Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

John Lent - Critical Response

Craig McLuckie & Ross Tyner, Okanagan University College

Criticism of Lent's work has been sparse but noteworthy. The sparseness can probably be explained by his early mobility and the attendant lack of a consistent audience. Reviewed in national journals as well as local newspapers, the following picture may be constructed of the writer's career: A Rock Solid, Lent's first published book of poetry, "has captured a sense of experimentation with form . . .. It is rare in literature for a reader to have a glimpse of the poet chipping through the rock solid of experience in order to see the poem." (Meyer, 88-89).

 Wood Lake Music, according to internationally renowned Canadian poet Tom Wayman, is

. . . a masterpiece of fascinating detail--and of the ideas and narrative which that detail reveals. . . . With total attention to different states of mind, Lent unveils the interior life of his protagonist through the man's precise, detailed response to his exterior surroundings. . . . Wood Lake Music draws its power from the relentless accretion of such observations and epiphanies. . . . Throughout the narrative . . . Lent has much to say about the way dualities fill our lives, and of the difficulties of living in this condition. . . . Throughout . . . Lent uses painstaking depictions of the external and internal environments of his protagonist to convince the reader of the absolute accuracy of what is shown. (85-7)
 Christopher Wiseman's review of Frieze characterizes it as: "John Lent's long, handsome collection [which allows] the reader access to many kinds of experience, not afraid to be confessional, full of deep feeling. . . . [T]he poems are rooted in real places, but these are turned into places of the mind, way stations of the migrant heart, touchstones in the poet's search for meaning." (Wiseman 190) Vasius' review of Frieze emphasizes the difficulties in closely merging form and content: "Lent's poetry is more pointedly rhythmic than most modern poetry you will encounter ... His `how' is exciting, fresh and imaginative, whereas his 'what' is often only as new and unusual as the coffee, cigarettes and booze which reappear in his poems . . ." (109-10). Estok, on the other hand, emphasizes the thematic core:

Primarily, however, Lent is an artist of the 'negative space' of unadorned day-to-day existence. The stress of his rhythms is clearly on the banal . . .[but] Lent's banality may . . . be regarded as a form of classical restraint. . . . The poet's careful structure of imagery and his muscular tone . . . elicit our confidence in his ability to redeem the commonplace. This paradox extends to the mask the poet models for himself: the utterly familiar type of the quietly macho boozer with a weakness for women and a gift for words, which Lent rescues from our inattention through epiphanies of self-irony. (9)
 Sutherland, offers a related interest, seeing Frieze as a "volume of poetry [which] reveals the poet pondering his responsibilities. . . . The task he has taken upon himself is to release the petrified voices of those who have lacked the vocabulary; he fashions a frieze from their silence, full of sound and exuberance and dismay."

 Michael Kenyon's enthusiasm for The Face in the Garden reiterates the concerns of earlier critics:

John Lent's suite of stories and poems is a disarming and pleasing work that resists categorization. . . . This equivocal invitation to the reader to equate author with narrator [is] confusing . . .. The themes of the book are big: the duality of man, the path to wisdom, the recovery of innocence; and the site on which the poems and stories are built is pitted with attempts to dig beneath the illusion of visual `surface' . . .. At times . . . the abstractions meld with--rather than interrupt--the concrete, but here and there the book drags. What sustains the work is the gentle Peter Bendy trying to sing, trying to make sense of the world, of his own failings. This person is in the end real and believable. (108-9)
Elizabeth St. Jacques takes up the painting metaphor:
John Lent paints an arresting and vivid portrait of the times, but maintaining sympathy for his main character is difficult as the man is weak from beginning to end. . . . While this collection may be too distant for some readers, those who enjoy exploring complicated mazes are sure to find a challenge . . .. (38)
 The perspective, but not the sense of difficulty for readers, is shared by R. G. Moyles. "In the stories, grouped in a section called "Towards the Gardens," Lent deals with the roots and tendrils of his private garden--that is . . . with his family upbringing and its emotional energy" (196). Even John Moore's bucolic unfairness is undermined by his own assertion that "John Lent's [book is an] ambitious mix of prose and poetry[,] full of powerful writing . . .." That it "somehow just misses adding up to a completely compelling whole [,where] the problem may be his protagonist [who] is consistently upstaged by minor characters . . ." (D19) offers an interesting perspective, but one that is lacking in concreteness of detail and specificity of language. John LeBlanc's sense of The Face in the Garden as proclaiming "its impressionist heritage . . ." (180a) is balanced and provides an historical movement within which Lent's experimentation can be gauged. The description of that book's narrative drive could be applied, with slight modification, to Monet's Garden: "Lent's third person protagonist is specifically involved in a mission to break down the barrier between subject and object and to end his exile from natural process and from his own body." (108a) Similarly, the adverb in LeBlanc's softens a criticism about the experiment's failure: "The work, bravely attempting to break out into the world, ends up being more withdrawn." (180b) The Face in the Garden receives insightful remarks from its author, when he tells Joyce Langerak that "You can't reduce everything in a poem to a meaning. An awful lot of the poem is what you experience when you read it. . . . I'm not drawn to symbolism. The real special things are really ordinary. . . . Good poetry should catch the depth of life in all its ambiguity and paradox." (Langerak 1990, 23)

