Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


What the Stones Remember by Patrick Lane




(Mildly Recommended)




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There’s a haunting quality to Patrick Lane’s What the Stones Remember. This book chronicles his 62nd year, the first year in recovery following 45 years of drug and alcohol addiction. This Canadian poet picks each word precisely, and his descriptions of his garden, animals, birds and insects in each chapter are vivid. There’s beauty and pain on every page. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 7, pp. 151-157:



Creatures of the day, what is a man? What is he not? Mankind is a dream of a shadow. But when a god-given brightness comes, a radiant light rests on men, and a gentle life.




On the breeze is a zither drone and then a touch light upon my hand. I open my eyes and a two-spotted ladybug arches the red shells of her carapace on the back of my wrist, stretches her wings, and closes them again. She clambers through the netted for­est of hairs on my skin till she reaches my middle knuckle, where she sits in beetle pleasure, around her the world of flowers.

I lean my face into a cosmos and watch as a bee works her way in a circle of sound around the plant. She stops and I can hear the crisp of her legs as she cleans the pollen hairs, dragging the golden grains down into her pollen sacks. She grooms and harvests. She is like a worker in one of the old sawmills at the end of a shift who runs his fingers through his hair and beard to clean the sawdust away. She is a woman who runs her hands up her legs to straighten out the seam in her stockings. It is the same clean move.

Below her a solitary snail slides up a rhododendron leaf. His long foot is a slip of sound, a delicate, faint slick, as he rides the smooth road he makes from himself toward a destination only he can imag­ine. “How little do we know that which we are!” said Lord Byron.

I search through the abandonment I feel and wonder at its power over me. I was not a child left huddled by a path in some dark forest. I am not the stuff of fairy tales. What I remember of me and my two brothers after the war was how hard we tried to be part of a family and how miserably we failed. There was some­thing grotesque in our desire. Our short lives were a looping tape we played over and over in exaggerated storytelling that verged on the hysterical. The three of us were bizarre actors in a play whose only audience was our mother and father.

There were days when we would try to outdo each other in the terrible game we called “Remember.” We would end up howling with laughter as we recounted our boyish adventures before our father came home from the war. It was as if we wanted to say we existed, that we had a life before. Look at us, we cried. There are won­ders in us beyond your imagining, we said, but no matter how often we played out the drama it was not enough. Our audience was not moved. They listened, amused by our antics, and then went on with their lives. We didn’t. We stayed in the story, each week and month adding new anecdotes to the complex play we were writing. The myth we created became the foundation of our abandonment. We were three little boys already living in a past that was barely a decade old, but to us it seemed eternity and perhaps it was. Remember, we would say, remember

The garden breathes. There is a susurration of sound in this early morning in July. An apple above me blushes faintly red. I lift a leaf and see its outline printed on apple flesh. I breathe with the garden. My lungs open and close without thought, open and close like the bellows I saw as a child in the blacksmith shop by the rodeo grounds in that far mountain valley where I grew up. Fire leaped to the heavy, steady breathing of the bellows as the blacksmith pushed air into the burning forge. The cells of my body too are on fire.

That old blacksmith made a knife for me, beating it into shape on his anvil as he folded and refolded a shard of spring-leaf from an abandoned Ford. When it was done he fitted the blade into the pol­ished stub of a fir branch, bound it with copper wire, and gave it to me. The knife was a beauty I kept to myself for several years before I lost it while I was climbing some volcanic cliffs. How absorbing it was to watch him shoeing horses. There were horses and buggies back then, just as there were still a few hitching rails along a block or two of Main Street in Vernon.

The forge and the bellows and the bright flare of the charcoal as he pushed a horseshoe into the flames was a glory to see.

I open my eyes and the garden transforms like the blacksmith’s iron. Shapes and textures, emptiness and fullness, distance and closeness hold me in their arrangements. Levels give way to levels, the day lilies and crocosmia lift to the Japanese maple. Bracken, sword, and lady ferns circle the fir’s brown trunk, hostas below them. The trunk of the fir is a curved pillar at Delphi. It gives way to a weeping birch, demure in the corner of the fence. The grass and moss arrange my eyes. The root of the fir where it lifts from the earth behind the azalea and the Okame-zasa bamboo is unconscious art. Behind me the stone mill wheel on the cherry stump sits like a monolithic altar, its iron lantern a rusted brown awaiting light.

