When Beauty Falls In Our Hands – Patrick Lane

Patrick Lane - Photo by Rafel Gerszak for the Globe and Mail

Patrick Lane – Photo by Rafel Gerszak for the Globe and Mail

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be in Kelowna to see the celebrated Canadian poet Patrick Lane receive an Honourary Doctorate from UBC – Okanagan. I also was privileged to hear him give the Convocation address. I was thrilled today to discover that the Globe and Mail has published a copy of the address. To read it click here.

Lane’s address evokes so much. It contains his trademark searing honesty about his life which he describes as: at times dissolute, irresponsible and destructive. But it also has been a life that has lived up to a promise a made on a cold winter’s day when an unexpected and utterly out-of-place blue butterfly landed in his hand. That butterfly only lasted a few minutes before it died but that was enough. This vision of beauty changed him. He pledged this: to live my life to the full and above all, I would treasure beauty.
Lane has lived his 74 years to the full and then some! His 2004 memoir There Is A Season details that fullness in harrowing detail especially his first year in recovery from a forty-year drug and alcohol addiction. And his preoccupation with beauty, his promise to treasure it,  has never left him. Even if each glimpse is fleeting: here, then gone. His poem The Beauty expresses this so well.

This too, the beauty
of the antelope in snow.
Is it enough to say we will
imagine this and nothing more?

Who understands that, failing,
falters at the song.
But still we sing.
That is beauty.

But it is not an answer
any more than the antelope
most slender of beasts
most beautiful

will tell us why they go
going nowhere
and going there
perfectly in the snow.

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

The mystery. We witness a transcendent moment of beauty and we can’t stop and become it. It will pass. And it is not enough to say we will imagine this and nothing more. Sorrows and tragedies will come. But even then the beauty must be remembered. Treasured. As Lane said to me recently: Beauty like all abstractions is an unnamable quality but still we sense it. There is an incapacity of words to contain a moment but still we write. Still we go on. And as he says in his poem but still we sing.

And Lane is still singing. And what a song he sang to the graduating students at UBC – Okanagan a few weeks ago. Not  his song about an antelope but the new one about a blue butterfly, the size of a hand, that in some mysterious way still lives on through his words in spite of its death in his hands fifty-five years ago. And although his words may not capture perfectly the transcendence of that moment they are enough.  Here is how he ended his address:

No matter the degrees you have earned and the knowledge you have accumulated, remember to believe in yourselves, to believe in each other. In a world as fearful as our present one, I ask that you not be afraid. Today is merely an hour. Remember in the time ahead of you to hold out your hands so that beauty may fall safely into them and find a place – however briefly – to rest.

Patrick Lane has held out his hand to beauty many times. And we are the richer for it.



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