 Discussing his writing with Joyce Langerak in 1992, Lent talks of a new manuscript Bright Fields; Monet's Garden at an earlier phase of development. Lent says: "It's about this family and how each of them sees the other. They're brought together by the death of their father, and that forces them to reinterpret their past." (Langerak, 1992 6-7) At that early stage, the thematic consistency is there. Monet's Garden, the first reviewer notes, is: "a book of tender short stories which carries the kind of insight that encourages the reader to read on." (36) John Lent was interviewed at the time of the review; he started the book in 1989. He comments that "It's designed in a certain way so that the timelines are skewed on purpose--to create a hologram of these people." (36) Being in time, with the consciousness front and centre: "I have always been intrigued by interiors. I wanted to see if I could catch what it was like for a small group of brothers and sisters to grow up in that landscape after the war and have to deal with the typical complexities they inherited from their parents." (36) The NeWest Review (Feb./Mar. 1997: p. 28) notes the Thistledown Press' concern with both "experimental and traditional" writing. Monet's Garden is

. . . traditional, linked story collection . . . [about a] dysfunctional family [that] follow[s] Rick and his sister Jane from youth through to their adult lives, in which each struggles with a drinking problem just as their father did, and each finds a measure of liberation and self-discovery while travelling in Europe. . . . [The volume] reads like an impressionist word-painting, images, and moments of understanding juxtaposed with insights and sharp shocks of realization. . . . That one wishes to follow both Rick and Jane out of the limited canvas of these . . . stories and into something more encompassing--say a novel--is proof of Lent's success here.
See also: McLuckie, Craig W. "Review: Monet's Garden".
Works Cited

Estok, Michael. "Recent Poetry from Thistledown," NeWest Review (November 1985): 9.

Kenyon, Michael. "Review: The Face in the Garden," The Malahat Review 94 (March 1991): 108-9.

Langerak, Joyce. "Poet Says lighten Up and Enjoy the Words," Okanagan Sunday September 30, 1990: 23.

----. "Writer Lent Leads a Life of Ledgers," Okanagan Sunday October 18, 1992: 6-7.

LeBlanc, John. "Male Expression," Canadian Literature 133 (Summer 1992): 179-81.

Meyer, Bruce. "Six Chapbooks," Canadian Literature 92 (Spring 1982): 88-90.

Moore, John. "Strange and Surreal Ways to Wave Farewell to the Summer," The Vancouver Sun, Saturday, October 19, 1991: D19.

Moyles, R. G. "Review: The Face in the Garden," SOURCE?? 1991: 196.

St. Jacques, Elizabeth. "Review: The Face in the Garden," Freelance (December-January 1991-92): 38.

Sutherland, Cheryl. "Poet Draws on Family Memories," Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, September 6, 1984.

Van Luven, Lynne. "Figured Out," NeWest Review (Feb./Mar. 1997): 28-9.

Vasius, Andrew. "A Gambol, A Walk, and a Stroll," Waves 12(?), 4: 108-110.

Wayman, Tom. "Review: Wood Lake Music," Quarry 34 (Spring 1985): 85-7.

Wiseman, Christopher. "Limits of Feeling," Canadian Literature 105 (Summer 1985): 188-90.

Postcolonial Web Canada  John Lent