A Poem and a Blues Hurting Song – Haunted and Haunting Words from Patrick Lane’s Hard, Hard Days

Patrick Lane (1939-March 7th, 2019)


Deep summer nights and you, far off, quiet in the dawn.
That last morning the mute swans were on the river and I was unclean.
I placed hot stones in water as you told me of the old people
beside the slow current singing. If I look hard enough I believe
I can see the swans slide past on that long river going toward the lake.
It took many stones, you weaving grouse feathers in your hair, and laughing.
Do you remember the swans? The birds whose wings were song?
Your mother told you they were ghost birds. But she was crazy, you said.
And then the city and you lost again in the bars, the empty rooms.
It was the time one of my last lives was changing.
I looked hard, but there was no finding you.
I turned all the way around then and headed west toward the grey rain.
It was a far way, that walking to the place where the sun drowns.

Patrick Lane from Washita: New Poems, Harbour Publishing, 2014

One of the things I learned from Patrick Lane as a student of his retreats and then as a friend was his unflinching honesty about his years of addiction, in his conversations public and private, in his poems and especially in There Is a Season, his 2004 memoir of his first year in recovery from forty five years of alcohol and drug abuse. Patrick was not afraid to go back to those hard days. And name their dark bleakness. He was not afraid either to write poems of the ones left behind, especially women, in that crepuscular drug and alcohol world. These haunted poems of women who may not have escaped that world. The one he did escape with such courage in his early 60’s.

Because of my work as a poetry therapist with men and women in recovery I see the value of the hard naming. Of poems set in the time of addiction. Poems as a reminder, a warning about what was, and the darkness there, if they were to return. Which too many do return to. And Patrick, thank God, didn’t. Because if he had many of us who were taught by him during his sober years would have missed him. I for one, would have lost my greatest teacher.

Patrick is not the only recovering addict to name their dark days. I think especially of American poets Thomas Lux, Franz Wright and Mary Karr and most recently books by American poets Kaveh Akbar and Chelsey Minnis recounting harrowing addicted times. Also Marie Howe, her poems in her most recent collection, Magdalene, of being addicted and the early days of recovery. The searing lines of this poem called Magdalene – The Addict: I liked Hell./ I like to go there alone./ Relieved to lie in the wreckage, ruined, physically undone./ The worst had happened. What else could hurt me then?/I thought it was the worst, thought nothing worst could come./Then nothing did and no one. What an ouch in that poem.

And what an ouch in Patrick’s  poem above, published in Washita, his last book of poems before his death. ASSINIBOINE is one of those haunted poems, even many years later, haunted from his days before his marriage to his beloved Lorna Crozier, the celebrated Canadian poet. And so was another poem, Half-Hearted Moon, which I featured in a recent blog post which was published in a section called Addiction in his book Go Leaving Strange written a few years into his recovery.

And below, a much older piece, also so haunted, written as a blues song, a hurtin’ blues song. This is not a well-known piece by Patrick which is why its discovery so delighted me. I found it last year in a second hand anthology of Blues poems edited by Canadian poets Jan Zwicky and Brad Cran and published in 2001. The song itself was set to music in 1980 by Canadian writer Sid Marty. A time when Patrick was in the thick of his addiction. Oh how I wish I had talked to him about it!


You had the last word, hello is what you said,
how was I to know you meant goodbye.
Now I’m drinking whiskey in this Last Call bar I’ve found
and you’re not here to drink another round.


	Snow keeps on whispering, whiskey never cries.
	A barroom window’s always closed and nobody can fly.
        Snow keeps on drifting, nobody knows why.
        Women are wounds you hold when something in you dies.

I think you hurt your dreaming back when you were just a girl.
I don’t know why and now I’ll never know.
Each guy who buys you whiskeys wants a piece of your sad bones.
You know that cause it’s what you’ve always known.

I don’t know why I loved you, guess that love is mostly cold,
it’s how I feel now that I’m feeling old.
There’s just one name for wishing, there’s a hundred for the snow.
They all blow on the highway drifting slow.

A woman’s sometimes lonely, sometimes never there at all.
The whiskey and cocaine’s your only song.
If I ever tried to find you I would look behind my mind.
It’s where you stayed when all of you was gone.

Nowhere’s half of someone, half of what I called your heart.
It changed like wind you used to say.
Your name hurts in this whiskey, it’s a needle in the snow
I’d look for it if I thought you’d ever stay.

No one knows the leaving of a woman when she’s gone,
no one looks for steps in drifting snow.
Looking’s mostly lonely, just another lonely song.
Call it what you want, then call it gone.

Patrick Lane from Why I Sing the Blues – Lyrics and Poems, edited by Jan Zwicky and Brad Cran, Smoking Lung Press, 2001

This poem/song, what a cry from the past.I would love to hear this poem sung! In the author notes its say Patrick’s first influence was “Smokey White-Stocking and the Apple Valley Stompers,” country blues of the forties! This one’s a stomper, for sure. But such a sad one.

How he creates the “isness” of this bar room world in his song. Its victims. And of this woman. Her stark description: A woman’s sometimes lonely, sometimes never there at all./ The whiskey and cocaine’s your only song./If I ever tried to find you I would look behind my mind./It’s where you stayed when all of you was gone. The echo in this to this line in ASSINIBOINE: And then the city and you lost again in the bars, the empty rooms.

When I read these lines set in a far away time I think of the life Patrick left and the one he gained when he got sober. I think about the past nineteen years of his sobriety:  the books he wrote (he worried getting sober would wreck his writing; it didn’t), the poems, the novels and his relationship with Lorna, their marriage in 2001, more than twenty years after they were together,  the pleasure I had being with them both. The unshakeable love they shared.

I think the sadness and loneliness in this song fits my mood these days just after Patrick died last week. And the last line so fitting in the context of his death: Call it what you want, then call it gone. It feels a cliche: Patrick you are gone but not your poems. I will keep coming back to them.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *