That’s the Hard Part, Knowing the Darkness is There and Singing Anyway – The Lasting Words and Legacy of Canadian Poet Patrick Lane (1939-2019)



Canadian Poet Patrick Lane (1939-2019)

God Walks Burning Through Me

When I sleep the birds come to the garden
With their gifts of seeds. Out of ice

last year’s leaves of grass lift into night.
All my songs have been one song.

The palm of my hand and the sole of my foot
remember everything I have forgotten.

The old lantern by the pond has always been there.
Now is the time to light it.

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

I begin this blog post with thanks to Canadian poet Barbara Pelman whose share of my blog post honouring the Canadian poet and novelist Patrick Lane from three years today ago brought it back to mind and also this great poem of Patrick’s I feature in that blog post: God Walks Burning Through Me. (Most of that blog post is copied below.)

And now, again, at this dark time of year I get to celebrate Patrick  but this time under even darker circumstances, in the shadow of his death earlier this year, March 7th. What a loss. What a darkness cast by his death. Yet how important Patrick’s reminder to light what must be lit! That empty lantern snuffed out in me by Patrick’s death, how I must light it. Again and again!

One way I light this lantern is to remember these lines from my most-beloved poem of Patrick’s, False Dawn (copied in full below):

……………………………The earliest birds
wake me now and I get up into what
others called the false dawn. I know it sweeter.
That’s the hard part, knowing darkness is there
and singing anyway.

Knowing the darkness is there and singing anyway. The singing we do as poets each time we write into the darkness with a poem! How I can’t be reminded too much of this! How I must sing my life, my poems, into the darkness of Patrick’s passing. This reminder to sing is what I emphazied in my blog post three years ago. And so lovely to be able to share this theme again!

As part of my mourning and healing I memorized False Dawn after Patrick died.  That way something of him stays alive in me. This poem written in his early days of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, this remarkable praise poem to life. With life’s capacity for both misery and love so evident in these lines: I think misery is mostly what we know. Yet there are days I overflow with love. And these lines with their indomitable call to live no matter what:

This morning I set out the early sprinkler
and out of the darkness robins came
and varied thrushes I thought our cats had killed.
The water from our highest mountains turned
and turned above our earth
and all the bird went under that falling
with everything they had.
Maybe that’s the measure.
Maybe in the morning light we pray
and rain falls and we lift to its falling
as if we still had feathers, as if with words
we could scrape the sky clean of every kind of pain.

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

This call to lift into the falling away that life is. My falling away. Your falling away. Patrick’s falling away this past March. But my oh my, also his lifting in his recovery, his poems, his singing!

I love the hope in False Dawn. How in the poem, out of the darkness the robins come, that hope and then this hope, this metaphor of rebirth: and the varied thrushes I thought our cats had killed. This beauty not killed! Not dead. And the power of the three iambs in that line. They pound into me each time I recite the poem: I thought our cats had killed!

And I so resonate to the longing in the lines that suggest why we turn to words, why we poets sing, why we keep turning to words:

………………………… if with words
we could scrape the sky clean of every kind of pain. 

I had the privilege of giving a talk based on False Dawn at two Sunday morning services at Hillhurst United Church in Calgary this past October. What a joy to share this poem then. And, again, now.

False Dawn
    For Stephen & Susan

We turn towards words because there’s not much more
to turn to. I love you becomes what I used to call
the dark. I prayed this morning. It wasn’t much,
just me and the god I understand. The earliest birds
wake me now and I keep getting up into what
others call false dawn. I know it sweeter.
That’s the hard part, knowing darkness is there
and singing anyway. Becoming more
becomes less. It’s like an origami dove
chased by a flying child, a kind of solitude
so perfect you keep searching even as you know
there is no cure. I think misery is mostly
what we know. Yet there are days I overflow with love.
My friends are so fragile I’m afraid
to take their hands for fear I’ll break them.
This morning I set out the early sprinkler
and out of the darkness robins came
and varied thrushes I thought our cats had killed.
The water from our highest mountains turned
and turned above our earth
and all the bird went under that falling
with everything they had.
Maybe that’s the measure.
Maybe in the morning light we pray
and rain falls and we lift to its falling
as if we still had feathers, as if with words
we could scrape the sky clean of every kind of pain.

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

Now, as promised my post from three years ago:

“God Walks Burning Through Me

When I sleep the birds come to the garden
With their gifts of seeds. Out of ice

last year’s leaves of grass lift into night.
All my songs have been one song.

