In Spite of 9/11 and Other Catastrophes We Must Still Sing – A Reflection on Patrick Lane’s Poem – Small Elegy for New York

Canadian Poet Patrick lane. Photo Credit: Richard Osler, 2014

Small Elegy for New York

A small bird sings in the apple tree today
where the fruit hangs heavy in the heat.
The harvest is still weeks away.
He sings to leaves to shelter him,
that there be flowers, nests, and seeds,
that the sky he knows will always be the sky.
In New York far away the great fires burn,
yet what birds sing will stay
the night to come a few more hours.

In the garden I am bound by what I say
as you are bound. I pray for what I know,
that birds must sing among bright leaves,
that apples ripen toward the fall,
that we must hold what we are born
to hold, and all our weariness today
is just a stay against the hours. Prayer
is bird song in a garden far away
from the play of shadows fire makes.

The silence of the dead is what we own.
It’s why we sing. The sky is clear today.
Go on, I hear my father say, my mother too,
and though they rest in quiet graves
I hear them still. The sky is clear today.
The dead sing too in the wreckage and the fires.
We must listen to their song.
The burden is our lives.
We pray because we cannot turn away.

Patrick Lane from The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane, Harbour Publishing, 2011

I am so grateful to my friend and fellow poet Mary-Ann Moore for posting this poem by Canadian poet Patrick Lane on Facebook.  It honours the horrific events in New York City twenty years ago on September 11th. It honours them with a hope of what will endure in spite of everything. That, in spite of everything, there is still a safe garden far from fire and destruction. That even the dead tell us: “Go on.” Do not give up.

And this poem also honours something outside the specifics of that awful day on September 11, 2001. It honours the need to sing, to use words, to help keep our spirits alive even in the darkest times. But it also honours what a garden means for Patrick. Its almost mythic place in his work.

Patrick was a master gardener and he wrote a memoir in 2004 based in his garden in his first year of his recovery from alcohol and drug addiction – There is a Season – A Memoir in a Garden. His garden: a place of beauty, a place of hope. As it so often is in his poems as well!

A Small Elegy to New York, also set in a garden,  was written, I think, during these early years of his recovery as was another one of my favorite poems of his, False Dawn, also set in his garden. And in that poem this line:  That’s the hard part knowing the darkness is there/ and singing anyway. Such a similar thought to the line in Small Elegy to New York: The silence of the dead is what we own./ It’s why we sing.

 And then when I opened the US edition of There is a Season which is titled What the Stones Remember, I saw this inscription to me from Patrick: Words have kept me alive, this great singing, as it must be for you, as it is, as you know. And then this epigraph in the book from his poem  Fathers and Sons: If you listen you can hear me./ My mouth is open and I am singing.”

 Again, my gratitude to Mary-Ann for bringing me back to the words of my beloved teacher and mentor Patrick Lane and to remind me that his poems stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of his generation. Patrick died aged seventy-nine two years ago this past March.

This elegy for 9/11 is so fine. But for me that isn’t what matters most.  This poem awakens in me something that feels so buried in ash. Ash of a world on fire and under flood, ash of Covid, ash of my own poetic journey where so many poems I read these days fall on a cooling heart. Not the fault of the poems, more my own heart which seems to have gone into poetic estivation. A dormancy. A weariness. But this poem, its singing, sings something vital back to life.

The singing a prayer is, this poem is.  Not just a bird in a garden singing But a song that won’t go out “far away from the play of shadows fire makes.” The hope in this. Whether it’s fires, so many of them still, or floods or war this poem sings that there will “be flowers, nests and seeds.”

The poem is an elegy to New York, yes. But it is also a panegyric, a praise poem, to a garden. And a prayer that this garden, its birds and their singing will persevere. And with so much perishing around us – men and women, plants and animals, swaths of our planet in fire and flood I cherish the hope this poem is. Do I believe it? Patrick’s poem wants me to. I think. And that must be enough.

I pray for what I know,
that birds must sing among bright leaves,
that apples ripen toward the fall,

This poem is about singing and there is a music inside it.  All the hard “a” sounds both in the line endings and inside the body of the poem. Fourteen of them.  This sing song between away, stay, today, pray and say and each of these repeated two or three times in the poem.  How these sounds become threads stitching the poem, the song, together.

So, there it is: Patrick singing in the fire and darkness of New York in 9/11. And in the darkness of his years of addiction. His words, his singing, keeping him alive. And helping my spirit stay alive, stay singing, in spite of…, in spite of…!

Thank you, thank you Mary-Ann. Thank you, thank you Patrick. May we all keep sing no matter what. Patrick says: The dead sing too in the wreckage and the fires./ We must listen to their song.

Patrick, you are gone now. You have joined the dead. But may we keep listening to your songs!

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