restricted access The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther (review)
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Reviewed by
Christine Wiesenthal. The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther University of Toronto Press. xii, 489. $65.00

The story of a woman bludgeoned to death by a jealous husband is not uncommon and does not, by itself, account for the industry that has developed around Pat Lowther, resulting in films, books, and a literary award in her name. The name has become a site for cultural and political debate because this particular woman, murdered in 1975, was a poet. There [End Page 593] is no denying the fact that it is a sensational story. In one often-reported scene, the judge at Roy Lowther's trial absent-mindedly toyed with an exhibit, fitting the hammer that killed her into an indentation in Pat Lowther's shattered skull. Christine Wiesenthal sets herself the ambitious task of reconceiving 'the limits of biography and the problem of "measuring" the endurance of a life's "value" over time.' What is most gratifying, however, is the fact that the poetry itself is at the heart of this book. The working metaphors are taken from the imagination of Pat Lowther and not from the ramblings of Roy Lowther's diseased mind.

Wiesenthal is lucid about the central challenge. Would we still be reading Lowther's poetry if she had not been the victim of a sensational murder? Did a mediocre poet become a 'handy poster girl for feminist and socialist political causes'? Many scholars might respond to the challenge of evaluation by turning a blind eye to the sensational story. Wiesenthal instead begins with a gripping analysis of that story, of those who reported it and of the literati who canonized the victim. Lowther's status as an icon, however, does not ensure 'an afterlife postal address in "CanLit heaven."' On the contrary, Wiesenthal argues that the '"afterlife" fallout' of the murder has 'inhibited the development of any substantive critical inquiry.'

The central blocking question is elicited during an interview that Wiesenthal conducted with the 'gruff, irascible' judge, now retired, who presided over the trial. The judge makes angry stabs at his salad, then 'puts down his fork and leans across the table, keenly. "How good a poet was she, anyway, really?"' If Wiesenthal seems to sidestep this question, it is because she is not concerned with the afterlife of Lowther's poetry in any recognizable 'CanLit heaven.' Although she analyses the interpenetrations of legal and literary language, she does not make the mistake of assuming that there can be some equivalent to the jury verdict on the literary level. The fact remains, however, that Wiesenthal does pay tribute to Lowther's achievement as a poet and Lowther's voice haunts every page of this page-turner.

A previous generation of critics would have used the image of a 'well-wrought urn.' Wiesenthal uses the metaphor of the 'half-life' to account for the mystery of Lowther's enduring voice. It is a term from chemistry and physics and denotes the 'measurement of "values" over time' – 'rates of decay (or longevity)' that can be charted and that are 'the naturalistic equivalent of an after-life.' Lowther, who was forty when she died, is presented as having lived literally half a life, but as ahead of her time in her understanding of scientific concepts that illuminate the workings of poetry. Wiesenthal quotes from unpublished notes in which Lowther reflects on the archaeological site of the city of Sybaris and marvels at the fact that this 'thousands-of-years-dead city' was found because it still creates a measurable 'disturbance in the earth's magnetic field.' [End Page 594]

The analogy is clear. A Stone Diary and other collections of her poetry constitute for Wiesenthal a site on which to explore the 'half-lives' of Pat Lowther. The pleasures of these poetic texts help to keep Wiesenthal from caving in to the cynicism that tempts. We are allowed to hope that sheer craft may ultimately triumph over the numbing effect of sensational clichés. The life of this battered woman was about as far from sybaritic as you can get, but it is because of her poetry that Pat Lowther, for Christine Wiesenthal, is...


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