The palm of my hand and the sole of my foot
remember everything I have forgotten.

The old lantern by the pond has always been there.
Now is the time to light it.

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

Since the solstice a few days ago, we here in the Northern hemisphere have begun the slow movement back toward to the sun. Days will lengthen. But in practice, we remain fully locked into the darkest time of the year. Bright light at a premium!

This darkness. This time of year, this time in the world. How do I keep a light burning in face of these darknesses? I come back to Patrick Lane’s poem , again and again; it’s declarations: a stay against darkness and death. The need to sing (All my songs have been one song.) and the need to light the old lantern, the one waiting to be lit. To help bring light into the dark.

So much hope in this small poem. In a cold time, winter time, the birds come still, with their seeds. The tall grasses stand tall in spite of the ice. And once again Lane uses his signature metaphor of song, singing, as his ultimate declaration of his place in the world. His saying to the world: here I am, see me, hear me.

Through his poem Lane keeps his song alive, fashions his own light in the darkness.  In his poem The Beauty Lane says: And still we sing; in his poem  Small Elegy for New York he says: The silence of the dead is what we own. It’s why we sing. And in his poem Sooke Potholes he says:  Sometimes a song is all we have. 

A light in the dark. A cry that says I am here. I live. In spite of all threats to that living. Lane reminds all of us, no matter our beliefs or disbeliefs, to keep singing.. To go to that garden, whatever that metaphor means for you, and find that lantern by the pond. And light it. Especially now, in the dark time of the year.

On this Christmas Eve, 2016, I feel such deep thanks to Patrick Lane, award winning Canadian master poet, for this poem and all the others he has written in his fifty-five-year writing career. And for his generous mentor-ship of so many poets, including me. He has taught us to sing and keep singing no matter what. To light our lanterns and hold them up, even into the wind.


Solstice – A Midnight when Noon is Born – The Dark-Day Cry of the Great English Poet Kathleen Raine

Poet, Mystic, Scholar – Kathleen Raine (1908-2003)

from The Northumbrian Sequence – Part IV

Let in the wind
Let in the rain
Let in the moors tonight,

The storm beats on my window-pane,
Night stands at my bed-foot,
Let in the fear,
Let in the pain,
Let in the trees that toss and groan,
Let in the north tonight.

Let in the nameless formless power
That beats upon my door,
Let in the ice, let in the snow,
The banshee howling on the moor,
The bracken-bush on the bleak hillside,
Let in the dead tonight.

Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) from The Collected Poems, Golgonooza Press, 2001

The excerpt abouve is part of a longer poem that continues below. For me, I associate it with the Solstice and the Christian season of Advent, the lead up to Christmas.  This heart-cry of a poem that embraces darkness as a way to find the light! The sense of one life ending and another beginning. It’s author, Kathleen Raine was considered one of the great English language poets of her time. And I wrote a long blog post about her and her writing in 2011. For my 2011 blog post on her Raine please click here. 

Raine was many things, a scholar renowned for her work on Blake and Yeats, a poet who wrote thirteen volumes of poetry and a mystic who exlpored the spiritual underpinnings of art and imagination all her life. I first heard Part IV of The Northumbrian Sequence in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Inside that massive stone structure her words  carried a bleakness perfect for the setting. And the hope that comes out of the poem’s end seemed eeven more real and well-earned being heard in that cavernous place. I say a lot more about who read her poem that day and the extraodinary larger-than-life life of Raine in my 2011 blog post.

The rest of the poem follows below. It is for me a Solstice hymn. A cry for light and love at a darkest time. An unflinching look at darkness. Naming it. Let in the fear/ Let in the pain. That courage. What in our darkest days wants to come to birth. What in me on this 21st day of December wants to come into the light out of the dark and illuminate my coming days? What in you this day wants to come to life in you?

The whistling ghost behind the dyke,
The dead that rot in the mire,
Let in the thronging ancestors
The unfulfilled desire,
Let in the wraith of the dead earl,
Let in the unborn tonight.

Let in the cold,
Let in the wet,
Let in the loneliness,
Let in the quick,
let in the dead
Let in the unpeopled skies.

Oh how can virgin fingers weave
A covering for the void,
How can my fearful heart conceive
Gigantic solitude?
How can a house so small contain
A company so great?
Let in the dark,
Let in the dead,
let in your love tonight.

Let in the snow that numbs the grave,
Let in the acorn-tree
The mountain stream and mountain stone,
Let in the bitter sea.

