THE LONG GAME
Our memories are short, as are most of our poems.
Between May 29 and June 1, 1984, the Long-Liners Conference took place at York University. Frank Davey, Ann Munton, and Eli Mandel organized the conference to discuss the poetics of the long poem, and many of the greatest living practitioners of the form participated, including bpNichol, James Reaney, Michael Ondaatje, and Charles Bernstein. Davey and Mandel provided academic heft, as did Smaro Kamboureli, future author of On the Edge of Genre: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem (1991) and Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. Also in attendance was D.M.R. Bentley, editor of Canadian Poetry and author of the bible of the early Canadian long poem, Mimic Fires (1994).
Other than Kamboureli, does this seem like a lot of men? It does. Ann Munton, Dorothy Livesay, and Magdalene Redekop gave papers at the conference; Canadian literary biographer Rosemary Sullivan mixed it up from the audience floor during entertainingly confrontational panel discussions; and Barbara Godard wrote a fantastic Foucauldian epilogue to the conference, but of the nineteen papers printed in the proceedings, fourteen were by men. The gender imbalance was contentious at the conference itself, appearing in Mandel’s remarks after the keynote address, when he confessed to a conspiracy-like moment:
I think we ought to be talking about something else, too, which I carefully left out of my paper because I got warned about it yesterday. No, it seems to me that we really aren’t facing up to the question of the role of the woman writer of the long poem. And I was told if I say that I’m ghettoizing the question so I can’t say it.
Munton and Davey recognized the gender-balance problem in their foreword, pointing out the “absence of panels on long poems by women or by young writers” and “the absence of many of the writers of such work” at the conference.
The gender-balance problem has gained greater visibility in recent years through the work of organizations like Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA). Following the lead of VIDA, an American organization, CWILA undertakes necessary gender counts in Canadian literary magazines. But with that higher profile, it can be easy to forget that the problem of gender equity is one that has been pushed against since the 1960s by a life member of the League of Canadian Poets and a longstanding participant in its feminist caucus. Of course, the poet I am speaking of is M. Travis Lane.
Lane attended the Long-Liners conference and delivered “Alternatives to Narrative: the Structuring Concept,” the most substantial paper in her section. She was part of a flight of presenters that included Dorothy Livesay, George Bowering, and bpNichol. Livesay talked politics and history with fire, but her analysis was limited to political quarry (feminism, class). Nichol gave less a paper and more a thoughtful long poem that qualifies as analysis only in terms of his own compositional poetic. Bowering delivered a rambling and jokey line-by-line analysis of Robert Kroetsch’s “Stone Hammer Poem.” Lane, on the other hand, gave what audiences love to hear: a good, streaking argument right out of the gate. Here’s her opening paragraph:
Are there alternatives to narrative? We live in history — or herstory — the story that is telling itself, and any utterance of ours makes part of that unfinished narrative. Time is the grammar of our perceptions. Our desires, our memories, and our sentence shapes have chronology and the assumptions of causality. Narrative assumes and implies chronology and causality, with their structural implications. And the beginning and the end of a narrative are defined by the choice of a subject. The hero dies, or the war is over; what comes next is a different story.
A welcome political message, yes, but nevertheless an activism embedded within concepts like time, space, language, myth, and meta-narrative. The rhetoric at play has a manifesto-like tone. Lane offers a world from the start, and as she continues, that prose world only expands and opens up with examples.
The impact of her address can be measured in the ensuing panel discussion which began, naturally enough, with Dorothy Livesay’s nomination of Lane’s paper as her favourite:
What hit me, not intellectually but with my whole body, was the remarkable way that Travis kept firmly in front of one the feeling of shape, the feeling of construction, like someone doing a vase, a potter doing a vase, and finally you know she’s working toward a shape and the shape emerges and it’s there then. I have a great feeling of satisfaction listening to how she worked that out.
