Sunday, November 6, 2016

My Shoes Are Killing Me by Robyn Sarah, Biblioasis, 2015, 65 pages

“Something’s missing”

Robyn Sarah once wrote “A good poem always knows more about itself than even its author does. If parts of it seem baffling, the cue is not to be afraid, but to ask the poem what they mean.” What parts of Sarah's poems in My Shoes Are Killing Me mean cannot be considered separately from her larger themes of time and memory and her habitual insistence upon the Now: to feel the weight of each moment in her life and to convert this into poetry so that readers feels it in theirs. These include historical moments felt by many Canadians over their radios in “The Dominion Observatory Time Signal (`The beginning of the long dash following ten seconds of silence’).” More compelling are softer, less ironic moments, “the last/unevaporated dewdrop in the grass/among the little shaggy heads of clover” and, of course, Sarah’s moments with her favourite people:

children outside in pajamas
in the endless twilights
parents on the front stoops
calling door to door, one to another
time of no hurry – a life of moments
we didn’t cherish enough.

Moments with children are what we most often like about Sarah’s poems. Missing from this collection are regrets that sometimes emerge alongside her solicitude for children, notably those in her oft-cited poem “Maintenance.” Intriguingly present are sharper feelings of rebellion against the inescapable indenture ordinary things have upon our lives: Sarah's reverence for children may remain intact, her salutary vision of things does not; joy in the everyday is disrupted, windy trees, canopies filled with birds and “garage sales all up and down the block” producing instead a “homesickness… for the days/when all this mattered, for the way it mattered.” By this Sarah signals an even more extraordinary shift away from her usual complaints about a retreating natural world, pushing aside “the end of summer’s endlessness,” for something larger, more unsettling, and as insidious as a snake.

a movement
in the corner of the eye
of something dappled and sinuous, fleeting,
cornucopia of smells wafting in
through the summer screen door,
and something was missing now
from what used to be enough,
when did we first notice
it wasn’t enough?

What is missing from what used to be enough but no longer is? And who are the “we” who once enjoyed what had been enough but who failed to see it was not? For all our familiarity with Sarah’s themes of summer ending, the wasting aspects of time and of death, we're cut adrift from questions like these. “We seem to have left,” she writes, “all familiar ground”

That’s the limb
I happen to be out on – the blue man
in the green world, who when asked
by the green man what he was doing there,
replied, “Me? I’m from another story."

“Another story” reinforces an emerging theme of something missing in the stories Sarah’s poems used to whisper in her ear, the “cue” to its baffling nature interpolated with other “familiar ground” routinely tilled: time and memory, now spread up against the backdrop of the artist’s own declining time, “It was the beginning of knowing/we were running out of days”:

and sometimes I thought I could hear
a different wind stirring in the trees,
and sometimes I thought one could learn
to find Enough again,
to let what-used-to-be-enough
(summer’s cup running out)
be enough – given a few more years.

As I've suggested above, it’s hard not to consider questions of what is “missing” or “enough” without reflecting upon a central concern Sarah shares with other poets: their sense of time and the diminishing opportunities to fill time with a sufficiently meaningful and fully developed body of work able to withstand time. The ultimate litmus test is how well the poet’s sensibility has been trained on the full scope of life so that it can be contained in her work and always within sight of what is most telling about the poet and reader’s shared experience, that which is most human. In other words, that which, by any one’s estimation, should be more than enough. But is it? Has Sarah hit on something beyond the blueness of the blue man?

We never really find out. The book reinforces Sarah’s reputation as one of the finest lyric poets this country has ever produced and yet her unwillingness to exploit this very compelling thread is what’s missing from the book itself, reducing the poems to unquestionably well-crafted mood pieces, when so much more might be achieved by following that thread to deeper, fresher truths. Instead, the shift away from the normal bucolic quality of her work towards an area of thought she plainly might pursue but chooses not to, renders the book’s overall achievement incomplete.

