Arleen Paré, Lake of Two Mountains. London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2014. Paper. Pp. 84. $20.00.
Arleen Paré’s award-winning collection, Lake of Two Mountains, opens with a stunning description of a storm:
sky on the move across the lake
slant sheets closing in
sky collapsing from its bowl
shoreline waiting taut
stones dark as plums
flinging itself backwards
water now stippling thin waterskin
shallows pummelled the world
hisses with rain iron-blue smell
and pewter light ringing
Evident in these twelve short lines of “Distance Closing In” are Paré’s strengths as a poet: words, fresh and precise, details, spare but telling, images, original and scintillating—“slant sheets closing in”; “taut stones dark as plums”; “water now stippling thin waterskin”; “pewter light ringing.” It is a thrillingly self-assured and powerful beginning, and it is followed by a contrasting—simpler and quieter—tour de force (“More”) presenting the lake in quiet repose, its surface reflecting a doubled vision, “trees displaying roots into roots.” Embedded in these opening poems are notions of change and acceptance that emerge and reemerge as Paré investigates childhood memories by revisiting as an adult the place that gave them life.
The setting for Lake of Two Mountains is the body of water that takes shape where the Ottawa river meets the St. Lawrence west of Montreal. Off the south shore sits the small island, L’Île-Cadieux, where the narrator and her family had a summer home when she was young. “Map of the Lake” gives a detailed description of the region. Based “loosely / on Oceans and Fisheries, Map 1500,” the fundamental elements appear to be accurate, although the tone is whimsical and the fallibility of all maps is stressed. But this map is not only a representation of place—it portrays the narrator’s personal relationship with the area. So the six maple trees on the island’s north shore are included, and the railway trestle joining nearby L’Île-aux-Tourtes and Pointe Abbotte is conjured up, complete with freight train and “the long lonely sound / of boxcars calling to night.” It is not just the narrator’s childhood relationship of the lake that is recalled, however. the Mohawk settlement of Kanesatake, the town of Oka, and the Trappist Abbey on the north shore of the lake—only dimly present in her early awareness but looming large now—are carefully located.
“Map of the Lake” is both a summing up of the first nine poems in the collection and an anticipation of those to come. These early poems do two things. First, they introduce the lake in a purely physical way. In fact, Paré’s account of its geological origins and evolution echoes E.J. Pratt’s portrayal of the Canadian Shield in the section “Number Two” of Towards the Last Spike. Where Pratt animates the geography, Paré does not, but the massive forces at work over vast distances of geological time are similarly captured in language that is both technical and poetic. Second, these early poems introduce the family’s summer home, as it is in the present, no longer theirs, and as it is recalled in childhood, “tall as a sail” billowing in summer and measuring its breath in winter (“Summer House Revisited”). “Summer” beautifully evokes the arrival of the family and the opening up of the house, which seemed like an opening of everything: “the world open-handed opening / into each summer gone / each summer beginning.” But this section also hints at tragedy, the death of the mother, her coffined face strange and unfamiliar, her ashes thrown in handfuls “catching the wind” off the wharf.
Returning to L’Île-Cadieux years later, the narrator begins to contemplate elements of place that were virtually absent in her childhood world picture. One is the abbey of Notre Dame du Lac, where two hundred monks of the Cistercian order of Strict observance strove for bios angelikos, “[b]elonging to this place, sanctuary, for however long the body will last” (“Monastic Life 1”). A series of poems, deployed in sequences throughout the collection, delineates this life. It starts inclusively before narrowing in on the quest of one monk, Frère Gabriel. A second element is the Mohawk reservation at Kanesatake. In the first of several poems that raise the question of possession, Paré begins with the childhood sense of ownership she had over the environment she inhabited, assuming dominion over the lake: its birds, islets, snails, water lilies, and water weeds, “the waves and the far shore that looses them” (“How to Own a Lake”). She asks:
and the monastery across the lake,
which she can’t see, does she own it as well?
and the reservation across the lake,
As for the lake, one answer is that actually the reverse is happening: “the lake / begins owning / the child,” an insight that resonates later when the narrator shifts her focus from ownership to belonging. But another, more complex construction is implicit in “Call and Response,” which figures the various geological and biological elements of the land in dialogue with one another. In what could easily have become a metaphorical bridge too far, Paré makes it work, especially in the third section of the poem where she brilliantly tackles the issue head-on:
How does the sky
reply when silver-backed leaves tug at the wind,
blocking the passage to sea?