The rest of the panel largely centred on Lane’s ideas for the remaining twelve transcribed pages. One moment is worth mentioning in particular: shortly after the Livesay quote, bpNichol remarks that, during Lane’s presentation, he kept “trying to match myself to Travis’s categories.” He agrees with them to a certain extent, but then he admits that he had “trouble” with their rigidity. What happens next is beautiful and shrewd: Lane makes a general shrug about her own address, saying, “I think you’re quite right. Categories exist to be broken and qualified and changed.” In other words, Lane provides the conference with the meat it needs to think through the long poem’s possible challenge to narrative default, and then she doesn’t defend her propositions. Rather, she rests her case on the need for propositions that can themselves be challenged. In this way, she’s both scholar and mischief-maker — until those categories need to be changed, of course.
Lane’s mischief-making at the Long-Liners conference is only my second-favourite anecdote in her long and colourful history. Here is the best one, in which she goes to school to take the school to school, commenting upon what she found on arriving in New Brunswick from Ithaca in the early 1960s:
Another eye-opener was Barry Davies’s reading list for his class in contemporary Maritime poetry. About thirty or so names appeared on that list, and all of them were male except for one — Elizabeth Brewster. The names included several members of UNB’s English department who had, like most English professors, written, possibly even published, one or two poems or even produced a tiny chapbook. Incensed, I instantly typed out a much longer list of Maritime women poets who had actually published books (including me) and taped the list on all the doors of the English department offices.
Now that would not have been an easy thing to do in the New Brunswick of that time. But that’s Travis — a diminutively potent firebrand.
* * *
As Lane pointedly admitted at the Long-Liners conference, narrative is hard to escape. We are all part of a larger story, just as this book will be part of the larger story of Canadian literature. Lane’s work will find its way to readers, or not, and be taken up in a serious way by scholars, or not. Her contribution to writing in the Maritimes and to the nation will be recognized, or not. It’s fair to say that, so far, Lane’s role in the larger narrative of the long poem is under-recognized. Ondaatje’s Long Poem Anthology (1979) erred on the side of the so-called “avant-garde” by including Robert Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt, Robin Blaser, Frank Davey, George Bowering, Roy Kiyooka, and bpNichol. The only straight-up lyric writer in the book is Don McKay. Ondaatje also erred in terms of gender balance by including only one female writer. That Travis is female and not-TISHy makes two strikes against her. That Ondaatje doesn’t include any poets from Eastern Canada makes for three strikes. But since Lane had published only one book of long poems for Ondaatje’s consideration, 1977’s Homecomings, perhaps 1979 wasn’t her moment.
Because Lane’s two long masterworks appear in subsequent collections, Divinations (1980) and Reckonings (1985), this makes the case different with the other important anthology of Canadian long poems, Sharon Thesen’s New Long Poem Anthology (1991 and 2001). Lane’s exclusion from these volumes is a bigger problem. Thesen admits that, since the time of Ondaatje’s anthologizing,
the form has become so well-established that to include even a sample of the best long poems written in the last decade would require many more volumes. So I begin by stating that this anthology is not meant as an encyclopedia of the Canadian long poem but rather as a continuation of Ondaatje’s work in 1979 and a record of my own pleasure in reading poems that in many different ways, occasions and structures are “long.”
The same variable is at play again — individual taste. Though the gender balance improves in both volumes under Thesen’s watch, a reader is still very much in the realm of the Canadian avant-garde with a strong West Coast dominance. Not a single writer of the Atlantic region was included in either of Thesen’s anthologies, even while The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature called Lane “the most successful writer of the long poem in the Maritimes.” For Ondaatje and Thesen, taste is curiously geographic. Before some suggest that it’s gauche to make an argument about anti-Maritime bias (a bias about which the region’s most prominent poet, Alden Nowlan, often complained), there seems no better explanation for Lane’s relative obscurity than the chauvinism of regionalism.
