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.”
There is also a “sense”, Queyras adds, 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.
forced to overhear strangers rowing their boats
And here is Lilburn’s opening of the fourth strophe of “Slow World.”
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”
trees displaying roots into roots
their upside-down selves
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:
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.
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 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”
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
something like anger
God is love.
How long is eternity?
However long it takes a dove’s wing to wear away the marble-hard
snow-melt with spring. The wolves at the chain links are flame-eyed
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.
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.
Where I quarrel a little with Paré is when she treads that well-worn path known as the “name game.” She is not the first poet to exfoliate platitudes over our instinct for attaching labels to otherwise indifferent or inanimate objects in nature. It is one of many buttons poets push to assure themselves of an affirmative murmur above the page by an unsuspecting reader or too easily gulled reviewer. Our sole consolation is that the poet is usually as unconscious of this having happened as the reader; our lone hope, for the poet’s increasing self-awareness and the reader’s continued education.
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 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.
quirk of the storm sluicing you
onto this particular porch
side door locked
new owners away you brace
the umbrella’s inadequate shield
against you rain streams
down your cheeks
directly upon you
centres of the storm unite.
Lake of Two Mountains by Arlene Paré, Brick Books, 2014. Ed. Sue Chenette. $20.00