The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther
University of Toronto Press, 2005
Reviewed by Claire Omhovère
The first biography devoted to Canadian poet Pat Lowther (1935-1974) came out only recently, three decades after Lowther’s death at the hands of her mentally-unstable husband. Today much of the fascination aroused by her brutal end has ebbed away, creating the distance that makes oblivion possible and reassessment necessary. In the meantime, however, the notoriety attached to her name has obliterated the originality of Pat Lowther’s achievement as a poet and thinker. This capacious biography is therefore most welcome for the careful distinctions it operates between Lowther the woman, Lowther the Labour activist, Lowther the artist and the mythologizing that turned them into tragic icons of the female artist. In spite of the modesty of Lowther’s output—four collections were published before her demise, followed by two posthumous volumes—its quality would undoubtedly have attracted greater scholarly interest had more attention been paid to the poet’s art rather than her fate. As Wiesenthal tactfully puts it, “there are headstones so wreathed about by foliage planted by mourners that it’s impossible to tell who is buried in the plot beneath” . For the many readers who are still largely ignorant of Lowther’s writing, Wiesenthal’s book represents a remarkable introduction to the intensity of the poet’s metaphoric “multiverse” .
Yet it would be reductive to see in The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther a mere tribute to Lowther’s special achievement, as its intent reaches beyond the scope of traditional biographies to consider the cultural, social, and political forces that contribute to the shaping of a personality. In this respect, Wiesenthal’s book gives us much more than a poet’s life to ponder. The focus of the investigation goes through smooth readjustments to address historical change from different perspectives, widening to embrace the development of working class culture in colonial Canada, or narrowing into brisk vignettes chronicling the development of West Coast literary circles from the 1950s onwards, their influence growing in the wake of post-centennial cultural assertion.
In her determination to avoid sensationalism, Wiesenthal does not limit herself to the scrutiny of the poet’s symbolic remains. She pays equal attention to the cultural forces that have been eroding Lowther’s political and literary legacies, analysing the alterations caused by oblivion. Because Wiesenthal reflects upon her method as much as upon her subject, The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther engages in a reflection upon the biographer’s task and the operations of collective memory through which a period, an intellectual circle and, at a certain point in Lowther’s career, a whole nation fashioned the figure of the artist they wanted to remember. Geology is the recurring analogy elected by Wiesenthal to describe this very process: “Lowther’s own, eventually acute sense of her life as a formation fissured like a ‘split rock’ or ‘cleft mountain’ is the idea that structures my approach to it” . It is no coincidence that the biographer should have found an epistemological model in the earth sciences to which Pat Lowther turned again and again, in her writings and in her multimedia shows, to express her intimacy with the geography of the continent, from the glare of the Canadian North down to the incandescent tip of a South America Lowther never visited but kept writing about. Geography therefore serves as a structural paradigm in a book which traces and maps out the fault lines between the poet’s domestic, political and literary “half-lives.”
Wiesenthal borrowed her evocative title from physics where the term is used to measure a diminishing value over time as, for instance, with Carbon 14. Because they make negative calculation possible, half-lives “present a suggestive correlative to processes of historical memory and their variable rates of erosion. In this sense, they serve to emphasize especially the transformative work of memory: its craft as a form of energy that is both finite and inclusive of the (negative) energy that it takes to forget, to diminish, or to lose from sight” [17-18]. As a result the book explores the overlapping strata that still bear Lowther’s slowly fading imprint.
Part one, entitled “The Craft of Memory,” begins with the conjugal tragedy that culminated in Lowther’s death and her husband’s subsequent trial for murder. Dealing with these events in the book’s opening section dispels the unwholesome suspense that may have arisen from a chronologically-arranged narrative. Wiesenthal refuses to linger on the lurid details of this crime of passion. But she analyses with remarkable accuracy the cultural resonance of the poet’s victimization and its subsequent recuperation by other voices craving recognition. The crushing of Lowther’s young talent was considered so symbolical that it became invested with significations as diverse as the oppression of women or the marginalization of West Coast artists on the national scene.
By way of contrast, part two is retrospective and more focussed on Lowther’s domestic life. Wiesenthal’s reconstruction is backed by impressive archival research leading far beyond the recording of anecdotal information. The biographer is primarily concerned with the historical context in which young Patricia, born to a North Vancouver working-class family, a school drop-out by the age of sixteen, pregnant at eighteen, divorced in her mid-twenties and a single mother in the 1960s, made her unlikely literary debut. The second part takes the reader through exciting side accounts of how public libraries developed in British Columbia, fostering a genuinely popular culture in a province whose Labour history had often passed unnoticed. Likewise, the depiction of the Vancouver of the 1960s, where small publishing houses were opening and crashing almost overnight while avant-garde magazines and literary venues multiplied, recalls the coexistence of subcultures whose diversity was eclipsed by the rise of postmodernism and its lasting association with the West Coast.
Part three evinces the same determination to question hasty identifications as regards the importance of Pat Lowther’s political legacy. The retracing of her family’s political affiliations and Lowther’s own commitment to the NDP at municipal and provincial levels broadens into a documented account of British Columbia’s Labour history after the 1972 election of NDP Premier Pat Barnett when the province became briefly known as the “Chile of the North” .
In the fourth part, “Philosophy’s First Molecule,” context becomes secondary to the examination of the internal cohesion of Lowther’s writing.
In this dense biography, the reproduction of copious excerpts from the poems opens the space necessary for the readers to tune into Lowther’s precise diction, and listen to the physical insistence of the past in the present. The double temporality of “The Dig,” for instance, unfurls in loops characteristic of Lowther’s most accomplished writing in “Woman On / Against Snow,” or “In the Continent behind my Eyes”:
Wiesenthal’s several interpretive frameworks open perspectives likely to appeal to a wide spectrum of readers with interests ranging from modern poetry to women’s writing and Canadian cultural history. For Pat Lowther, as for Pablo Neruda whose poetry deeply influenced hers, “the business of the poet is to stay alert” . Wiesenthal’s first accomplishment is to have revealed how much of Lowther’s unique awareness of the world is expressed in lyrics that retain the imprint of her intellectual curiosity, her political commitments, and her private joys and sorrows. In this respect, Wiesenthal strikes a rare balance between restoring the “autobiographical valence” of Lowther’s oeuvre , and reconstructing an era that was so absorbed in its own coming of age that it never quite paused to reflect on Lowther’s “slightly eccentric, slightly out-of-sync relation with many contemporary currents” . The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther fully makes up for this relative neglect by repositioning Lowther’s visionary materialism, her search for an idiom capturing the presence of the elemental realm to her intuition, within the cultural complexity of her period.
Both Lowther’s scrutiny of the mute forms of reality and her conviction that humans share an organic consubstantiality with their surroundings have a contemporary relevance, particularly when related to the current interest of ecocriticism in the modalities of an environmental imagination. It is indeed on the subject of Lowther’s nature and landscape poetry that Wiesenthal contributes her finest analyses. As we follow the different stages of Lowther’s “mad love affair with stone” , it is impossible not to perceive in the maturation of her artistic sensitivity a profound affinity with other Canadian writers who, like Robert Kroetsch in his poetry and essays, Thomas Wharton, Jane Urquhart and Carol Shields in their fiction, have been ransacking the poetic resources of language to express their profound, visceral connection with geography. Wiesenthal’s book will therefore undoubtedly arouse fresh interest in Lowther’s writings because the special place which she occupies within a generation who has transformed the tradition of landscape writing in Canadian literature has yet to be understood.