It’s an impression that only deepens as Sarah pursues another area of thought which she also abandons and with which she concludes her book - the poem “Belief,” containing Sarah’s ambivalent philosophical stance on free agency. “Two mysteries” pertain, she writes: “a dry, curled leaf boat…pushed to and fro by imperceptible stirrings of the air” and “a single leaf, nodding and nodding as if by its own volition, on an otherwise motionless tree.” “More than a word,” she finishes, “I would as lief be/one of these leaves,” suggesting a re-evaluation of what it means to be someone who uses words, a potential repudiation of language in favour of greater existential certainty - and a final inability to choose. Too often poetry is what we do when we can’t make up our minds about the world.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Serious Call by Don Coles, Porcupine’s Quill, 2015, 64 Pages

“…he has outgrown us and deserves an international readership.”
—Carmine Starnino

I have two reasons for writing again about new work by Don Coles – the first, my enormous liking for the spare, compressed poem which opens A Serious Call and the long title piece which concludes it. My second reason stems from Coles’ editor Carmine Starnino’s recent description of Coles as “world-class,” an odd remark given Starnino’s historic opposition to this term and others like it. But after reflecting, I think he might be right; as a category, “world-class” will admit many more members than, say, “the best poet of his generation,” so why not Coles?

This is important because of the danger we run of allowing reputation to lull us into complacency about a poet’s work. If I stop short of liking Coles’ work in its entirety, it is because I continue to see his successes as intermittent, his poems too often marred by faults that trail after him, e.g. unconvincing conceits (“My Death as the Wren Library”), tonal miscues (“Too Tall Jones”), and Coles’ Oxbridge sensibility – that dry understatement and avuncular, donnish persona out of which so many of his poems emerge.

My other objections are filtered through personal biases towards compression, lines rich in personality and driven by strong purpose. Declaring these, my difficulties with Coles’ poetry should be immediately apparent in an otherwise lovely poem about the poet’s relationship with his young daughter. In “Flying,” she sings “Some day I will fly away. Like Peter. Like Peter.” To which Coles responds:

…I had
allowed the call to enter me in a way
she had surely
not intended, which was no particular
way at all, really,
it was just a child’s voice en route to
and the call was nobody’s fault, not
hers and
not mine either, at the most it may
have been
a kind of intimation from the flown-free
pale-blue wing.

Any other poet would be hammered for subordinating the drive of his poem through phrases like “which was no particular way,” “not hers and not mine either,” or “a kind of intimation.” His eminence grise lovingly shielded by a cohort of otherwise sensible critics, Coles’ persistent hesitancies and digressions are normally interpreted – and not without some justification – as the natural charm of the human voice. Robyn Sarah describes his hesitations more precisely as an enactment of “a conversational intimacy while guarding a personal privacy.” The problem: this constant recasting of Coles’ thoughts, the structural looseness and never-wanting-to-make-too-big-a-deal-about things, disperses the general force of a poem. The reader may be kept at a safe distance, as Sarah suggests, but the poet’s ability to win a deeper connection and more lasting allegiance through directness and purpose is lost. Nor would it help to argue that the endless backtracking and other vagaries of his style serve a larger, thematic purpose, i.e., his cosmological stance on the lost human soul unaccountably suspended in time.

Often, Coles reserves his strongest effects for the end of a prose or narrative poem, genres where our “expectancies,” as I.A. Richards once observed, are “more indeterminate” than they are of verse: readers are held in check until prose at last spills its magic. Coles’ narratives unfold in precisely this manner. Too often, though, a strong, richly detailed poem drifts off the bottom of the page rather than coming to a strong and satisfying close. “Moonlight,” for example, starts out chock-full of colour and purpose: “A garrulous old cuckold…gibbering under the moon, … his tiny wife … with her legs on either side of his happy teenage apprentice … a young Canadian lieutenant in 1917 “studying the latest configurations of barbed wire from his lookout post.” Surely the Second Coming is at hand. Well, not exactly:

I’ve so often wished I had asked him
much more
about all that, and right now there’s a
couple of seconds which could be my
but in the moonlight and the
remembered quiet
I let it go.

