In Lake of Two Mountains, poet Arleen Paré explores the location of her childhood summer cottage in Quebec to meditate on themes of change and loss, ownership and belonging. Together, the poems form a multi-layered collage of a lake and the people who inhabit its shores.
The base layer of this collage is the natural world of the lake itself: the trees and rocks, the weeds and frogs. In language reminiscent of an Impressionist (or Tom Thomson) painting, Paré gives us not so much a picture of the lake but a sense of it. In the first poem, “Distance Closing In,” she describes an approaching storm as:
sky on the move across the lake
slant sheets closing in
sky collapsing from its bowl
shoreline waiting taut
stones dark as plums
The next layer of the collage is the cottage itself, both the “then” of the cottage, when the author spent summers there with her family, and the “now” of the cottage, when the author visits it as a woman “Beyond old.” The girlhood memories have the concrete details of photographs, so real they often verge on the surreal, as in the poem “Summer”:
up the staircase iron beds
guarding the past last year’s swimsuits
ghost torsos noosed on their hooks
The poems recounting the woman’s return have the melancholy air you might expect, but also a surprising calmness and acceptance, an almost Buddhist detachment. Paré expresses this most deftly with a line break—and she is the maestra of the well-placed line break—in the poem “Summer House Revisited”:
No one is home. You peek through the dark windows.
Who lives here now
means nothing to you
Of course, there is the family who once spent its summers here. The mother, in one poem very much alive, in the next, her ashes scattering across the lake’s surface. The father entering the lake in his swim trunks, “his knees, small onions, ivory hued.” The older aunt who doesn’t swim, and the never-married uncle with PTSD (before PTSD was PTSD) from World War II.
Then there is the Trappist monastery at the far end of the lake, and the daily routines of the monks who lived there: the milking of cows, the making of candles, the keeping of bees. Because these poems are almost all prose poems, they have the effect, at least visually, to my mind, of passages torn from the Bible.
Finally, there are the poems about Oka, the Mohawk reserve across the lake. Perhaps these poems are actually the first layer of the collage, the layer we discover only when we peel back the others. Paré helps us do this by detailing her own growing awareness: as a girl, approaching the reserve in a boat with her family, feeling both curious and a sense of threat; as a woman, driving onto the reserve in an effort to understand, but feeling a sense of trespass. The poem “The Oka Crisis,” coming as it does on page 59 of 79, feels like the climax of the book (and should resonate with any settler Canadian). It begins
You saw the war start on your sister’s TV:
masks and camouflage gear. Before that,
you saw nothing at all.
Until you knew what it meant,
what could you know? High-school history,
blue textbook, Fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant.
From a distance, five miles or more,
what can be seen?
By the end of this gorgeous and often moving collection, I, too, felt as if I’d spent a final summer at the Lake of Two Mountains. As if I, too, feeling frost in the air, were packing up the car, locking up the cottage and driving away.
JoAnn Dionne is a writing instructor at the University of Victoria and the author of Little Emperors: A Year with the Future of China. Here is her website.