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Review: The Collected Poems of Pat Lowther, edited by Christine Wiesenthal

A 1970 file photo of poet Pat Lowther.

Peter Hulbert

It was Sept. 24, 1975. The Ironworkers' Hall in Vancouver was packed with card-carrying union members who had come to hear four young poets. Three of them, David Day, Pete Trower and Patrick Lane, paced in the foyer. They could hear the impatience of the audience, the restless shifting in the metal chairs, but they insisted on waiting for the fourth poet listed on the program. It was Pat Lowther. The day before, she had told Patrick Lane that she would be there, even though her husband, Roy, had threatened her. He was the poet, he had shouted. It should have been him reading to the workers, not her. From the office in the hall, Patrick dialled the Lowther house and listened to the phone ring and ring. After 10 more minutes of waiting, the emcee insisted that the readings begin.

Pat Lowther never showed up. That night, her husband bludgeoned her with a hammer and dumped her body into Furry Creek. Her demise is summarized in one sentence in Christine Wiesenthal's introduction to The Collected Works of Pat Lowther: "The abrupt end of Pat Lowther's generously resourceful and creative life, by spousal homicide in September, 1975, remains one of the sorriest events in our recent literary history." This is the only reference to Lowther's death and what led up to it, though Wiesenthal wasn't short of material. She wrote Lowther's biography, The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther, published in 2005.

I can only assume that she means the collected poems to be a companion volume to that text and that, perhaps, she wants a reader to separate the writing from the life. That's hard to do when it comes to this poet.

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In spite of a demanding domestic life, she committed herself to words

Wiesenthal's introduction focuses on her huge editorial task, her years of sifting through the archives to find unpublished work and to ascertain a chronology.

Most readers will find the exegesis of her process rather dry. I would have appreciated, instead, this learned editor's insights into Lowther's amazing rise from high-school dropout to autodidact, from young mother to university teacher, activist and Oxford University Press poet. How did she manage all that? She was only 40 when she died.

Eight years before her murder, Patrick Lane and bill bissett dropped by the Lowther house in Vancouver to meet Pat and to talk about poetry. Roy was home, she was up and down with the babies, he dominated the conversation with empty political rhetoric, and every time she tried to speak, he shut her up.

Patrick and bill didn't stay long and never went back, but two years later, in 1968, they produced her first book of poetry, This Difficult Flowering.

Though they worried about the marriage she wouldn't leave, neither of them doubted her talent and the confident sensuality of her voice.

Wiesenthal's collection brings us that voice in its various forms; first in 28 poems that predate her initial publication, then in the poems from her three books and in a multimedia script the editor pieced together, and finally, in 160 pages of late, unpublished work. For this comprehensive selection, the publisher, NeWest Press, and the editor should be commended.

The book tracks the amazing poetic development of this woman who had such a brief yet rich writing life. Readers will be struck by her amplitude. Her poems include the natural world, the domestic, the political and the cosmological. They make room for babies and lovers, for Pablo Neruda, Ho Chi Minh, Dorothy Livesay, Penelope, Milton Acorn and a chorus of elders.

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Lowther's fight for justice often expressed itself in an appreciation for other creatures. "I am having a tremendous love affair with invertebrates," she said in the early 1970s. Some of her most anthologized poems come from this period: Slugs, Octopus, Hermit Crabs.

Now Wiesenthal's collection allows us to see the foreshadowing of her fascination with the non-mammalian. Written in the early sixties, the first poem in this book asserts: "But that is the point -/ To become amphibian,/ Live in diverse levels, all innocent." Even in this piece of juvenilia, you can hear the assurance in her voice and the sense of whimsy that softens her critique of the human species.

For 35 years, the late Pat Lowther has played an emblematic role for women poets in our country. In spite of a demanding domestic life, she committed herself to words, dared to be a better writer than her husband and, on the page, wouldn't shut up. She made her poetry matter. Her passion for life shines from the first poem to the last.In Morality Play, a late poem that would have gone unpublished if not for Wiesenthal's collection, the speaker asks, "Is it some/ consolation that/ I am a woman/ no one has/ ever taken/ lightly?"

Lorna Crozier has won two Pat Lowther Awards for the best book of poetry by a Canadian woman. She lives on Vancouver Island with poet Patrick Lane.

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