As does the reader; whatever power originally animated the poem trails off into nostalgia and resignation, suggesting that the only adequate posture towards life is to be underwhelmed by it. Is the Yeats comparison unfair? Perhaps. Coles’ interests centre on images and narrowly conceived existential ideas, not modernist symbols normally loaded as Clive Scott noted, “with dimensions enough to repossess all the ideas which, as the occasion of the poem, it engendered.” Coles’ images and ideas hardly ever coalesce into anything more than the gentlest of imagistic denouements.

Again, other critics see method in Coles’ mildness. But more revealing than what they have to say about Coles’ poetry is what they imagine the rest of us might say if they weren’t around to correct us. Though you or I might consider Coles’ poetry to be “loose, drifting, undisciplined,” we would be wrong says W.J. Keith. See those “basic words” he says of one poem. See how Coles “skillfully juxtaposes” them to emphasize “a space in time.” Notice how, despite this most overworked of defenses, it never occurs to Keith that our original judgements might actually be pretty apt descriptions of Coles’ poetry.

A more fundamental unhappiness: whatever response Coles might wish to evoke – sadness, disgust, illumination – the reader will recognize its representation, but not feel its reality. Not so in the first poem in A Serious Call. “poem” is of an entirely different order than Coles’ other poems, blending in a way he rarely does both feeling and perspective.

my mother said
last night you came
into my room
with your
quiet face when
you were small

and she said
I was not asleep
I was waiting to see if
it could be long ago

This simple little poem is one of the best Coles has written. The lines are beautifully weighted, the effects impeccably distributed. Nothing is wasted, but neither is everything revealed; Coles gets all that he can ask of a poem without giving too much of himself away. But the best part is that we gain the full emotional impact that the encounter with the otherwise absent parent has on the child, and of the child as a vehicle of memory into the absent parent’s own childhood.

The same can be said, though for different reasons, of “A Serious Call,” the long narrative poem about Coles’ experience looking for work in London, England. Like Coles’ best poems, this one unfolds organically, relying less on the mechanical constraints of formal verse than on irreducible human experience – total, immediate, intuitive. Nowhere can the reader point and say here is where the key to the poem lies. Coles tills his soil with light observations or descriptions, e.g., the Southwark district of London:

Nowadays the area’s rampant with
wine bars
patronized by rich youths who got that
shifting currencies in nearby highrises…

and then nourishes the ground with a rich admixture of literary allusion and anecdote, e.g. his new job at Grattan’s bookstore and the pleasant discovery that he and his new friend/manager John Rolf (JR) get to spend most of their time reading books at the back of the shop.

And – we were reading only books
that we wanted to read.
If Grattan’s didn’t have a desired title
(and sometimes
it did thanks to the Everymen), we’d
mention that title
to the ‘travellers’ who regularly called
on us from
almost every one of Britain’s major
publishing houses.
The travelers knew perfectly well that
our Southwark clientele
wouldn’t be queuing up for these
privately picked titles,
but they also knew that the titles
looked just as significant
in their order books as those exotic
dictionaries did…

That works for me. Why? Well first of all, it’s wickedly funny. But Coles also reins in his signature interruptions and keeps his narrative relatively clean, his subordinate clauses performing their traditional functions of modifying principal thoughts and adding details which pique and sustain our interest. See Coles and JR, cigarettes at their lips, “lounging, books in hand…

…in broken-backed but creatively-
chairs in a small room at the rear of the
shop with,
for warmth on wintry days, a spool-
shaped electric heater
on a low, round, wooden table between
Also regularly seen on that table: four
booted feet.

This telescoping effect also works nicely later on.

So, amid the quiet and the smoke – flap
of a turned page.
Discreet flare of a match. Realignment
of a boot or two
On a low, round table.

Smoke wavering up from a beer-slogan
ashtray whenever
a stray gust
arrived from a doorless front-of-shop.