Fearful is my virgin heart
And frail my virgin form,
And mist I then take pity on
The raging of the storm
That rose up from the great abyss
Before the earth was made,
That pours the stars in cataracts
And shakes the violent world?

Let in the fire,
Let in the power,
Let in the invading might.

Gentle must my fingers be
And pitiful my heart
Since I must bind in human form
A living power so great,
A living impulse great and wild
That cries about my house
With all the violence of desire
Desiring this my peace.

Pitiful my heart must hold
The lonely stars at rest
Have pity on the raven’s cry
The torrent and the eagle’s wing,
The icy water of the tarn
And on the biting blast.

Let in the wound,
Let in the pain,
Let in your child tonight.

Kathleen Raine, ibid

Whatever your spiritual or religious leanings I invite you on this Solstice day to let in this poem. Its heart cry for life and love.  For your child whatever that is for you.

Let in the wound,
Let in the pain,
Let in your child tonight.


Gem of a Short Poem and a Hugely Long Blog Post – Thanks to British poet Don Paterson!!! And Canadian Novelist Guy Gavriel Kay! And Li Po and Du Fu!

T’ang Dynasty poet Du Fu

         The Poetry
         after Li Po

I found him wandering on the hill
one hot blue afternoon.
He looked as skinny as a nail,
as pale-skinned as the moon;

below the broad shade of his hat
his face was cut with rain.
Dear God, poor Du Fu, I thought:
It’s the poetry again.

Don Paterson (1963 – ) from Rain, Faber & Faber, 2009

Making more shelf space for poetry books, my Sisyphean task more often than I like to admit, I came across the small gem beauty of a poem by distinguished U.K. poet, editor and teacher, Don Paterson. It’s the poetry again. yes, yes and yes, again! To be that immersed in this singular passion! I am not. I am not!

Maybe a small poem but when you mention the two best known T’ang dynasty poets of the 8th C you have just blown the size of the poem up into something close to endless. And when I think of these two Chinese poets, especially Li Po, I think of characters who ate, slept, drank (and drank some more and then more) and breathed poetry. Their utter attention to their world, its beauty and its ugliness. So many moon references (that beauty) and so many war references (that ugliness).

What would it be to be that absorbed in our craft and expressions of what it is to be human? For my friends and beloveds to say oh Dear God, poor Richard: It’s the poetry again. David Hinton, the well-known translator of Chinese poetry, as referenced by The Poetry Foundation, says [Du Fu] explored the full range of experience, and from this abundance shaped the monumental
proportions of being merely human. Would any of us be able to claim this! Dare to achieve this?

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She’s Not Mad – She’s a Poet – Two Poems by the Great Canadian Literary Icon Susan Musgrave

Canadian poet Susan Musgrave featured in her famous car covered in glued-on figures! Photo Credit: Barbara Pedrick

from Winter ii

Across the river, children
are eating snow, their lips
the colour of tiny kingfishers
in the numbing cold. The delight
they take in the melting of each
snowflake on their tongues reminds me
joy is there, in everything, and even
when we can’t see it.

Susan Musgrave (1951 – ) from Obituary of Light, Leaf Press, 2009

I so cherish this poem by poet Susan Musgrave. Especially how it embraces joy in spite of Susan’s many experiences with grief in her life. And how it reminds me to keep remembering to see joy in spite of today’s news headlines that seem devoid of it!

This joyous mouthful of a poem from her book of seasonal meditations carries none of the grit often associated with her poems! As an example in 2011 Toronto writer and blogger Lil Blume posed the question: What is the most wrist-slittingest poem ever? This was her answer: the MOST wrist-slittingest, where’s-the-nearest-bridge poem ever written has to be Susan Musgrave’s poem “Here It Comes – Grief’s Beautiful Blow-Job”. I have copied the full poem below and it is a wrist-slitter for sure. Filled with events in a woman’s life no woman should have to endure.
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Not for the Faint of Heart – Francesca Bell’s Poems of the Merely Bad, the Really Bad and the Dreadful

American Poet Francesca Bell


Small wind tonight
and my faced pressed
to the flimsy screen.

Owls ghost the hilltop
trees, fledglings
shrilling for food.

They eat their own weight
in rodents every night,
and shriek

although their sibling
was found, consumed.
Under their nest box,

What was left:
wings sheared intact
From the torso, a few bones,

Skull with its working beak,
Bran devoured,
Eye sockets sucked clean.

This is the world I want.
World of hunger.
World of soft breeze and keening.

