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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