Starnino has said a reader must be alive to the “shades of meaning” which occur from line to line in Coles’ poetry. There are many kinds of “meaning,” of course, but I think he’s mostly right. But I also think when Coles later acknowledges “there were/great books which we failed to find among our Everymen” that he is after bigger game – and none bigger than Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

For Natasha, the two nights,
grand St. Petersburg ball and follow-up
wolf-hunt, are wand-touched,
are inhabited by adoring glances and
moonlit whispers, by
sights and sounds we want to believe
will charm and protect her
forever, but – Tolstoy spares us nothing
here – life chooses
for her instead a heartless near
seduction, a confused first love,
and eventually an unremarkable life
long marriage.

Never mind world-class. “Sparing us nothing,” Tolstoy enters that much smaller arena reserved for exclusive masters of the genre. Following close on his heels: George Eliot, summing up in the death of Dorothea at the end of Middlemarch the fruits of an unspoken, generational legacy.

…for the growing good of the world
is partly dependent on unhistoric acts;
and that things are
are not so ill with you and me as they
might have been,
is half owing to the number who have
lived faithfully a hidden life,
and rest in unvisited tombs.

“A Serious Call” is a poem for readers of both fiction and poetry. Part of its appeal for me is the time I spent working through Tolstoy and Eliot, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Hardy’s poetry, and Camus’ essays. I’d like to think others will take the same journey if they haven’t done so already, perhaps filtering Coles’ poem through their experience of those books. Failing this, our avatars remain the two young men in Grattan’s discovering that more is actually needed than great books or even very good readers.

When the sentences
keep arriving and the realizations go on
stacking up,
the half-guesses that something, which
just might be joy,
might possibly be waiting at the end of
them, and might even
last a decently long time – there’s this
need for
something else.

Or some one else.

Yes? We began to circle yes.

Beyond the consumption of great writing is the need to share it aloud, Coles suggests, in lines “listened to by the other one,” depending “on who was the first / to be prompted by a newly arrived sentence cluster.” All this is beautifully unpacked by more of Coles’ own lines: “…to know / that there is no way he was going to move past this cluster / its unexpectedness, without getting some backup …” It’s not just our “expectancies” that drive narrative, but also, as Coles clearly intimates, our desire, by poem’s end, for the unexpected, for the surprising.

My surprise is what I had not expected from Coles: that he should reflect back on a human relationship and that for once I should really care. “A Serious Call” works because, as the product of human relationships and endeavours, it is harnessed by competing forces – one force joyfully skittering along the surface of Coles’ reverence for great books, underpinned by a deeper, more unifying force within the lifelong relationship of two men.

The poem ends, as all deep friendships so often must end, in elegy – but not before Coles remarks on a note he received from his friend asking him “to explain, a few minutes’ calm and untroubled / thought at the start of each day directed towards / one or another of a small number of friends, among them / me.”

That note ended with him
expressing the hope that one day
someone might find
a name for what this non-praying,
prayer-less, thought

Coles’ and JR’s shared delight in great books and our experience of their growing mutuality quietly coalesce into something more special than even books: the knowledge that the greatness of books, the reputation of poets or novelists, are secondary to what readers share. Nor is the object to say who among us have “outgrown” their readers or been unfairly denied the world’s attention, but to expand on George Eliot’s remarks and ask if the “unhistorical acts” upon which “the growing good of the world” depends might include our grand, unheralded poetries.

This review is also currently available at Canadian Notes and Queries

Thursday, December 17, 2015

On Shaving Off His Face by Shane Neilson

Okay, forget “accessible”.  All I want is to be alert enough to what’s on the page to eventually understand or more deeply feel “something”, to find my sea legs in the bump and swell of busted rhythms and disparate images so I can say, “You know, this ain’t bad; from here it’s actually pretty smooth sailing.”

For sure there’s no end to roiled waters in Shane Neilson’s latest book: fracturing our attention along elided or conflated syntax embedded with strong, associative images in rapid fire, tightly compressed succession. “Rigid, stoic, mask: broken bone face/gun-shot face, son-dead face.” Eventually these and others images coalesce into a larger metaphor for the poet’s personal experience of violence and loss.  Unable to reconcile his son’s pain with the medical system of which he is a part Neilson retreats into something larger than ambivalence: despair. Even the smallest manifestations of love seem futile in the face of pain and disease.

