#979 A fiery & persevering love affair

Through the Garden: A Love Story (with Cats)
by Lorna Crozier

Toronto: Penguin Random House (McClelland and Stewart), 2020
$29.95 / 9780771021183

Reviewed by Kathy Mezei

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We know of famous, sometimes notorious, writing couples — Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Simone Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Some, for example Virginia Woolf in her Diaries and Letters and Leonard Woolf in his Autobiographies, have offered glimpses of their writing practices and complex personal relationships.

We know that memoirs have come into fashion, memoirs of all genres — grief, trauma, celebrity, family, coming-out, childhood, political, illness, artist. Do we then pause to wonder what inspires someone to reveal her or his intimate life and, furthermore, why we are drawn to poking our noses into their lives. Why has the genre of memoir proliferated now?

Is it with a slightly shame-faced prurience that we open the pages of these highly personal works or do we hope genuinely to understand, as in Crozier’s case, how a talented writer channels her grief and her life story? Can this reading, in some unforeseen way, guide our own lives? For this memoir, written during Lane’s mysterious and devastating illness and death, is also the story of their private past and present histories. Through the Garden offers a beautifully written, disarmingly frank, and at times quirky glance into two rather dramatic lives. The book sparkles with startlingly incisive moments and aperçus, many with which we can identify, where we nod, smile, and say to ourselves, “yes, I know; how poignantly you’ve captured this or that.”

Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane. Photo courtesy Monday Magazine

To begin with the title, which is charmingly apt. Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, both well known, highly commemorated and dedicated Canadian poets, “one of Canada’s powerhouse literary couples” (p. 13) settled in Saanich, Vancouver Island, in 2006, where they created a Japanese-style garden that received many accolades. The garden forms the bedrock and setting of this memoir as Crozier lovingly and lyrically describes its features and the intense labour they both contributed in characteristically different ways, “their gardening perspectives are different, yet oddly compatible” (p. 67.) This phrase quoted by Crozier from the book, Beauty by Design, which featured their garden, is of course a metaphor for their enduring, devoted, and volatile relationship and their poetic styles and literary companionship. As she reflects in her poem, “A Good Day to Start A Journal”:

…for you today I must try

to keep this journal. Write:
March 26, and a little cold.
Write: Overnight the plum tree
has become one blossom. Write:
the days are getting longer
because my lover in the garden
turns and turns the earth (p. 66).

Patrick Lane, 2014. Photo by Richard Osler

Along the way we receive beguiling tidbits of information about plants and animals, for example, the origin of the word “ raccoon” (from the Algonquin, arakum, “he who scratches with his hand”).

Crozier candidly, passionately, sensuously describes their “public love story,” their meeting, the marriages and children (in Lane’s case) they abandoned, their intense writing lives, their trials (Lane’s alcoholism which he stalwartly conquered), and their evident delight in each other’s company for forty years. She is honest about jealousies and resentments that both experience. Although they read and edited each other’s work, we “sang solo,” explains Crozier. Through her meticulous and amused attention to detail (the shape of his hands), or moments (a dinner party ruined by their fighting and dramatic exits), she conveys the depth of their fiery devotion. She does not spare herself or Lane in outlining the unrelenting progress of his illness. As she tersely notes “Illness is as isolating as alcoholism…I’m not good to be around” (p. 135). Perhaps we readers could have been spared some of the specifics of his infirmity and bodily functions, but perhaps not.

Patrick Lane. Chris Hancock Donaldson photo

And (with Cats). Their love for each other is intricately interwoven with their adoration and attentive care for their “aging and rebellious” cats, whose personalities and antics permeate this memoir. Crozier reflects on her and Lane’s intense communication but also their silences. “Surely the quality of the silence, the knowing and the respect that it implies, is one of the things that makes people stay together. That and cats” (p. 102). The cats, like the garden, are deftly integrated into the memoir’s narrative flow. However, as much as I too adore cats and have had the fortune to live with many eccentric ones, I found the adulation and lengthy description of their cats somewhat excessive. I do, however, understand that Crozier’s affection for her cats and her despair at the decline and death of Basho represent a displacement for her despair about Patrick.

The memoir opens in February 2017 with Patrick being gravely ill, written in the immediacy of the present tense, and closes in March 2019, a month after his death, with Crozier hearing his voice on the radio reading a poem — “Some days there is just too much rain” in commemoration of his death. In an effective technique that disrupts the predictable linearity of a life story, Crozier’s narrative weaves back and forth from the present as she tries to cope with Lane’s increasing infirmity and medical emergencies to the past, narrated in the past tense. She tells of their childhoods, hers in rural Saskatchewan, his in rural BC, of poverty, of struggle, of their steadfast love of poetry. She describes their meeting, their tempestuous but persevering love affair, and the trajectories of their poetic careers and successes, interspersed with humorous incidents and eclectic adventures. She interjects her own poetry (some previously published, some new) at appropriate moments in the narrative, and, occasionally, moving lines by Lane; we experience the fineness and delicacy of her poems, with their shock closing lines.

Lorna Crozier, 2017. Photo courtesy of The Fernie Free Press

Yet this memoir also demonstrates that Crozier’s possesses a novelist’s touch. There is a delightful passage where she recounts apprehensively renting their home (with cat) to a pair of earnest, clean-cut young veterinary students who insist they are too busy studying to party. Her understated tone makes the reader suspect all is not what it seems; later, after their return, she attended an animal clinic where the young vet cheerfully commented on the wonderful parties held at that very address. We have been skillfully but subtly led to anticipate this outcome. Such entertaining anecdotes mitigate the sombre, elegiac, at times angry tone of the memoir.

This riveting and engrossing memoir is difficult to put down; you will also need to put it down now and then to maintain your equanimity.

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Kathy Mezei

Kathy Mezei is Professor Emerita, Humanities Department, SFU; Life Member, Clare Hall, Cambridge and lives in Burnaby. She has published on Canadian literature, life-writing, Canadian women writers, translation studies, comparative Canadian and Quebec literature, domestic space, and modern British women writers. She is one of the co-founders of the feminist journal, Tessera. Her most recent publication is Living with Strangers: Bedsits and Boarding Houses in Modern English Life, Literature and Film (Bloomsbury 2018), co-edited with Chiara Briganti. Editor’s note: Kathy Mezei has also reviewed a biography of George Bowering by Rebecca Wigod for The Ormsby Review.

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