A new long poem anthology edited by rob mclennan was in the works in the current decade, but it was never published. Mclennan’s introduction, released online, reiterates Thesen’s misgivings about the inherent spatial difficulties with long-poem anthologies: “the long poem in Canadian poetry has become so prevalent over the past twenty years that it simply might not be possible to have an anthology like this as a follow-up, unless working in the multiple volume.” The long poem is too healthy in Canada for its own anthologizing good? (Or the long poem’s too long for its own good.) Mclennan’s list repeats the sins of his anthologizing elders: Joe Blades of Fredericton is the lone Maritime delegate, and mclennan’s emphasis is squarely on postmodernist writing. When it comes to long poems, the canonization ship has sailed for Lane, unless the good ship regionalism docks at the Irving Shipyards and a plucky Maritime editor compiles a book of long poems, about which people will complain (again) about who’s not included.
Perhaps the real problem is that the notion of “career” and Lane are somehow incompatible. Her work has “bad timing” because we think of time in the present, but her work is made for a sense of time that takes the long view. May the time finally be now, and may this collection add to the continually unfolding narrative about the long poem.
* * *
The aforementioned anthologies show a bias towards experimental/postmodernist writers. Lane’s lyric long line stands in contrast to the disorderly, disharmonic, abstract, and academic strategies of many of these writers, among them Jeff Derksen and Robin Blaser. Canadian readers have a vast repository of long poems to read, but if they reach for the easily available university-taught anthology, the contrast from Lane would give an immediate jolt.
Since Lane has written a substantial piece herself on the nature of the long poem, it’s worth comparing what she maintained in 1985 with what appears in the newly written afterword to this volume. Lane abandons what she once theorized by defining the long poem in terms of elapsed time of recitation. No longer does she have as much definitional fun as she did three decades ago, though she remains devoted to avoiding lyric pitfalls, choosing not to write “poems that rely heavily on repetition, echo, rhyme, and circularity.” Instead, she values the revisioning or questioning of a long poem’s “opening perception.”
Though the long poems collected in this volume all have value, the strongest works are “Divinations” and “The Witch of the Inner Wood,” the latter doing a double shift as the inspiration for this collection’s feminist title. I will now explore this masterwork to establish the bona fides of Lane as poet. Note the precise descriptions of animal and plant life:
The nuthatch trickles down its tree
like some slow drip
from my thatch —
like the sap
that springtime oozes from these trees
as if they were much wounded . . .
A great many Canadian poets are on record praising Lane, and their comments contextualize this excerpt of Lane’s work. Tim Bowling has said Lane writes “work of high intelligence and assured technique, a combination of the metaphysical and lyrical that derives its power from a careful, visionary analysis of life’s quieter moments.” Well, check. The nuthatch and the sap metaphor, through a kind of magic, recalibrate the natural world in terms of bodily woundedness. Lane’s careful lineation enacts the kinds of arguments in her poetry that reformulate themselves just as she wishes her long poems to do, to extend, to push past, to resist categorization. Jan Zwicky observes that Lane is a poet of “vigorous intelligence and close perception.” Check. One can’t read Lane and not notice, as Bowling and Zwicky do, that Lane is smart and carefully descriptive. To George Elliott Clarke, Lane possesses a “music scored by a feeling intellect, one attuned to nature.” Like the preceding two poets, Clarke praises Lane’s big brain and descriptive talents, but he also praises the musical effects in her poetry, which also applies to the excerpt, with the careful perfect rhyming of “nuthatch” and “thatch” that play off the near-rhyme of “sap” as well as the assonantal chime of “oozes” and “wounded.”
Curiously, these observations fit her short lyric work and her long poems, for the difference between Lane in the short form and Lane in the longer form is simple: her long poems resist closure. This is a remarkable aspect, for the risk of the long form is shared with the one that plagues the novel form: episodic, inevitable drops in quality. But Lane maintains the lyric pressure in her lines despite eschewing lyric poetry’s insurance policies (like repetition). She also doesn’t cheat with polyphony, a strategy popular since the eighties. Polyphony is akin to taking another drink at the end of the night to keep things going amongst friends.