“Consider the Pain Face:
love on your lip, love sliding sideways
to make a silly face of pre- and post.
Profess systems of belief, of research: 

corollary, corollary, sing. Agreeably sing
of pain as shadow cast by this edifice: 

the love face.” 

Now we’re in new territory, where syntax and images conflate: a “silly face” for a child with hard science; a ratiocinative concept jammed up against song; love relegated to an isolated fragment at the end of the section. It’s all functional: pitting a rational, systems-based world against the human and throughout it all our moral obligation to examine pain, to know it in all its detail and dimensions, to feel its unwavering presence; to think of pain’s power and our futility in soothing it as troubling as the power and futility of death. 

“Pain’s place is pictorial, a hundred thousand
atlases of your face: tear-stained, unfathomed

by intense algorithms of validated claims.
See the Pain Face. Underneath is no face.” 

Whether it’s his careful linking of images and ideas or fragmenting them to underscore human or institutional frailty Neilson is at pains in Book l of this collection to avoid giving the whole game away. Even his most difficult poems become a conduit rather than impediment to thought and feeling, however. And in both uses of image the charge comes from the progression or “push” towards something larger, a symbol or revelation that is definitively personal and almost always powerful and compelling. 

“Your face a firefighter entering a burning building, a fire-eater
swallowing gasoline, a Hindenburg erupting against the sky. She touched
your face and felt the pressing why, the need of space filling immolated
distances, the urge to erase fire. Were you beautiful? Remember yourself
as an effigy to burn and forget.”  

Equally compelling are verbatim remarks by Charles Darwin from The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and which preface Book ll. The passage is absorbing less for Darwin’s clinical examination of human pain and expressiveness than for Neilson’s ironic use of it within a book of poetry on the same subject. Says Darwin: 

“Our early progenitors, when suffering from grief or anxiety, would not have made their eyebrows oblique, or have drawn down the corners of their mouth, until they had acquired the habit of endeavouring to restrain their screams. The expression, therefore, of grief and anxiety is eminently human.” (Italics Neilson’s). 

Tautologies like this are absurd prima facie. More striking is how Darwin’s dissection of his progenitors’ screams and expressions of grief and anxiety - in language wielded much in the way a surgeon wields a scalpel – becomes uncomfortable, even painful for the reader.  Neilson’s promise:  to explore pain and to make it as real and as trenchant as he can for the reader.   

Do the poems which follow the Darwin passage fulfill that promise? Before you can answer that you need to understand the risk Neilson ran in using the piece at all. Remember William Carlos Williams’ inclusion of a newspaper report in Paterson? His risk was that readers would condemn him outright for using “unpoetic” materials. Neilson runs a different risk in that his inclusion of Darwin’s prose might be deemed more interesting than Neilson’s verse, a handy substitute for ingenuity in the absence of poetic inventiveness and imagination.  

Along the way Neilson runs into the same difficulty Williams ran into in Paterson: ensuring his theme and rhythmic structure possess sufficient momentum to carry the reader to the end of the book. Riffing off the photos and histories of mass killers Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook), Jared Loughner (Tuscon) and Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) may not be your cup of tea. A bigger problem is for so much work to have gone into compressing the language of their pain into the language of poetry only to feel it mired in over-worked diction and pallid rhythms.   

“The scapegoat of face as ineradicable as hate.
For all the faces in mourning...” (Lanza) 

“The killer’s face slides into a smirked pudge of abraded, ventilated skull.
Nowadays all faces profess angry health…” (Loughner)

“Oh the happiness I could have had mingling among you hedonists. You could have been great. I could have been great. But what you did to me…” (Cho) 

What is the value of re-working and collapsing the words of killers into poetry as Neilson does, if the tone remains as breathless and flat, the rhythms as punchless and unvarying as the originals? 

“clean the slate, brute-restraint, ravenous rape, Descendants of Satan, single second wasted, the innocent Children, band aid to patch up, wanna perpetrate endless sessions of crucifixions, 88, by destroying we create, pain you can never feel but with our hands, donation money to turn the situation, reverberate throughout.” 

