The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther
November 4, 2013
Review By Linda Rogers
Thirty years ago, my husband and I were having dinner at the Da Tandoor restaurant in Victoria with the incomplete executive of the League of Canadian Poets. All eyes were on the door. Would Pat Lowther, co-chair, be arriving late? My youngest son slept fitfully in his Moses basket and, senseless, wedged between rocks at Furry Creek near Squamish, the missing guest never did arrive. Today Pat Lowther is an icon for spousal abuse, the fussing infant is an adult, and our world is very different.
We are all now aware that domestic violence is ubiquitous and reprehensible. Crimes of passion are no longer an acceptable legal defence. Pat Lowther’s death at the hand of her deranged husband was a catalyst for that changing consciousness in our country. She was a poet and her voice was stilled. That was and still is a tragedy.
Explicating this crime as a societal and literary phenomenon is the mandate assumed by Christine Wiesenthal in The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther. The title and profile images of the poet on the cover are appropriate metaphors for what is still a mystery. In fact there are several mysteries, all of which Wiesenthal attempts to bring out of the shadows and into the more impartial light of hindsight.
The first mystery is why her death affected so many. It was a catalyst. Lowther was a significant impetus for the League of Poets’s Feminist Caucus, which brought forward feminist issues, mainly as they pertained to women writers who had been sidelined in the emerging literary business. Women writers had difficulty in finding publishers, in getting reviews, readings, and academic positions. They had also been regarded as “meat,” protein to feed the insatiable male artistic ego, which brings us to the second mystery.
That mystery is: why did she fall for a pretentious felon like Roy Lowther in the first place? The answer is simple. To a woman with low self-esteem and febrile ambitions, Roy Lowther was an apparent power figure in the tiny Vancouver literary pond of the 1960s. Pat was doing what women are biologically pro grammed to do. That she didn’t get out of the marriage when her husband revealed his vanity and violence is also statistically appropriate. Women don’t. Instead of leaving the bully, she fell into the tender trap of a “same-timenext- year” relationship with a poet of slightly higher profile in the years when League of Canadian Poets agms provided romantic opportunities for fragile practitioners.
Wiesenthal chronicles Lowther’s attachment to flawed but apparently connected men and her struggle to travel in the wake of Pablo Neruda’s shooting star and Dorothy Livesay’s listing mother ship. No one was going to help Pat Lowther. All she had were the words she squeezed out of her tormented life.
The third mystery is whether we would still be hearing of Pat Lowther as a poet had her husband not bashed her head in and left her broken and bleeding on a beach where he had once made love to her. The sad poignancy of her death has made Lowther a martyr for women who look, as she did, for a voice to lead them out of the wilderness. Carol Shields, herself a victim of prejudice against women writers, unconsciously borrowed one of Lowther’s titles for her own Stone Diary. The annual Pat Lowther Award for the best book of poetry by a woman asserts the validity of women’s writing. Predictably, there are writers who argue that poetry evaluation should transcend gender. Many fine writers, some of them friends of Lowther’s, left the League of Poets because they were offended by the intrusion of gender politics in a craft organization. As she did in life, Lowther still stands in the crucible of conflict three decades hence.
Pat Lowther was anxious and ambitious. Attaching herself to the mythological power of writers like Neruda, she wanted her own star in the firmament. To her inept hus band this was incomprehensible; and he destroyed what he could not understand. Wiesenthal doesn’t quite understand either. She is an academic, and, in this apparently intensely re searched book (except for small but significant errors like her description of the courthouse, now the Vancouver Art Gallery, as being made of brick rather than stone – the kind of error that could cast doubt on the credibility of her scholarship) she vacillates between mysteries as Lowther did between her many functions as wife, mother, poet, politician, and arts bureaucrat. What begins as biography and detective story makes lateral moves into history and literary criticism; and we are still unenlightened. There is no end to the story. The book ends abruptly, as did the subject. For Lowther, there is no star. She is just a sad creature washed up on the beach, her bones now bleached and indistinguishable from all others. There are no marks on her and, because of her susceptibility to influences, her mark on our literature is still under debate.
Wiesenthal, encumbered by the biographer’s vulnerability, equivocates in her judgments, but she does leave the dust balls alone. She may or may not have intuited that the Lowther marriage was a metaphor for that oxymoron “the literary community.” Jealousy and competitiveness, the enemies of true art, which should guide us to enlightenment, are the microcosm and macrocosm of Lowther’s half-lives. I wish Wiesenthal had been able to draw such conclusions, but she does at least leave the evidence. It is all a matter of housekeeping.
Wiesenthal documents Lowther’s notoriously unkempt domesticity and the legendary story of the Maritime reading tour she made in her final summer. The nervous poet’s bags had been lost, and, in her attempt to recall and recite poems she had packed in her mother’s suitcase, the real meaning of Wiesenthal’s book comes clear. Pat Lowther attempted to navigate stars without a map. An ambivalent autodidact, she lived vicariously, through books and men. Unlike those grounded peoples who learn the meaning of themselves, their geography, and their culture from songlines, she was distracted from the West Coast environment she described in her best poems. Hers was only a half-life, even while she was still living. Perhaps a fragmented record of her life and work is an appropriate tribute.