daring movers-
they'll try anything.

In an earlier poem, "A Chant of Hands", she had written:

Hands are beautiful things
grasping a hammer
or making bread
or moving passionately to say
what words stumble-toed run after...

The directness of hands, with their perceptual speed that outraces words, moves her, and in her best poems she tries to recreate this fingertip immediacy. (Hands, of course, more than eyes, are the natural interlocutors of stone.) To achieve the instantaneous quality of physical touch, Lowther strove for a bare and supple stanza shape in which an apparent plainness of expression is often jolted awake by some improbable but cunningly calculated word or phrase. I have given one example of this in the lines quoted at the outset, in which the word "quenched" drops like a pebble into a black pool from which successive shivers of nuance ripple outward. Another example occurs in "Burning Iris 2":

My neighbor is burning
the dead blossoms;
faded to vellum paper
they crisp in the fire
and now release
their last writhings
of fragrance...

Here, in those "last writhings of fragrance" (a beautiful phrase!), the whole sinuous motion of the fire unfurls before us so that we not only see but smell the flames as they climb. On occasion, it must be said, such felicities appear almost inadvertent, as if they surprised the poet herself. Later, however, Lowther began to exercise control over these effects of style. We can see this in her best poem, "Notes from Furry Creek", which she begins thus:

...nothing prepares you
for the ruler-straight
log fallen across
and the perfect
water fall it makes
and the pool behind it

"Novocaine-cold" startles after the brusque, clipped, and cascading sequence of short lines which prepares it; the compound word, and its placement, afford the reader the paradoxical force of the anaesthetic itself-numbing but icy. Lowther transfigures this effect, from what might be thought merely a trick of diction, in her conclusion:

When the stones swallowed me
I could not surface
but squatted
in foaming water
all one curve
glowing like agate.

I understood the secret
of a monkey-puzzle tree
by knowing its opposite:
the smooth and the smooth
and the smooth takes,
seduces your eyes
to smaller and smaller
reaching the centre
you become
stone, the perpetual
lavèd god.

There is much to be said about this strange and evocative poem, which strikes me as almost the verbal analogue of one of those magical Inuit transformation sculptures in which a bear or a raven or a walrus emerges from, or returns to, some chthonic mineral shape, the organic and the inorganic disclosing an ultimate mercurial grace which is perhaps part of the very evanescence of matter itself. Notice, however, the way in which Lowther chimes off her chosen theme-not merely the coincidence, but the congruence, of opposites-by the use of delicate patterns of sound: the trochee of "agate" at the close of the first stanza echoed in the odd archaism of "lavèd" in the final line, with its grave accent effecting an almost violent twist on the two closing words. The word "laved" is itself antiquated and by the imposition of the accent, the stone which "you" have become reveals its primeval nature. Lowther antiques the word as if only by such stylistic artifice could she evoke stone's temporal density.
In "Notes from Furry Creek", and a few other poems in the same vein, Lowther was beginning to perfect her own distinctive manner and style. If there are occasional echoes of other poets-Elizabeth Bishop in "Notes from Furry Creek" and elsewhere; hints of Marianne Moore in such poems as "Anemones" and "Octopus"-Lowther possessed the confidence to register the echoes consciously as a strength of style rather than as derivation or imitation.
Lowther's most successful poems, it seems to me, are those in which her particular and inimitable voice merges in some indefinable way with a kind of mythic voice. "Notes from Furry Creek" shows this merged voice well, as do several other poems both from the published collections and from the newly uncovered works. In addition to those I have mentioned among the thirty-one "time capsule" poems, I would single out "Ion", "A Water Clock", "Before the Wreckers Come", "Choice", "Salt Wafers", "Moving South", and "Magellan" as striking instances of this quite individual utterance given a forceful shape. Lowther's true theme seems to me to have been the slow, dangerous, almost laborious shaping of the self. Earlier I spoke of the eerie effect of certain of Lowther's poems with their faintly premonitory voice. By this I do not mean such obviously prescient poems as "To a Woman Who Died of 34 Stab Wounds" or "Kitchen Murder" but such lines as these (from "City Slide/6"):

Love is an intersection
where I have chosen
unwittingly to die

In Pat Lowther's profoundest poems we have the sudden sense of an undiscovered self inching into the light, a self that knows its innermost recesses and rejoices in them, a self that knows also that its own emergence, while ineluctable, is its greatest danger. In shaping this deep sense of self Lowther appears to have acknowledged, and accepted, its risk of being "quenched", even as-or perhaps especially as-it emerged into naked awareness. In her poem "Personae" from Final Instructions (and, again, not included in this selection), Lowther wrote:

`Preside over the fable-makers,' said Plato.
But who shall preside
in the huge night
in the dark peninsula of self
where a man's blind, dream-pushed
fumble the root of the man-bearing tree
and the shape of his desire risen
and whole?

All of Lowther's most authentic themes are compressed into this powerful stanza; her deepest yearning and her finest accomplishments arose from that "dark peninsula of self" and found concentrated expression. If there remains much that is uneven, incomplete, and unrealized in the body of her work, that is the most poignant aspect of her tragedy, from the artistic perspective. In "North Haven", her elegy for Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop wrote:

You can't derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can
their song.)
The words won't change again. Sad friend, you
cannot change.
Pat Lowther cannot change or re-arrange or "derange" her poems now, nor can she continue that courageous exploration of the self on which she was so dangerously engaged at the time of her murder, and that is perhaps the saddest and the cruellest of consequences for her readers as well as for her friends.

Eric Ormsby's most recent book is For a Modest God (Grove Press).


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