Patrick Lane George Woodcock - Essay

George Woodcock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Unborn Things: South American Poems is Patrick Lane's] threnodies of the Inca past and his appalled presentations of the here-and-now in which the descendants of those who created the Andean civilizations survive. Patrick Lane's earlier poems have already shown his exceptional quality as a poet recording with mingled delight and anger the splendour of the world and the shame of what man has done to it and to his fellow inhabitants…. [The main suite of Unborn Things, "Macchu Picchu",] evokes the past of that lost final fortress of the Inca realm, perched on its splendid crags above the jungle and the river: the departure of Manco Capac, the last Inca, to die in a Spanish ambush; the dying out of the deserted Virgins of the Sun; and the fate their refuge now shares with other tragic loci of history, with Mycenae and Elsinore, with Taxila and Persepolis…. (p. 87)

The kind of transference that equates modern man's brutality to a snake with the Spaniards' destruction of a civilization they could not understand, is extended to other poems in Unborn Things, which is not unexpected when one remembers the indictments of man's abuse of his will and power over other beings in earlier Lane poems like "Mountain Oysters" and "The Black Filly". "At the Edge of the Jungle" is a poem about disillusionment with a place romantically anticipated, and the narrative of horror begins with a dog burying its head in the Amazon mud to evade the flies that swarm on his sore eyes; it ends with a tethered rooster whose beak children have cut away so that he cannot eat. It is a fine, appalling poem, whose truth I recognize from having made that journey myself, over the Andean sierra and down to the Amazonian headwaters….

South America has provoked Canadian poets to remarkable work. It gave Earle Birney the hints for some of his best poems, and the same is true of Patrick Lane, whose recent work—this volume and Beware the Months of Fire, establish him clearly as a poet unusual in his direct and telling response to experience, whether that experience is a memory of the collective mind or an episode individually lived. (p. 88)

George Woodcock, "Playing with Freezing Fire" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Canadian Literature, No. 70, Autumn, 1976, pp. 84-91.∗