Lord, let me famish,
Devour my body’s weight
In summer evening light,

Ache for the sky
And the trees outline—
A gaping mouth—

Against it. Let me be
The dark shape, sharp
Against what’s bright.

Francesca Bell, an excerpt from I, Too in Bright Stain, Red Hen Press, 2019

This poem by American poet Francesca Bell confronts me and disturbs me. And some of her other poems are even more disturbing. But if you want to feel the visceral yes/no of a world you know is out there even if it is not your direct reality, I recommend you devour her words even as they might seem to want to devour you .

Bell challenges my complacencies. Puts the grit of the world on my tongue Yet by contrast also makes the brightly lit, brightly blessed parts of my life more vivid and cherished.
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Dealing with Rejection! – Two Different Responses – Mark Jarman and Francesca Bell

American poet and Vanderbilt University professor, Mark Jarman. Photo credit: Hillsdale Collegian

from Unholy Sonnets # 34

Although I know God’s immensities can speak
In sunlight’s parallels and intersections;
although I know the spiritual technique
For finding God in all things, when I pray
It is to nothing manifest at all.
And although I know it’s merely technical,
I do not pray to nothing. Yesterday,
one of those offhand, razor-sharp rejections
The world flips like a Frisbee grazed my cheek.
It drew blood. No consoling recollections
Of having shaken off that sort of play
Helped me forget it. I could not recall
My strength, and brooded, lost and tragical,
Till, marking this blank page, I found a way.

Mark Jarman ( 1952 – ) from Unholy Sonnets, Story Line Press, 2000

What a fun quick blog post. Oh to celebrate, or not, the reality of being rejected. Mark Jarman’s poem is not speficic as to what his rejection was. I have always assumed it was a literary rejection of some sort. I so enjoy that he brings God or his higher power into the discussion. How his poem because of prayer of finding himself, his center again. I have enjoyed Jarman’s poetry and essays for years. He is both a highly respected American poet and professor.

HyperFocal: 0

In the case of the bitingly-humorous and observant American poet Francesca Bell, her poem below is in response to poems being rejected.  Her poem takes no prisoners and I wonder how she might have changed her poem if it had been addressed to a female editor! Her playful use of pun after pun in the poem is so effective!

Bell’s profile has continued to grow in recent years in spite of not having a full-length poetry collection. That has been remedied with her recent 2019 collection, Bright Stain. My how her poems can bark and bite. Leave claw marks. She is sure-eyed and intense and not afraid to deal with difficult subjects such as  the sexual predatation of Roman Catholic priests. For a recent interview with Bell in the Rattle magazine podcast please click here. For a previous post of mine on Bell please post here.

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My Ten-Day Retreat in Italy in 2020 is Filling Up – But Places Still Available

Poster for my next poetry retreat in 2020 at La Romita Scool of Art

Hello! I wanted to send out this reminder of my poetry retreat in Italy next year before the early-bird pricing special of $2,880 US ()double occupancy) expires in two weeks. The price increases to $3,180 US December 1st.

For more details and the retreat poster please click here.

For further details and lots of pictures (please scroll down) click here.

Hope to see you in June 2020!



Sex or Not – A Poem by Christine Gosnay

American poet Christine Gosnay. Photo credit: The Missouri Review


It is hard to make this choice
when the room is so small and bright,
and the outside big and deep.
But I have not taught myself
to lie on the earth and feel
how much greater it is than me.
And I can’t help following the sky
with my eyes as it moves past me,
and I can’t help closing my eyes to imagine
the boat that carries me to the middle
of a lake as dark as the gaps between the clouds.
I forget everything I have learned
about how to hold myself
at the last edges of sensation
when not so long ago I held
the small hands of a child
and taught her to play a clapping game,
when I stood before a storm of scalding water
that would have killed me
if I gave it the mistake it looked for.
After all this time, we still must love and eat,
and none of us is alone.
See why I create these places where I am a stone.
In the bed, soft against the side
where I make the dark blanket more beautiful
and the sheet a pale and magnificent drawing,
there is nowhere to wrap the part of myself
that understands the handshake of  joy
in my arms and hold her while she cries.
The sink is running in the next room
and the walls are flashed with what the world does at night.
Too much of us is evident in this hour
and I am sick with a cold fever
that hasn’t broken since I was a girl
who loved how good it was to sleep
on the floor, so near to the silent ground.
Still, the boat, and the dark water
that has its private depth.
It never tries to carry me anywhere.
It makes the wind wait in the trees.