Lane keeps going and going, barnstorming her propositions. Her serial and long poems have lyric matrix, but they just keep thinking and working; they don’t sing out the supper chant for the day to be done. That lyric persistence allows her to do some remarkable qualification and narrative development, creating devastating emotional effect. We feel Lane’s thought as her thought feels us.
The field of ecofeminist literary criticism is defined as “politically engaged discourse that analyzes conceptual connections between the manipulation of women and the nonhuman.” That link between “women” and the “nonhuman” is — forgive the pun — natural because of the ubiquity of the woman/nature analogy, described in a paraphrase of ecofememinist Karen Warren as “the connections — historical, empirical, conceptual, theoretical, symbolic, and experiential — between the domination of women and the domination of nature.” An application of feminist ecocritical practice is to find and speak to the transformative possibilities that, through the finding and articulating, transition those same possibilities into realization.
Actualization is key. Do we just write? Is writing enough? Or do we put the words into action ourselves? Feminist ecocriticism and feminist ecopoetry resist, reframe, and liberate the domination of women and despoiling of nature in numerous ways, but the base materials can be amplified by further political acts. As a member of the Voice of Women for Peace and a poet who routinely chronicles the plight of the natural world, Lane’s life and work are coincident sites where poetry meets action.
Intrepid readers need to go off the beaten path to read Lane in the context of ecopoetics: she’s not discussed in the important Canadian ecopoetics conversations constituted by Diana Relke’s Greenwor(l)ds: Ecocritical Readings of Canadian Women’s Poetry and Ella Soper and Nicholas Bradley’s Greening the Maple: Canadian Ecocriticism in Context. The first critical foray into Lane as ecopoet was Jeannette Lynes’s “M. Travis Lane, Ecopoet”; the remainder of this introduction builds on Lynes’s establishment of Lane’s environmental bona fides by adding Lane’s feminism to the mix.
Lane’s creation myth in “The Witch of the Inner Wood,” her masterwork from Reckonings, demonstrates one way the “conceptual” and “symbolic” domination mentioned above is resisted. This feminist long poem can be summarized as follows: a female creator who self-identifies as a witch (“I am witch of this place”) populates the world with people she bakes from a playdough base. She has two “husbands,” a cat that behaves non-anthropomorphically — it is very cat-like — and rock, specifically granite, which she tries to alter and remake. The most frequent action of the creator in the twenty-nine-page poem is garden work: the witch shapes and moulds the earth, and the earth — interchangeable with “rock” — is not rendered masculine.
Nature is the point of the witch’s creation, suggesting that, for Lane, order does not constitute the taming of a natural space; rather, order is the tending of change:
But order is never a static thing.
For order is:
the pattern that I make
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
weave the bright carpets of their sun;
my fragrant garden rings
is the stove
of amorous delight;
my retreats indoors
to roll my icy doughs,
the shapes to startle spring again
Lynes argues that “every poet engaged with the natural world must ask: to what extent can language represent the natural world?” With stanzas like the one above positing order in the world as pattern and in the poem as image pattern, Lane offers an answer that troubles orderliness by making order inherently indeterminate. Nature is itself in this poem, and yet is given being — a kind of order — by the witch. To try to answer Lynes’s question about Tim Lilburn’s work, if ecopoetry offers a means of knowing the answer to the question “How to be here?” then Lane adds to this knowledge by recasting the creation myth through feminist intersubjectivity. The witch of the inner wood is not a feminine body to be dominated but is responsible for the green and living things; the feminine actor can change and regulate the myths upon which knowing is predicated. Nature no longer needs to be linked to the feminine body. It can be loved by that body, tended by that body, made semi-orderly, and yet not dominated, either. Investing in Lane’s myth — or acknowledging its more benign relationality over the patriarchal, subjugated myth articulated in the Old Testament — would transform everyday life in Canada. How to get there is another problem, but Lane is already engaged in that very work in her own way as a member of several political organizations that agitate for change. Lane writes out a vision, and she performs it, too.
