Sunday, August 29, 2010

Crying in the restaurant of the Holiday Inn

Away from home, a day of workshops over.
Trip to a large but disappointing mall. A novelty for an hour or two. Done.
Too much driving in the rain early in the morning to relish a trip downtown so I had a surprisingly nice dinner in the lounge of a Mississauga Holiday Inn. The server exchanged the saloon lighting for daytime illumination so I could read my complimentary copy of the Globe and Mail.
Lorna Crozier had written a review of The Collected Works of Pat Lowther, an article that brings tears to my eyes. A flood of memories. An empty sadness at the loss of Lowther’s voice and a weird feeling that is like nostalgia for something bad. Impossible to describe. Maybe regret that Canada’s national newspaper didn’t get around to printing Crozier’s account for over 30 years. Because we knew already. Since the night Patrick Lane and Sid Marty told us, we knew it.
At the time of Ray Lowther’s trial for the bludgeoning death of his wife, we were creative writing students at the University of Windsor. The world of poetry and literature was hyper-real for us, peopled with immense and eccentric talents and egos. It was an exciting time, with an air of romance about it, full of striving, small and large successes, and a daily personal connection to people who seemed to be literary artists first, and only secondarily regular mortals.
Before I was 20 I had met Earle Birney, Susan Musgrave, Irving Layton, Tom Wayman, Barry Callaghan and other luminaries of Canadian literature. Mind you, I use the term “met” loosely as I was too self-conscious to talk to them. Rather I watched other students and faculty shake their hands and verbalize the admiration and respect I also felt.
As well, in our English department many of the professors were writers and poets: Alastair MacLeod, Eugene McNamara, John Ditsky, Ed Watson, Rick Hornsey, Peter Stevens. Joyce Carol Oates taught a first-year English course in addition to a graduate seminar. Students came from all over the world to learn their craft in the department. And then shortly after Lowther’s trial, Patrick Lane and Sid Marty came to Windsor to give a poetry reading.
I was so excited to have the chance to hear them read in person. A few years previous Miss Chatelaine magazine had excerpted portions of a volume of poetry called Storm Warnings, in which both poets were included, and I was obsessed with finding it. I was in Grade 11 and being hauled across Canada with three younger siblings and a cat in a navy blue Ford Falcon pulling a small canvas-topped tent trailer. Our beloved Motown music was nowhere to be found on the prairie airwaves, replaced by the Stampeders, the Carpenters and Anne Murray. Classics now, that I admit to enjoying, but the basest insult to my ears at the time. I had hardly any money but I found the book in the Hudson’s Bay in Winnipeg and almost wore it out.
After the reading at the university, Lane and Marty were gracious, friendly and open to setting out for a few beers with the professors who had attended. My best friend Gary and I, plus a couple of other students I guess, tagged along. I can still picture us seated around two or three tables that had been pulled together at Sid’s Bridge House, one of two bars close enough to the small Windsor campus to be regular haunts.
I was seated at one end of the table towards the left side and Gary was right beside me. At the opposite end of the table was a lecturer that I knew only by name and had never met before. He spent a little while trying to convince everyone that, with my hair in a cloud of curls around my face (in what I classified as a truly unfortunate perm) and my natural pallor, I looked like a character from the movie Barry Lyndon. Very surreal. Then later we stood around the car belonging to one of our profs, since he had volunteered to drive us home, mesmerized by the glow of the harvest-moon-coloured orange paint on his Volvo sedan in the bright circle of light from a street lamp. Also very surreal and an even more drunken moment than the Barry Lyndon scenario.
But the most memorable part of the evening had happened an hour or two earlier. The pitchers of beer were disappearing quickly and conversation was wild and overlapping. The two western poets were seated next to the Barry Lyndon man at the far end of the table and we could only tune in some of the time to what they were saying.
But suddenly the chatter stopped and Patrick Lane had our attention. He was angry and passionate about the point he was trying to make: the media coverage of Lowther’s trial was missing the point. Completely. I snuck a glance at Gary. Lane continued. Ray Lowther had killed his wife Pat out of jealousy over her growing literary reputation, which was eclipsing his. As Lane said, people were coming to the house looking for her, to meet her, to discuss her poetry and praise her. This lay at the core of Ray Lowther’s anger, the fury that led him to kill his wife.
I have no idea if there was any debate or discussion amongst the “grown-ups” in the literary community over Pat Lowther’s death and the reasons for it. There was practically nothing said amongst us students, that’s for sure. I remember Gary asking me that night at the table at the Bridge House if I believed Patrick Lane, but I do not know how I actually responded. I was overcome with the implications of Lane’s argument. On a personal level, sure. It was a welcome, insightful, believable, first-hand alternative to what we had been fed by the media. But also what Lane’s vision of a single tragic event meant about the power of poetry as a force in the world.
When I sat in the Holiday Inn drinking white wine and brushing tears away, it was as though I had been transported back to that year in Windsor. But glad Lorna Crozier had written her article.

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