Now that’s painful. Compare this with passages from Neilson’s first book of poems Meniscus, where the undisputed quality of the poetry ends precisely where Neilson’s larger experiments in structure begin.  

Bird Men

No portals, and little
wisdom. Men jump from ledges,

hitting the sidewalk asleep
and dreaming of remote

perches. They grip metal
rungs and arch backs in practice,

perfecting pre-flight posture.
Trinkets fall from pockets, 

cell phones trill on belts
tightened against this leathered  

morning and handkerchiefs
billow in the wind. Drained

wallets strain against seat-seams
and the cries of the birds sound 

softly. Men stretch arms
into albatross wingspans,

then hit earth with a thud.
Like crows that fly

from barren nests in search
of gallows to rest on 

or cardinals that shed scarlet upon
the corpses of brethren, men balance  

on railings and teeter. 

This poem is every bit as hard hitting as the ones above it. What you won’t see is the careful winnowing the poem underwent between its magazine publication in 2003 and book publication in 2009 and how instructive this is of the kind of care which seems to be missing from Book ll of On Shaving Off His Face. A care for the dexterity of rhythm. For bell ringing audio effects. For the kinds of connections between image and thought that unify the poem and make the reader eager to read the next one. 

Too hard? Maybe. Neilson has worked diligently; his determination to wrestle hard experience into evocative, thought-provoking poetry is unflinching. And the structure of these poems is certainly ground shaking if not breaking. But then so is a lot of poetry by poets who work diligently toward the next epiphany in poetic form, only to find the path well-worn and very tough going.  

Happily, Neilson recovers in Book lll by combining the purposeful drive and rhythmic interest of the best poems in Meniscus with the condensed, associative quality of Book l. 

“Lithe, sleek, the discharge clamours past
the synapse that seeks to spark a resonant
wave. Reap the curve of the scythe:
the cortex a sundowning effect,
the crescent blade cutting past what we dream
and know how to be…”  

Readers can’t help themselves. They want to be touched by emotion directly, something not always possible when poets occupy themselves exclusively with what poems are made of instead of what they do. At bottom Shane Neilson’s most emotionally evocative poems in this book about pain are those which have as their immediate touchstone his own pain. 

“I’ve watched you die, and die again, in dreams.
My son, they say in dreams we meet.
That promise met, and one cry. I rhyme in dreams 

meant not for me. But not you either! The seams
are sweet excite, the clench of arm, Humpty’s empty seat.
I’ve watched you die, and die again, in dreams. 

Humpty on the balancing beam, a father’s eyegleam,
the king’s horses and the king’s men lofty and great.
That promise met, and one cry, I rhyme in dreams.”

(From “The One True Cry.”) 

Now that’s love. No longer inadequate in the multifaceted face of pain. In language that contrasts powerfully with the language and tools of science: “sweet excite, the clench of arm.” “I’ve watched you die, and die again in dreams.” Compressed. Rhythmic. Eminently readable; above all else,  eminently human.

On Shaving Off His Face, by Shane Neilson, The Porcupine’s Quill, 2015. Ed. Jim Johnstone. $16.95 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lake of Two Mountains by Arleen Paré

“There is something down there and you want it told.”
-Gwendolyn MacEwen

Sina Queyras once described how Canadian poet Tim Lilburn in order to “come to terms with the land” dug a 7 x 7 foot space in the ground and covered it with a thin roof and bales of hay” and then “went under and lay, listening.” Said Queyras, we may not like what we “see or hear” there, but “the visceral account of his being, his total engagement with it, is hard not to admire.” Add to this is a “sense” that Lilburn’s work “asks you to come to it” and that “some seem to have difficulty with this.”

Never mind the significant step the reader has already taken in buying Lilburn’s book in the first place or that readers rarely draw closer to a poet's work unless compelled by its quality to do so. What they really sense is Lilburn not asking, but demanding and that it is the obligation rather than the invitation to know the poet better that rankles.