And the vision is, above all, that our problems are not simple. Unlike my proscriptions just now, Lane is not proscriptive. “The Witch of the Inner Wood”’s environmental woundedness comes not at the hands of the creator but the created:
In the thawing marsh
I hear the rattle of my sons
with their dragon-toothed bulldozers
what I had not intended yet;
the shells too soon,
This infliction of wounds upon nature is masculine — the “cooky men” or “sons” are the ones to penetrate it with machines. With the larger category of nature existing as neither masculine nor feminine in the text, destruction is strictly gendered in this text — except that the creator herself, who is gendered female, authors the capacity for destruction:
I am the witch of the inner wood.
I own this. I create it.
It is mine —
until it lives,
takes off from me,
flies from my hand.
The witch creates autonomous, unsubjugated life that bears no allegiance or debt. As soon as the thing becomes alive, it is freed from the creator’s control. Thus the destruction is less a “masculine” trait only and more of an inherent condition of existence, something that literally “gets away” from the creator once life is created — what Alanna Bondar has called, in an important ecocritical essay on Don McKay, “a human-nature paradigm without reducing it to literary tropes, idealized pastorals, or self-defining anthropomorphism.” Order is pattern, not rule or recipe. Again, Lane is ahead of the game. Unlike a lot of eighties ecopoetry, Lane’s doesn’t see nature as pristine spaces needing preservation from despoiling. She sees nature as a site of perpetual change that requires constructive interaction and management (as repeated “gardening” metaphors represent).
Woundedness forms part of the witch’s making, and the consequences of that making are pain and destruction. That the creator is gendered female and men are represented as the original despoilers of the garden seems an inversion of Genesis until Lane’s representation of order and articulation of “how to be in the world” are considered — destruction is not judged in moral terms; it is simply done to a nature that is not gendered. Nature is itself.
This kind of vision is politically valuable in our present moment of accelerating climate change, because Lane’s poem is neither utopic nor dystopic. In its representation of masculine destruction, it tries to provide an “order” with relevance to contemporary life. Lane’s myth of a witch of her own inner ecology extending outward into a created universe is one that doesn’t establish dominance, nor does it render nature as dangerous force; the “garden” the witch tends is no paradise, hell, or resource well that must be sucked dry or even defended. It is instead a space where the creator creates the forces that result in the eventual Armageddon myth — the poem concludes with creation “dispersed and lost” yet “upgathered now,/ in love’s/ retarding/ skein.” Armageddon is not represented as the fault of men or the victimhood of women but rather as part of the natural order of things — a gathering with love that reconciles the end of the world without moralistic piety.
This reconciliatory (not conciliatory) gesture — the gathering together with love — also seems to me the most likely thing to save the world. Lane suggests we should recognize the earth as something that needs to be tended, not preserved or protected, a way of thinking that strikes me as rooted in indigeneity. Lane posits a way of being that already pre-supposes the sanctity of ecology; she offers a poetics that incorporates ecology into a presumption of orderliness in an already patterned world. Notwithstanding its poetic merit, her work is important because valuing women and the environment is important. Since 1969, Lane has written in a relative Canadian wilderness, championing subjects and themes that have only become more important as the years pass. Taken in context with her great poetic skill, what you have in your hands is a remarkable book that is, if not an alternative to the narrative of the long poem in Canada, certainly an addition to it.
