A Life Rediscovered

By Patrick Lane

Trumpeter. 259 pp. $22.95

What the Stones Remember, by the Canadian poet Patrick Lane, is at the same time a meditation and a lament. For 45 years, Lane was addicted to alcohol and drugs. He began writing this memoir when he was entering a period of sobriety, having just emerged from an addiction treatment center. He was 62 years old. This is the story of the beginnings of his recovery. In the sure and steady hands of a writer at the peak of his power, it is an achingly beautiful journey.

The chronicling of one full year takes place in British Columbia as Lane tends the garden around his home. Like composer Sofia Gubaidulina's intricate "Garden of Joys and Sorrows," this garden has room for every emotion; it is a garden of loss and recovery. With attention to the smallest detail, Lane moves us from one season to the next, always recognizing his own fragility amid the fragility and hardiness around him. His descriptions of plants, animals, birds and insects are reminiscent of a Japanese watercolor -- imbued with delicate but stark imagery yet intimating the presence of underlying order and calm. The garden becomes an extended poem: What is not there is just as important as what is.

"A stone upon a path knows more than I do of the rain," he writes. "The hummingbird's heart has a rhythm greater than Gilgamesh, the snail's shell more intricate than the stones of Sacsahuaman. When I listen closely in the garden rooms there is a great singing in the earth and in the air that shelters it. The tiniest forms seethe in their immensity. A black ant walking across the pebbled path by the pond follows a trail she and her cohorts laid down a million years ago. There was a time I would have said I was oblivious to the ant, but no more."

But gardens contain death and disorder, too. From time to time, Lane finds full bottles of vodka, stashed, buried, hidden during past rampages of alcoholism. Each time he finds a bottle, he takes it inside and drains it into the sink. His addiction is a "creature awake on its wet paws. It never sleeps. Quiet and cunning, it watches my every move for a sign of weakness." While Lane makes careful plans to blend species in his garden, his conflicted memories rise to the surface. Expertly woven into the miniaturist's vision of the natural world is his search through a past that includes the murder of his father, the premature death of a brother, family mayhem, his own divorces, turbulent relationships with his children and an agonizing desire for belonging that was denied him in childhood.

"Everywhere my imagination looked I found violence," he writes. But he also finds "moments of such joy that to remember them makes me reel through the thin air of the past." Lane's slow recovery is also a discovery. He has the courage to try to understand what went wrong, yet he knows that some memories must be left alone. He wants to recover his fleeting sense of childhood. The past appears "in stunned cameos, in anecdotal fragments. Each memory seems colored like some mad child's painting of spring." He wants to understand the causes of despair and destruction that to this point have defined his life. All the while, his addiction "sleeps with its claws in my mind." One feels that he is trying to re-enter innocence. The momentum and the urgency of the book entice us to search for our own innocence as we accompany him on the journey. In some ways, it is like nudging a rock to see the hidden life beneath.

Lane's commitment to his art and his love of language have been, in part, his escape and his salvation. The publication of his first poems in 1961 was a turning point. After that, no matter what happened, he never stopped writing, whether in remote mining towns, working at sawmills, through decades of shifting and moving and drinking and aggression. This book is, importantly, about finding ways to forgive himself. It is always about love, not the least of which is Lane's love for his wife, the poet Lorna Crozier, who has stuck by him for the past 22 years. The book is also about friendship, coexistence, love of even the tiniest creature that lurks or hides or swoops overhead or revels and plays in the garden.

The overall impression is that of a man who knows much and who is stepping softly. He moves through his garden with fear and quiet exultation. His memories are never self-pitying, but there is a sorrowful beauty to the strong, poetic language. Despite the savage reality of the revelations, there is a peacefulness, a maturity of vision that is a pure gift to the reader. *

Frances Itani's novel "Deafening" won a Commonwealth Award.