Today I am trying to know the garden when it is without me.

Last night I was imagining light, I stood under the studded moon and thought of Lorna’s poem, “In Moonlight.”


Something moves

just beyond the mind’s

clumsy fingers.


It has to do with seeds.

The earth’s insomnia.

The garden going on

without us


needing no one

to watch it


not even the moon.


I needed her poem. It pointed the way to my sobriety. That it took years to find this path makes me no less thankful. It is she who speaks my standing in the garden where I begin again this slow renewal. Saint Augustine of Hippo in his “Confessions” says, “Too late came I to love thee, 0 thou Beauty both so ancient and so fresh, yea too late came Ito love thee. And behold, thou wert within me, and I out of myseIf, where I made search for thee.” Yes, and so I search this morning in the quiet of the garden for the beauty that is both “ancient and fresh,” within and without me.

There is strength in my hands that hasn’t been there in years. It isn’t only muscle and bone. Strength is grace and sureness. I trust my fingers under the earth, trust them among the leaves of oregano and thyme. They feel their own way to the knot where the rhododen­dron flower connects to its stem and where the new summer growth has already begun. They feel among the growing tips and snap off the old flower twig. They know the way.

In the distance a siren suddenly blares from the fire hall and I hear the trucks as they careen toward some conflagration. The sound catches me up in its extremity and I’m lifted back to the north and that trailer on the mountainside above Avola where I used to sit and count the sawmill whistles. One was the startup whistle and two was to shut the mill down. The whistles went on through three to summon the millwright and four for the boss all the way to six whis­tles, which was the call for the first-aid man. The mill was more important than a man.

I would sit in the prow of my trailer up on the mountainside and stare down at the mill with its beehive burner belching out bright flames and gouts of molten ash. The chains of the mill clanked through the night. Belts and saws, gears and cants, dust and noise. The mill ran three shifts a day. The night shift was my last watch­ing, though I slept fitfully till morning. My ears were attuned to every clank and groan, every sequence of whistles. The moment after five whistles was less than half a second but lasted in my mind as long as a wound. The sixth whistle meant I had to get down to the mill because someone was injured.

The mill broke every safety rule in the book. If a man was injured it was not reported to the Workmen’s Compensation Board. An injury cost the mill money. Production was the only measure. I was the only first-aid man they had. My training was a six-week course. I learned to stitch up wounds and to set simple fractures. If the whis­tles called me it was because the injured worker couldn’t walk off the mill floor and I had to go. I lived in dread of a hand being cut off or a back being broken.

We were five hours from the nearest hospital. The road was a narrow one-lane trail along the canyons and through the desert to Kamloops. The CNR main line ran through the village, but the trains stopped only at prescribed hours. If a train was in when the accident happened I could send him out in the caboose. There were times I had to drive a man out when I couldn’t fix him in the first-aid room. Workers hated to be taken out. It meant they’d lose days of work. Women refused to leave. Who was going to watch their children while they were gone? They suffered their illness and injuries in private. I was the only man other than their husbands to see them. I had nothing but aspirin and words of comfort and com­passion for them. I had no sulfa or penicillin, no morphine, nothing to relieve pain or cure infection beyond an alcohol wash and soap. I delivered a child in that north. It was the first time I’d gazed upon a woman’s open cleft.

Fear of failure walked in my boots. The thought I couldn’t help or, worse, make a mistake and cause further injury or death rode me like a hag. My stomach grew ulcers and my shit was studded with black clots. I drank cheap Calona Ruby Red wine at two dollars a gallon when I couldn’t get whiskey. The liquor train came in every Friday. By Wednesday the village was dry. Men had the shakes as they detoxed on the job. Thursday was the day for accidents.