Clouds ring with rain
and the lake lifts small pewter washes
in rows of applause.
Ownership is elusive and often contested. a monk might say it is an illusion, a misunderstanding of our place in the world, a flaw in our relationship with nature. The earth answers to itself, not to humans.
Yet the question persists. In the poem, “Whose Lake,” there are no shortage of takers: the man whose uncle owned a camp at Rigaud, the narrator and her sister because their family once spent summers there, the Mohawk whose dead are buried on its shores, the woman who rents the narrator a room on her return, and frère Gabriel who claims it for God. When the narrator drives through Kanesatake she gets a warning at the gas station: “we don’t collect taxes / for any foreign government,” and she feels she is trespassing. “[W]ould you leave if you had to,” she asks herself, “and where would you go?” to Antrim or Glasgow where her parents’ people came from? But “can you go back / to where / you have never been?” (“Kanesatake”). Meanwhile, the lake “harbours no greed . . . has nothing to ask”: “rain comes, the lake simply receives” (“Lake 1”).
At this point, Paré launches a sequence of poems expertly portraying the life of the family at the lake. “Dad before Lake” recounts the father’s boyhood in Mossend, Scotland, the steelworks where his father worked, his homing pigeons, the emigration to Montreal, his bachelorhood, the Depression, and finally his marriage and the house on L’Île-Cadieux, which he called Shangri-La. other poems present childhood memories, real and imagined, of summer swimming, of various family members—the older aunt who never went in the water but busied herself with plant cuttings, a “scissors in the skirts of her dress”; Uncle Bobby back from the war, but damaged in some unspecified way, a snapshot of himself and four buddies often in his hand —and a harrowing trip across the lake in an inadequate rowboat is memorably related (“To Oka”). the family poems are followed by the introduction of Frère Gabriel along with three poems describing his life, but Paré overlaps the two subjects and stitches them together. This starts with “how Belong,” which follows “To Oka,” and looks at the question of ownership from a different angle. The setting of the poem is not made explicit, but it follows the family poems, and ownership and belonging are issues that the reader associates with the narrator. On the other hand, the “you” of the poem works with bees, which suggests the abbey, as does the use of the french, lac maternal. The effect is of superimposition, which Paré employs increasingly to suggest the interconnectedness of things, and it works in tandem with juxtaposition. The next poem, “how Mend the years,” a touching prayer for the healing of Uncle Bobby, brings the reader back to the family, but the one after it, “angelwings,” though apparently set in the L’Île Cadieux house, utilizes a metaphor of the miraculous to describe the effect of oak leaves casting shadows on its windows. The next poem, “Frère Gabriel Crosses the Lake,” reinforces this, as it fancies the pious monk flying in darkness to the house on the wings of a heron. In this way, Shangri-La and the monastery are tied together before the three poems depicting Frère Gabriel’s life are deployed.
It becomes evident that the arrangement of the poems is carefully crafted. Lake of Two Mountains is structurally complex. Subjects and themes are introduced and developed; past and present are investigated and reinvestigated; through a process of superimposition, juxtaposition, and recapitulation, established strands of narrative are increasingly interwoven and linked. There are movements, sequences of poems that create mood, and these movements subtly play off against one another. There is rise and fall, climax and denouement.
The group of poems depicting family life at the lake and connecting it with monastic life across the water concludes when the lake is brought back into the picture as a character in its own right. “Armies of Frogs” is a recapitulation of the lake as receptacle, emblem of acceptance, in the guise of “a woman who no longer / looks in the mirror.” Sea bass breed in her depths, armies of frogs thrive in her coves. Sea-doos and speedboats carve her surface. Police search her shorelines, where muskrats, foxes, mallards go about their lives. She receives toxins and holy water alike, she endures thunderstorms from the west. There are decoys and guns in the autumn. Once there were pelts and logs. Once powerboats smuggled food to Mohawk behind the blockade. Always she moves downstream, towards Montreal, past the fortified houses of Mafiosi near Ste.-Anne-de-Bellevue. The lake receives the whole cacophonous, anarchic mess without judgement, although she has one regret: the loss of the chorus frogs at mid-century, “their rapturous piping utterly lost.”