By contrast Arleen Paré in her GG winner Lake of Two Mountains does us the enormous favour of meeting us half way in our attempt to understand what she is trying to say and to appreciate the manner in which she says it. No need to press our ears to the earth. No murmurings in the dark. Paré comes to us fully equipped and in the open air.

Hence my surprise when Paré cites as a major influence on her book Lilburn’s collection “To the River” and the poem “Slow World,” along with Don Domanski’s All Our Wonder Unavenged. Said Paré in a recent interview “I am just undone by those two collections.” More unsettling than Domanski’s is Lilburn’s impact on Paré. I say this because of Lilburn’s mostly peremptory tone and a crowding of images and ideas on to his page that hardly ever permits the reader’s thoughts and feelings more than fleeting intervention.

Still, her remark about Lilburn’s influence is sufficiently interesting to explore it more deeply, promising, as I must, to devote most of my attention to Paré’s poetry itself. Like Lilburn, Paré’s writing is absorbed by wilderness. Also like him, she demonstrates (as Queyras quotes Lilburn) that “wilderness can be enacted in language, but as it is enacted, language begins to seem less and less like language.” Okay, a huge statement; for now my only reservation is the constant banging up against materiality that is so much a part of Lilburn’s approach to nature and entirely missing from Paré’s.  

In fact, Paré echoes Lilburn more in homage to him as a poet than out of any Bloomsian sense of him as rival or mentor. Here, for example, is Paré’s opening to “Armies of Frogs.”  

The lake is a woman who no longer
looks in the mirror. She lets her beard bristle,
forced to overhear strangers rowing their boats

And here is Lilburn’s opening of the fourth strophe of “Slow World.”

The river is a man who’s just ducked into a doorway,
who’s changed his name and lives in the crawlspace.
The river has worn through itself and is turning up its hands.

The personification and only slightly disguised iambic pentameter are present in both. The lines in each are weighted about the same, the images equally provocative. Now here’s Paré’s poem “More”

vision doubles
the lake’s surface calmed
trees displaying roots into roots
their upside-down selves

tree selves downside-up
in the water where their roots
touch their roots   a surfeit of calm
redoubles the lake

All similarities stop at the water’s edge: Lilburn is not big on “displays” of any kind in poetry; his water theme is more timbrous and muscular than Paré’s, “full of the meat of its smell and heaviness/Tree – a crackling huff of old light.”  Where “vision doubles/the lake’s surface calmed” in Paré’s poem, Lilburn’s feel for waterscape is darker, more troubled, “No flavour in the way the water bends, nothing in the mirror.”

Lilburn's and Paré's poetry actually owe a great deal to Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poetry, Paré’s in obedience to MacEwen’ s tone, Lilburn’s in defiance of it. Like Paré’s poem, MacEwen’s “Dark Pines under Water” from her 1969 GG winner The Shadow Maker is worth citing in its entirety:

This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream. 

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

MacEwen’s poem locates its depth in nature, just as Paré’s does. The difference: Paré’s immersion is of a more immediately sensual, less metaphysical kind, “Sun grips your bare shoulders/Your forearms, held overlong in the water/start to dissolve/turn into lake.” Similarly, Paré has a confidence in the transparency of nature that is missing from MacEwen and Lilburn. Compare Lilburn’s line “Further in the water a deeper bark/the lack of light so strong you cannot look at it,” to Paré’s “Under Influence.”

The past develops under water,
film fixing invisible forms
the way deams reveal
what was already there.

Nor do Paré’s poems seem, as Lilburn said of his own above, to be “less and less like language” - a remark not as crazy as it sounds given post-modernist speculations on language as an impediment to meaning, and the belief others have about the extra-linguistic capacities of words; but language is first and foremost a conveyor of meaning; how formidable its ability is to alter or shape our core being, for example, remains unclear.

Lilburn appears to be aware of this and a great deal more and explores it all in his poetry. Paré is more content to use the language as it strikes most of us, as a medium and an instrument to be employed well. Here, the GG Jury’s description of Paré’s title poem as “a poem of sustained beauty” of “bullfrogs, sunbeams or religion” and “anything that passes through [this shape-shifting] landscape” is nominally accurate and almost entirely inadequate to appreciate Paré's real achievement.