If a man was injured or shaking so bad he couldn’t come to work, then my boss and I, along with a few strong workers, would wait for the night freight train to stop. We’d walk along the tracks by the gondola cars and sledge-hammer the rusted steel walls. Drunks and itinerant wanderers would peer bewildered from the cars and my boss would point at this or that one. The men with us would climb the car and haul the chosen men off. When the boss had enough workers to replace the sick or injured he’d lead them to the cook­house where they would get coffee and a meal. No one fought back, no one complained. They were too frightened. A quiet talk with the boss would leave them shaking in the bunks I took them to. I passed out blankets and they lay down. The next morning they would be stacking lumber on the green chain or stumbling beside the log pond as they tried to push a log toward the chains. The impressed laborers never complained. The sight of the boss with a ball-peen ham­mer in his hand was enough to keep them quiet. They usually worked a week before escaping on another train or simply walking down the road south. Many left without their pay.

A man came to the door of my trailer one Thursday night at sup­pertime. I was exhausted from nine hours of adding log scale on a hand-crank adding machine. The man at the door said he’d hurt himself a bit and could I fix him up. He was respectful. I was like a doctor in that little village. I told him to wait outside until I’d fin­ished my meal. He looked all right and he’d walked to the trailer. I thought it was something minor. I was tired and angry, miserable in my life, and I took it out on the injured man. After dinner I washed up and went out to him and we began to walk to his pickup truck. He walked stiffly, his left leg not bending at the knee. When we got the truck he asked me to drive. He said he had a bad sliver.

At the first-aid room he sat and I undid his boot. It was full of blood. When I got his pants off I could see a broken end of wood sticking from the meat of his lower calf. The other end of the wood came out in a spear-tip at his hip. The splinter was almost three feet long. The stub end was an inch across. He asked me to remove it and I did. The spear hadn’t touched an artery and the veins he’d severed were minor ones. The spear sucked out of his leg with a licking smack. I wanted him to go out to the hospital, but he refused. He couldn’t afford to go. He had been working for a little over a month and it was the first money his family had seen in almost a year. He owed six months’ food charges to the store. He couldn’t afford to leave. I begged him to go out, but he shook his head, asked me to stitch him up, and so I did. Why he didn’t die of infection I’ll never know. He was back at work the next night, stiff-legged, limping badly, and saying he was OK to anyone who asked.

Six whistles.

I dream of them sometimes. I still hear the cries of the woman whose child I delivered, the man I drove out to Kamloops, his man­gled hand in an ice-cream bucket between us packed in cracked ice from the river. I worked my days, slept my fitful sleeps, got drunk with my wife every Friday and Saturday night, played with my chil­dren as I could, and in the rare moments of dark while my family slept I sat at the kitchen table, drank Seagram’s 83 I’d stolen from the boss’s stock, and wrote the poems that began my life as a writer. I can still hear the dull screams of the chains and my dreams still echo with the count of whistles. There were months when my wife and chil­dren were gone to Vernon to stay with her mother. I buried myself in poems and whiskey, records of Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington, and tried not to think of my family.

Those were desperate times, yet I accepted them, for what else was Ito do? Looking at them now I wonder at the struggle, the dep­rivation, and the desolation of those years. I thought then that what my family and I went through was normal. We were leading what I thought was an ordinary life. Even as I wrote my first poems, I had no notion that it would lead to a life’s work. Poetry allowed me an escape. It let me enter an imagined world with its ordered reality a thing I could control.

The day-to-day survival of trying to provide my family with food and shelter and some modicum of illusory happiness was what everyone struggled to provide in that little northern village far from the world. When President Kennedy was assassinated, our village didn’t hear about it for three days. There was no television, no radio, and the only telephone was in the mill office. No one from the out­side world bothered to let us know.

We were a tiny fragment of the whole, separate from the world, autonomous but for the trains that passed through. I used to stand by the tracks and look at the people in the transcontinental passen­ger trains that sometimes pulled onto the siding to make way for a long freight heading east to Edmonton or west to Vancouver. Peo­ple in their suits and bright dresses sat in the dining car or sleeping rooms and stared out at me. I must have seemed some strange inhab­itant of an unknown world to them. I could read their incredulity in their faces. To them I was less interesting than a moose or a bear they might have glimpsed from behind the safety of their glass windows.


Fans of fine poetic writing will enjoy and admire the skill used in creating What the Stones Remember. Anyone in or familiar with recovery will recognize the author’s journey and feel a resonance with his experiences.



Steve Hopkins, February 23, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2006 issue of Executive Times


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