Lane and Berry Redux – Two More Poems

Here are two more poems by Patrick Lane and Wendell Berry. Nothing scientific about the choices of poems. Just that these are poems I keep coming back to. Can’t let go.

I’ve long cherished Berry’s poem Marriage and its scope in trying to capture the complexities of that strange and wonderful institution. The poem has flashes of intimacy with the writer but not nearly as directly as Lane’s poem, Balsam Root, does. Lane’s poem is  not about marriage, far from it, but captures the raw intimacy of the narrator’s  memory of making love to a young woman in the B.C. landscape Lane knows so well.

Here is Berry’s poem:


How hard it is for me, who lives
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.
You have been such light to me
that other women have been
your shadows. You come near me
with the nearness of sleep.
And yet I am not quiet.
It is to be broken. It is to be
torn open. It is not to be
reached and come to rest in
ever. I turn against you,
I break from you. I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

Wendell Berry from Collected Poems – 1957 to 1982, Northpoint Press, 1984

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

Although this poem is short on specifics and concrete images the first lines of the poem decked me when I first read it and it still rocks me years later:

How hard it is for me, who lives
in the excitement of women
and have the desire for them
in my mouth like salt. Yet
you have taken me and quieted me.

The poet Stephen Dunn, in his book of essays on poetry Walking on Water, considers this a fine and successful poem. I do, too. But for me the salt image is what gives this poem its power, sustains the more abstract language that follows.

And having been married three times I have lived the truth of his last lines. And I can add that even though my first two marriages collapsed I can look back and see the healing in my spirit that has come because of those marriages. I know in my bones these truths:

I break from you. I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.

Here is Lane’s very different poem:

Balsam Root

I don’t remember her name, think now
it might have been some kind of flower,
brown like balsam root before it breaks
into that yellow spring is, a single heave
that turns a desert into bloom. Like that,
brown, when she came to me up-country,
her small breasts high and white
so that I saw them not a part of her
and thought they’d burn in such harsh light.
I had gone into those hills
to live away from things, a bed alone
under ponderosa pine, the stars
as they were before the cities put them out.
She came walking barefoot on the shale,
some man’s daughter, fierce in her choice.
When I washed her in the flume after love,
She touched the blood as it mixed
With the cold come down from snow
and tasted herself. It was a time
when a man gone into hiding
could think a girl turned into a woman
wouldn’t know to take that much.
This is me, she said.
She said it like young balsam root
before it breaks to colour. She said it
like yellow would say when it dreams
itself yellow, before it is a flower,
all root and flesh in the dry earth.

Patrick Lane from The Collected Poems, Harbour Publishing, 2011

Patrick Lane

Patrick Lane

Lane’s poem haunts me in a very different way than Berry’s. It is image rich, few abstractions or big thoughts. The raw intimacy of it gut-punches me. This is me, she said./ She said it like young balsam root/before it breaks to colour. The narrator in Lane’s poem may not remember the woman’s name but he remembers something dearer, the essence of her that has remained. Fierce in her choice. This shocking comng of age. This sudden flowering and deflowering. Dare I say that Lane makes of this encounter something approaching holy. At least it feels that way for me.

Two very different poems. Very different poets. But men who both share a fierce attachment to the geographies that have made them. And as such it is such a pleasure  to profile them. Thee two outstanding literary figures exemplify lives lived to the full! But lived to the full so differently!

Berry was born in 1934 in Kentucky in Henry County where his families on both sides had farmed for at least six generations. He bought his own farm in 1965 where he still lives with his wife Tanya whom he married in 1957. While his attachment to his literal ground in Kentucky is central to his life and writing he also managed two long stints teaching English at the University of Kentucky and has been an activist in many areas. He has been a leading critic of environmental and economic policy and practice for many years. And his  literary output has been prodigious — more than forty books of poetry, essays, short stories and novels.

Lane, born in 1939 in the interior of British Columbia has had a much more disrupted life than Berry. Even though his emotional and writing life is still so firmly wedded to the place of his growing up in the interior of B.C. he also has a wanderer’s heart. For periods after his first marriage and then again after his second Lane spent time in South America and in towns and cities across Canada. It was only after he met his current wife, the poet Lorna Crozier that his peripatetic ways slowed way down.

For the past many years he has been rooted to the home he and Lorna have made in the Saanich peninsula on Vancouver Island near Sidney. But as important have been the unshakeable roots he has put down in his relationship with Lorna. That relationship has become its own place in his writing. The other place that has had a huge influence on his life and writing has been his forty year struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol that he has been in full recovery from since 2000.

There is a confessional intimacy and intensity in Lane’s writing not so evident in Berry’s poems. Although in his novels, through the lens of his characters, Berry does create intimate three dimensional portraits of his characters his own direct life is not so evident. Where Lane’s life comes into gritty and dramatic focus is in his riveting memoir – There Is A Season. Written during his first year of recovery it is an unflinching look at a life in all of its light and darkness.It is that book that triggered me to get to know his work through his poems and the man through his many writing retreats he has given on a regular basis for years.