April 9, 2015 in Celebration of Canadian Poetry

Week 15 – Pat Lowther presented by Kim Trainor

Forty years ago, in the Fall of 1975, Pat Lowther had just begun teaching a poetry course as a sessional for UBC’s Creative Writing department. Her office was in Brock Hall, where I taught a survey of British literature this past term, so I was thinking of her often, and, because of Brock Hall, of radio.

There are still some offices in Brock Hall Annex, shared mainly by itinerant graduate students and teaching assistants. Every morning, after my class, I would walk past the ground floor office windows of these subterranean rooms, half sunk into the ground—sitting at a desk you are waist-level with the earth, and look out onto the road, and then across a field to the new Law complex, Allard Hall. As an undergraduate at UBC, I used to bike over to Brock Hall from Totem Park residence, early mornings in the dark, to tune in the short wave at the Amateur Radio Society’s headquarters. I’d dial the required frequency for the BBC World Service, open the channel—pure static at that hour—and then ride across to the Student Union Building that houses CiTR, the student radio station where I volunteered. I’d have to take it on faith that at eight o’clock when I was in A-control and potted up the channel for the Brock Hall shortwave, the World Service would come through, now a strong, clear signal, where before there had been white noise.

There was this woman
on the radio:
all you had to do
was phone CJOR
and she’d give you
the inside dope
on your loved ones
Passed Beyond.

Turning the dial,
what I heard was
my sister’s voice:
What can you tell me
about my little boy?

In ‘Hotline to the Gulf’ radio and poetry are analogs. The poet is in the abyss, embryonic and wired, tuning in the static of angels, of loved ones, of those who are lost. The poet is embodied, grounded in the body (the embryo tethered to its mother and so to the outside world through the umbilicus) and cybernetic, linked to the world through modern communication technologies: radio, hotlines.

In 1975 Lowther was also working as a constituency secretary, for Phyllis Young, the NDP representative for Little Mountain. As Christine Wiesenthal observes in her Half-Lives of Pat Lowther, British Columbia with its new NDP government was described in the American press as the “Chile of the North”.

On the Quinsam this summer, the small ferry that runs to Gabriola from Nanaimo, I picked up a pamphlet containing the program guide for Radio CHLY (Radio Malaspina); its logo is a chili pepper. I’d been thinking about Chile, and Lowther’s various ‘Letters to Neruda.’ The correspondence of names also made me think of Radio Magallanes, which made its last broadcast on 11 September 1973, the day the Chilean coup began, an event that Lowther closely followed. Radio Magallanes also broadcast that day the last public words of Salvador Allende from La Moneda palace, as it was under attack. The NDP Little Mountain headquarters were at Hillcrest Hall, at 28th and Main. Wiesenthal quotes a letter from Pat Lowther to Fred Cogswell:

I have been doing my NDP work at home, but today have moved into an office of sorts—an old meeting hall where they plan to partition off a corner—wall me in like a cask of Amontillado where I am now sitting waiting for the telephone co. to come and install a phone so I’ll have some work to do. Or at least be in communication with the outside world. (Quoted in Wiesenthal.)

Here are her final lines from her ‘Hotline to the Gulf’:

Only a hot vein
wires me
to the perimeter
to hear syllables
in the hiss of blood

The poet is in the gulf, but seeks communication with the outside world. Poetry, like radio, this most intimate medium, channels through the body the news of the day.

Note: All biographical details and the letter from Pat Lowther to Fred Cogswell are drawn from The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther by Christine Wiesenthal, University of Toronto Press, 2005.

For more information about Pat Lowther, please visit Canadian Poetry Online and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award.

Permission to use the poem “Hotline to the Gulf” received from Beth and Christine, Pat Lowther’s daughters.

Kim Trainor’s first poetry collection, Karyotype, will be published by Brick Books in October 2015. She also keeps a poetry blog.

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