The collection as a whole reaches a culmination in “Oka Crisis.” This three-page account of the Mohawk blockade in the summer of 1990 brings into focus issues of ownership and belonging raised earlier, redefining the narrator’s relationship with place. Her childhood blindness to the history that fuelled the dispute is associated with the cultural dominance of her race but also placed in a context of change from innocence to experience. The change is not just personal or psychological. It corresponds as well to alterations in the external environment over time. Anticipated earlier in “Impermanence,” these alterations now include the way cottages have morphed into mansions, and how islanders don’t return anymore to the city when summer ends—they book a cruise to Cancun. Meanwhile the Trappists have moved out of the monastery, which has been turned into a tourism and education centre. The Federal Government has bought land disputed by aboriginal people, a manoeuvre designed to effect a truce, but the Mohawk do not relinquish their claim. “The Oka Crisis was a war,” Paré declares, complete with concussion grenades, aK-47s, barricades, and tripwires. She sketches the quarrel:
golf course expansion,
who owns the land,
what was taken, which priests, who owns
the trees. Nation to nation.
But with one man dead and others beaten down, the result seems to leave only further ignorance. The Oka Church burned to the ground one hundred years ago. No one knows who did it.
No one knows how hate works. No one knows
why the Mohawk
don’t own the land. No one knows
who shot Corporal Marcel Lemay.
the sweet grass was still burning.
Smoke started to rise.
The S.Q. – sudden tear gas,
grenades. the wind changed directions,
the bullet stole
through his bulletproof vest.
In the poems that follow, everything seems flawed and fragile. “Northern Gate” speaks of dislocation, shame of “being in the wrong place,” shame at “the failure to belong sufficiently to what is beloved.” after this, L’Île-Cadieux seems insubstantial, its feather-like shape more poignant, suggesting the vulnerability and mortality of living things rather than the “permanence” of rock and sand. the inhabitants “pray that the trees, their deep roots, / will fasten, keep this feather of land / from lifting into the wind” (“L’Île-Cadieux”). A recollection of an after-dinner walk with parents reiterates this emphasis on contingency. The parents are figured in memory as birdlike, though to the unwitting child they “kept hidden / their back-mounted wings” (“Walking the Island Road after Dinner”). the imagery of wings recalls the fancy of Frère Gabriel crossing the lake, but it also conjures up the marsh hawk with a “small mammal heart / in its beak” (“Things Change”), and we are reminded that “the end of the world / will arrive / in the mouth of a bird” (“Cardinals, Crows”). Meanwhile, ghosts move through the forest “more surely than light” and “what is fixed in truth is in flux” (“Ghosts Moving in Forested Shade”).
Out of this, the narrator finally takes consolation in acceptance, whether it is that of the child “asking nothing” (“Walking the Island Road after Dinner”), or that of Frère Gabriel, who “allows what happens each day,” permitting “the sun to bake his pink, freckled brow” (“Frère Gabriel’s Life”), or that of the lake itself, which just “unfolds . . . changing with weather or time of day, without evidence of sorrow or blame,” and “allows what gathers around it” (“Monastic Life”). Indeed, the lake is the dominant emblem of acceptance in the collection and the imagery employed to body this forth is religious as well as natural. The lake draws “cowls of quiet around uncertain space” and holds “the surrounding rocks in place through reverence alone” (“Lake 2”). When heat falls, it “stares down . . . / what was once thought of / as heaven” and rises “in droplets, almost nothingness, / on its way into the sky” (“When Heat Falls”). As it shushes itself, drowsing at sunset, “[d]ivinity” is said to be “lingering this way” (“Sun Going Down”). “What difference,” the narrator asks, “if the lake changes – / or if you belong?” — “In the middle of things / you’ve been given a place” (“Eight Miles to the Centre”).
Lake of Two Mountains is such a finely crafted work, I hesitate to question the choice of non-standard words, but the use of mesmer, tropicate, unfrangible, concavitate, and gelatinate is unusual, and I wonder why. Is this word coining, or word bending? If so, what for? And does the word inveigles make any kind of sense in the lines “Poison Ivy inveigles / these low-lying woods” (“Under Influence”)? I thought too about the conflation of the Laurentide Ice Sheet and the Canadian Shield in “Becoming Lake.” Is this deliberate? If so, why? But these are questions on very small matters, and I am more concerned about the limitations of this review. Impressed by the coherence of Paré’s collection, I am conscious that I have not done justice to its parts, which may be greater than the sum of its whole. There is so much more to poems such as “Walking the Island road after Dinner” and “Monastic Lake” and many others than can be suggested by quoting a phrase or generalizing a through line. Lake of Two Mountains won the Governor General’s award for poetry in 2014. Few books have been so deserving of praise.