Christine Gosnay from Poetry, November 2019

It’s unusual in this blog for me to feature a poem that seems to ellude me. A poem gorgeous with images and feelings but where an obvious meaning for me seems to slip slide away. A poem intent, it seems to me, to create a lyrical “isness” inside a tension of so many opposites. Hard, soft. Water, stone. Bright, dark. Earth, sky. Water made safe by a boat, scalding water.  Woman, child. Someone caught between opposites, perhaps. Is it an issness of someone challenged by the utter surrender sex or intimacy can be?

So why feature it? Because since I read it yesterday I have continued to puzzle over it here in Kauai where I am in a week-long writer’s residency; because the author Christine Gosnay has been getting a fair bit of attention in recent years after publishing her award-winning debut collection in 2017 and releasing her chapbook The Wanderer this year; because I want to know its bones better and in that knowing maybe learn something; and especially because the poem has so many beguiling  and arresting images and lines.  Perhaps the most compelling ones for me:  the boat that carries me to the middle/ of a lake as dark as the gaps between clouds and It makes the wind wait in the trees..

Thanks to lines and images like these above I am haunted and captured by this poem’s mood and feeling even as I am frustrated by its seeming lack of clarity. And then I hear Carl Phillips, the African American poet, telling me to trust its mystery.
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My Next Generative Writing Retreat/Workshop – In Victoria November 3rd!

Write of Passage Workshop at 1506 Burnside Road, Victoria, Sunday Nov. 3rd, 10 AM to 3PM. Lunch included. Cost $89 and lower, if needed, by request.

So happy to be leading this writing time in Victoria this coming Sunday. One or two spots still available. This time will be ideally suited for men and women searching for ways to support their recovery from addiction. And also others who want to  to recover their own hidden and waiting words. Who want to experience poetry as described by the esteemed American poet Jane Hirschfield who needs a poem like life! Her journey of falling into poetry and being held by words, by the poem:

When I start to write, I’m not a guide or teacher; I’m not even a poet. I’m a person far out at sea, and the poem is a raft made of whatever floats past in the water. Those almost accidental rescuing pieces are words, rhythms, musics, ideas, the memory that is mine and the memory that is all of ours and the memory that is held in language itself. The experience of writing, for me at least, isn’t confidence or wisdom; it’s closer to desperation. You are naked as Odysseus when he’s lost his ship and all his men, before he’s met by the courageous young girl Nausicaa—a version perhaps of the rescuing muse, who helps us find our way back into the world shared with others but only if we bring our own resourcefulness to the situation as well. There is some faint memory that this raft business has worked before, some memory of knot-tying, of the intention to live. There is that in us that recognizes: “this is water; this is land.” A poem is land found, as if for the first time. If I already knew what it would hold, I wouldn’t need the poem, and if what it holds were knowable by any other words or way, I wouldn’t need the poem.

Jane Hirschfield in Conversation with author Kim Rosen, May 23rd, 2013


The Wilderness Inside Us – Two Poems by Canadian Don McKay and American Ross Gay

Canadian poet Don McKay. Photo credit: Brick Books

Song for the Song of the Varied Thrush

In thin
mountain air, the single note
lives longer, laid along its
uninflected but electric, slightly
ticklish line, a close
vibrato waking up the pause
which follows, then
once more on a lower or higher pitch and
in this newly minted
interval you realize the wilderness
between one breath
and another.

Don McKay (1942 – ), from Apparatus, McClelland & Stewart, 1997

A few weeks ago, I was the at Panorama Ski Resort in eastern B.C. in the thin crisp Fall air as part of a reunion of participants from my 2017 La Romita ten day poetry retreat in Italy! During some down time I remembered the Canadian poet Don McKay’s one-sentence long poem Song for the Song of the Varied Thrush. That thin air and the two calls of a bird and in the silence between them how the narrator remembers the wilderness between one breath and another. This surprising metaphor. The wilderness we may easily forget inside us. And what we might need to remind us it is there.

For those of you not familiar with Don McKay he is considered one of Canada’s preeminent poets and poetry teachers. A prolific poet (twelve books) and an essayist McKay is also known as an avid bird watcher. And birds are not the only thing in the natural world that fascinates him. He is fascinated by geology and that interest shows up a lot  in his poetry. McKay has won two Governor general’s Award for poetry and the also the prestigous Griffin Poetry Prize in 2006. Also, he was one of the founders of Brick Books, and edited the Fiddlehead for many years.
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