* * *
Faced with too much Bowering bluster near the conclusion of the Long-Liners panel, Lane transforms into the role of a gifted prosecutor moving in for the kill. She insists that narrative is relevant to his bizarre idea about the nature of fiction and literary creation. The exchange is worth reprinting in full, and all you need to know is that Bowering has made a big deal about the root of the word narration, from the Greek narrare, “to know”:
Lane: I have a question for you. When you tell a fib, and I assume you’ve occasionally done so . . .
Bowering: Not lately.
Lane: Do you know . . . I mean, are you a narrator when you tell a fib?
Bowering: Yeah, well, no, you’re a fiction-maker. I don’t even think you have to tell a fib to do that. I agree with Raymond Federman that anytime you tell anybody anything about your life or anyone else’s, it’s fiction, period.
Lane: And fiction is not narrative.
Bowering: Fiction is making, fashioning.
Lane: And you don’t know what you make?
Bowering: Yeah, well, you know it when it’s, once it’s there, once it has become a phenomenon.
Lane: Well, that’s sort of like making a baby, except you never do know your children.
Lane’s intelligence, rooted in domesticity, was more than a match for the Long-Liner nuthatches, and it is beautifully demonstrated in The Witch of the Inner Wood. Lane prefers the long form; it is her cherished mode, and I hope that more readers will come to know these remarkable poems. Let’s extend our memory into the future, together.
WORKS CONSULTED AND CITED
Bentley, D.M.R. Mimic Fires: Accounts of Early Long Poems of Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994.
Bowering, George. “Stone Hammer Narrative.” Open Letter 6, nos. 2-3 (Summer/Fall 1985): 131-44.
Bowling, Tim. Review of Night Physics, by M. Travis Lane. Books in Canada (February 1995).
Buell, Lawrence, Ursula K. Heise, and Karen Thornber. “Literature and Environment.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 36 (2011): 417-40.
Carr, Glynis. New Essays in Ecofeminist Literary Criticism. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 2000.
Clarke, George Elliott. Review. Chronicle Herald (Halifax), May 21, 1993.
Davey, Frank and Anne Munton, introduction to Open Letter 6, nos. 2-3 (Summer/Fall 1985): 5-7.
Gaard, Greta and Patrick Murphy. Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
Godard, Barbara. “Epi(pro)logue: In Pursuit of the Long Poem.” Open Letter 6, nos. 2-3 (Summer/Fall 1985): 301-35.
Kamboureli, Smaro. On the Edge of Genre: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.
Lane, M. Travis. “Alternatives to Narrative: the Structuring Concept.” Open Letter 6, nos. 2-3 (Summer/Fall 1985): 145-51.
. Divinations and Shorter Poems. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1980.
. Homecomings: Narrative Poems. Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1977.
. Reckonings: Poems 1979-1985. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1985.
Livesay, Dorothy. “The Canadian Documentary: An Overview.” Open Letter 6, nos. 2-3 (Summer/Fall 1985): 127-30.
Lynes, Jeanette. “M. Travis Lane, Ecopoet.” In How Thought Feels: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane, ed. Shane Neilson (Victoria: Frog Hollow Press, 2015).
Mandel, Eli. “Discussion.” Open Letter 6, nos. 2-3 (Summer/Fall 1985): 24-30.
mclennan, rob. “The Penultimate Long Poem Anthology, edited by rob mclennan (unpublished).” rob mclennan’s blog, accessed March 15, 2016, https://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.
Nichol, bp. “Things I don’t really understand about myself.” Open Letter 6, nos. 2-3 (Summer/Fall 1985): 127-130.
Ondaatje, Michael. The Long Poem Anthology. Toronto: Coach House, 1979.
Thesen, Sharon. The New Long Poem Anthology, 1st ed. Toronto: Coach House, 1991.
. The New Long Poem Anthology, 2nd ed. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2001.
Toye, William. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Zwicky, Jan. “How Thought Feels: The Poetics of M. Travis Lane.” In How Thought Feels: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane, ed. Shane Neilson (Victoria: Frog Hollow Press, 2015).