Take for example Paré’s faultless gift for synesthesia in “Distance Closing In”

shallows pummelled     the world
hisses with rain    iron-blue smell
and pewter light ringing

or her re-enactive use of rhythm crossing the lake in “To Oka”

the waves smashing     the boat’s low
wooden sides     pitching and yawing
half-way  the motor starts coughing
almost capsizing   this rowboat
especially unsuited for deep-water crossings

or something you don’t see often, visual rhyme

especially near shore    the danger
something like anger

Arguably, Paré’s most powerful poems in Lake of Two Mountains are those devoted to monastic religious life, as in the Frère Gabriel poems. I initially wondered if Paré shared Frère Gabriel’s view of nature as an expression of God: “When wind rises. Snow/falls/When sap varnishes the flanks of cold trees. Every season, God.” But could God actually be suspect? You bet.  

He sneaks in through catechism’s call and response:
Who is God?
God is love.
How long is eternity?
However long it takes a dove’s wing to wear away the marble-hard

But maybe God is also more than one thing:

Once a month, Sister Zita fire-drills a bucket of flames on the
unsafe escape. God tends the flames. Day by day, He replaces black
snow-melt with spring. The wolves at the chain links are flame-eyed
with want.

No sentimental pantheism here. Overlooked by those who have mumbled on about the “prayerful” nature of her poetry, Paré’s poems are contemplative in a way that prayer is not; they aspire to many truths, not a single unifying truth; her metaphors probe that strain of solipsism which infects the conceptions too many professional priests have of their own devotional life. Witness the pinched, claustrophobic existence of Frère Gabriel:

He must pray. To his mother in Laval-des-Rapides, he bows his head. To his father underground, he dispenses his thoughts. To Thomas Merton, he cites each authentic word. He blows on his hands. He strives for bios aggelikos, but he is one monk among two hundred. Mistaken prayer, he cannot sheer himself from this life. 

Few critics mention that Lilburn started out as a Jesuit priest or wonder about the influence this has had on his poetry. The influence his book To The River has had on Paré is as a poet, his deployment of images far more spare than we are accustomed to in his own GG winner Kill-site (2003) and nearly always adequate to a fresh insight or a new angle on things. Paré’s is all of this, too. At the same time her approach to poetry is more classically balanced and unified, without the aberrant or idiosyncratic features which mark the avant garde.

To her central controlling image of the lake she adds something else missing from Lilburn: a pointed social outlook.

Mid-century, the chorus frogs abandoned the lake:
harsh cold, the Seaway, fertilizers, tailings,
a factory upstream. Their skin tinged
a greyish-green tan,
their rapturous piping, utterly lost.

Most impressive of all is that Paré has hit all these notes and done it well in only her third book of poems. I liked her first book Paper Trail very much, but Lake of Two Mountains is a quantum leap in both sensibility and technical command.

A final word on Paré’s homage to another poet: “Last Day”, a variation of a glosa of Archibald Lampman’s “Thunderstorm”, does more than honour the late 19th century Canadian poet; it is a measure of Paré’s acuity and depth as a contemporary poet and the evolution of Canadian poetry away from its early indebtedness to Keats and Milton, as seen here in Lampman’s poem:

And now from heaven’s height,
With the long roar of elm-trees swept and swayed,
And pelted waters, on the vanished plain,
Plunges the blast.

For Paré and most of her colleagues poetry has rightly evolved into something more suitably subdued, more personal and for that reason more directly human. The difference is how quickly and profoundly Paré’s indebtedness to her contemporaries and to the past has evolved into a distinctly able and compelling poetic voice.

you race rain for the cottage
where you lived as a child
quirk of the storm       sluicing you
onto this particular porch
side door locked
new owners away       you brace
the umbrella’s inadequate shield
wind shoves
against you     rain streams
down your cheeks
directly upon you
the hurrying
centres of the storm unite.

Lake of Two Mountains by Arlene Paré, Brick Books, 2014. Ed. Sue Chenette. $20.00


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