Review by Robert Colman
The Witch of the Inner Wood
M. Travis Lane
Goose Lane Editions, 2016
M. Travis Lane has had a long and distinguished poetry career in Canada. Hers may not be quite the household name as those of some of her contemporaries, but the wider availability afforded her early poems and her criticism by new publications will likely boost an understanding of her importance in Canadian letters.
Fellow poet Shane Neilson has done much to encourage this examination of Lane’s catalogue. In 2015, he edited a monograph on Lane’s work, How Thought Feels: the Poetry of M. Travis Lane (Frog Hollow Press), and The Essential Travis Lane (Porcupine’s Quill), a selection of shorter poems from her early career. In the same year, Lane published a new book of shorter poems, Crossover (Cormorant Books), which garnered her a Governor General’s Award nomination.
These three volumes were followed by Heart on Fist: The Selected Prose of M. Travis Lane (Palimpsest Press), and The Witch of the Inner Wood (Goose Lane Editions), Lane’s collected long poems.
It is edifying to see a career in letters so thoroughly captured and reflected upon in these varied volumes. The monograph, for instance, includes an exploration of Lane’s poetics by Jan Zwicky, Lane’s ecopoetics by Jeanette Lynes, as well as her complex explorations of spirituality, written by Neilson. The prose volume, meanwhile, demonstrates Lane’s dedication to serious literary criticism throughout her career.
The Witch of the Inner Wood, however, feels like the crowning achievement in this celebration of Lane’s craft. As Neilson explains in his foreword, Lane’s long poems have not been previously anthologized, and yet she is recognized as a skilled long form explorer. The collection bears witness to that fact. Goose Lane Editions has recognized this not only by publishing the book, but also giving the physical object the full red carpet treatment as a hardbound volume—a rare thing in Canadian poetry.
“Explorer” is likely the best word to describe Lane in the midst of each of these poems. As she herself writes in her afterward, the long poem allows the poet to “think, develop, revise, or question [the poem’s] opening perception.”
The title poem, a feminist retelling of the creation myth, illustrates this element of exploration, as well as Lane’s complex perception of the spiritual. It begins with the creator describing how she makes her first forms out of playdough and describes them:
my first, weak,
The witch of the title seems all-powerful in that moment. But though she exults occasionally in her creations, she is also lonely, and only in control of creation, not what that creation does:
There is always the slender mourning dove
with her quaker voice
who speaks from the backyard shed and says
oh love, oh love
I hear her when
I am most lonely,
by my abandoned vanities: (247)
The weaving of exultation and shame, loneliness and calm reflection, allows the reader to ponder this character as earth mother, gardener, and writer at once. This witch/god may be omniscient, but she is not omnipotent. But Lane takes this still further (with stops along the way to ponder order and nurturing, and yet more) to ask:
What is the world
but the reflections of a thought,
a witch’s thought?
Upon the cauldron of her mind
she broke the egg;
its phoenix sparks
expanded to this universe
the music came along with them,
in coiling, miming loveliness (265-266)
In spare lines, and past the pain of the loneliness of life, comes reaffirmation in the chaos.
In his preface to How Thought Feels, Neilson describes visiting Lane at her home, and the door being opened by a “white-haired sprite.” The description suggests a mischievous soul, and to sustain a long poem requires such a spirit. Lane does not remain beholden to any particular style or approach in her work. “Bushed (A Pastoral)”, for instance, reads like a dream-crossed stage play. “Homecoming” and “Witch of the Inner Wood” are epic monologues, whereas “The Book of Thrones” from the book Divinations plays, at times, with concrete poetry. Some poets make you a fan of their work by giving you almost the same voice with every book. Lane’s blessing (or curse) is her adaptability to the needs of her inspiration.
And yet, her interests are consistent—ecology, spirituality, feminist narrative, poetry, and (in her later books) aging.
Neilson, in writing of Lane’s lack of due recognition in the canon, often notes that it is her isolated position living in New Brunswick as one reason for this (along with the fact that she has never taught, and doesn’t attend writing workshops). The irony is that, for me, part of the power of the collected work is its being so very rooted in New Brunswick soil. Lane seems to make a point of making the land on which she lives a part of a mythic landscape.
Most blatantly, “Homecoming” is The Odyssey’s Penelope musing on her fate. Lane explains that this Ithaca “is often rural New Brunswick.” Giving Penelope over to Lane’s adopted home province somehow heightens the text, as in the following:
Nothing returns that I recognize
but time, recounting the rack-slung jars,
smoked haunches, the strings of onions, herbs –
I drowse in a shawl by the fireside,
with the eye in the hearth, my sparrow nest,
counting the small birds of the yard. (51)
The main protagonist of “The Book of Thrones” is inspired by an American work of art created by a man, however Lane’s artist in the poem is a woman dwarf from Fredericton. The character and the work are transformed in this act, somehow. As Lane writes in the introduction to another long poem that plays with place and history, “This poem lies.” But when Lane lies in favour of giving these stories to New Brunswick, it is as if to say the spirit of those difficult characters are a reflection of that landscape. And in the act, the myth of both place and character builds.
Even “Witch of the Inner Wood” seems to exude the local landscape and that sort of ur-energy of a place, although I grant this may be because enough preceding poems were firmly rooted in and named New Brunswick as their setting.
The risk in even saying the above suggests a sort of provincial bent in Lane’s work, but it’s instead precisely the opposite. She understands her landscape and therefore can embody it in language that lifts it above such provincialism. Again, from “Witch”:
The chanterelles are the little songs
the moist earth makes late in the summer woods.
I hear the apricot perfumes
of these orange, earlobe-soft, rib-veined
extrusions from the green-mossed soil….
….we eat the music of the earth. (253)
The gift this volume gives readers is access to Lane’s startling breadth of work in the long form. It demonstrates the myriad opportunities extended contemplation on a theme allows a poet, and how the demands of such a form asks of even an expert in the lyric form the pliability to go beyond what a reader might expect of her. Lane has always had the tenacity to meet the long poem on its terms, and Canadian literature is the richer for it.
Robert Colman, MFA, is a Newmarket, Ontario-based writer and editor. His most recent publication is a chapbook called Factory (Frog Hollow Press 2015). He is also the author of two full-length poetry collections, Little Empires (Quattro Books 2012) and The Delicate Line (Exile Editions 2008).