Canadian literature has borne many famous couples, partners in both art and life: Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, and Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding come to mind, as does the 40-year relationship of poets Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane.
It’s a poignant thing when one person in such a creative relationship passes, leaving the other to nurture their legacy. And when Lane died in 2019 after a three-year illness, Crozier, too, was left with a legacy of unpublished poems she’s now sharing with the rest of us.
Unbeknownst to each other, during those years that Lane was ill (he saw about seven specialists, his symptoms kept radically changing and no one was able to diagnose what it was, she says), he was writing poems that helped him come to terms with his illness and his life, while Crozier was writing a memoir that helped her come to terms with his illness and their life, reading to him some parts, keeping some of her more emotional thoughts to herself.
“I read him the bits about how we met and our wild, crazy, passionate first decade together,” she recalled in a telephone conversation from the home in B.C. they shared. “And I read him the biographies of the cats (they had five of them over the years) and he got a few chuckles out of that. Sometimes he’d say, ‘I don’t quite remember it that way,’ and I’d say, ‘Tough. I’m the one who’s writing it.’”
Throughout most of it, they thought that he just needed to get a diagnosis, then they could get a treatment that would at least extend his life. “Neither of us knew he was dying,” she said.
About a month before he did pass, Lane gave her a folder filled with sheets of paper and said to her, “I think I might have a book here. I’d like to know your opinion,” she recalled.
“So I went through them and thought he had a book there as well,” she said.
After Lane died, Crozier published in 2020 the memoir she’d been writing, “Through the Garden: A Love Story (With Cats).” And now, she’s compiled and edited those last poems of his in the new collection “The Quiet in Me.”
Crozier evokes their life writing and living together with this image: a home set up so their offices were next to each other, where one could roll their chair out, peek their head around the door and see the other person. But privacy was there, too, where one could say, “Hey, I’m in my office, don’t bug me.” Or “I’m writing a poem, I don’t want to talk about whose turn it is to make supper, leave me alone.”
They collaborated on some things; they were each other’s first readers. They were careful with their editing comments, she said — two of the country’s greatest poets working virtually side by side — trying not to be “overpowering or argumentative.”
That editing process made it essential “that we had to respect each other’s work. If he thought I was a terrible writer or I thought he was, our relationship wouldn’t have lasted. One of us would have hit the road a long time ago,” she laughed.
She didn’t want to read him too closely when she did read him, she said, because she didn’t want to be too influenced by him — but that changed with his last poems.
She’d given them an initial read, when Lane had initially handed those poems to Crozier, while he was still well. She went through them, making comments along the way, as was their habit. Usually, she said, she’d write “wonderful!” or “fantastic!” She made a few suggestions about a line here or a line there, suggestions he was never able to incorporate himself.
After he died, for the first year she was “just kind of numb.” But after the second year she thought, “I have to get into the poems. They should be out there in the world.”
This time he wasn’t there, and she had to make decisions about the poems and consider what he would or would not have done. Their professional and personal lives were so intertwined, it came with an emotional toll.
Two things made this particularly difficult. “It wasn’t that easy because I had to go back into the heart and mind of my beloved,” Crozier said.
But also, without him around, she’d have to edit his work herself. When he was alive, they didn’t always follow each other’s suggestions, naturally. “What we really wanted when we showed each other our poems was the other to say, ‘That’s the work of literary genius.’”
He wasn’t around to argue or discuss so she had to try to “almost channel him” and say, “You know, I’m going to take this line out.” She built on her experience of him, trying to keep in his wheelhouse and not pull him into her own; his poems with their power to describe the natural world.
“He always was a nature poet. He always loved the world and wrote about its creatures with great sensitivity. I believe that a real shining light in these poems is how he talks about birds and turtles and bears, and all the various flora and fauna he felt so close to.”
Lane was just three weeks shy of his 80th birthday when he died and had been a writer for almost 60 years. “I think there’s a hard-won wisdom and a solace that comes out in this book,” Crozier said.
That is borne out in the final poem in the book, “Fragments,” in which a man, looking back at himself as a boy, considers what to tell him.
“That seventy-three years will come to be added to his seven,
and in the waste and trash of hours there will be
every tangled dream and desolation, all human wants,
and more, and less, and a man who wishing, wishes
well this child who holds in his hands an open flame.”
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