Lake of Two Mountains by Arleen Paré
Brick Books, 2014; 83 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn Young
In his Bagley Wright series lecture, “Meaningfulness and Homesickness,” poet Timothy Donnelly discusses, in part, how environments are changed by time, development, and perception. Listening to his recollection of a natural space bordering a childhood home, I was reminded of my grandparents’ yard in North Carolina, an expanse of grass and trees populated at various points with large, grey rocks. One rock was an outlier, a miniature boulder placed at the edge of the woods, just where the green began. My sister and I were fascinated with this particular rock—What could happen there, what might happen there, if only we could imagine it? Donnelly’s talk left me pondering the ways in which imagination can be used to define an area; how a cursory observation may be the foundation for expansive possibilities only visible, in the end, within the mind.
But imagination—that empathetic, diversified beast—is not only a means to dream forward. It is also a vehicle for reflection and remembrance; a way to re-vision what one may have missed or, limited by time and distance, had no opportunity to see. In poet and writer Arleen Paré’s most recent book of poems, Lake of Two Mountains (shortlisted for the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, in Canada), geography and memory ebb and flow, surge and follow, in this meditation on ecology and faith, family and self. The book takes its name from the Lake of Two Mountains (Lac des Deux Montagnes), which is located in Quebec at the point where the Ottawa River widens before draining into the St. Lawrence River. Only partially bounded, it is an open lake with waters coursing in and out.
In Paré’s poems, the lake becomes a pivot point, a receptacle, and a document. It is audience and confessor. Deeply rooted in the history of the region, the poems inhabit landscapes both peopled and un-peopled, but never vacant. Examining the theory of dominion—Who owns the lake? Who owns the land around and under the lake?—the speaker collects her claims and those of the Church, the Mohawk, the traders and hunters. Here, their stories are interwoven but not collapsed:
Holy water and toxins, black-patent tadpoles
with prominent eyes. Thunderstorms
from the west. Decoys and guns in the fall.
Once, barges for pelts and coniferous logs.
Once, food smuggled on powerboats
for the Mohawk behind the blockade. (“Armies of Frogs”)
It is difficult to navigate a connection to a place to which others have a higher personal, ancestral, and historical association. However humans imprint on an environment, that setting is neither static nor allegiant, possible to destroy but impossible to permanently grasp. Through Paré’s eyes, this lake becomes both a site of individual consciousness and of a collective, socio-historical memory. For the speaker in these poems, the passage of time has brought the loss of many homes, including the childhood family unit and a beloved lake house. For the Mohawk, from whom the surrounding lands were tricked and never returned, this landscape is home to a present-day conflict with roots far in the past. “Oka Crisis” alludes to a 1990 standoff between the Canadian government and the tribe over land rights:
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?
Refusing the imposed chorus of we, Paré favors the second person and the imperative voice. In these pages, you is the self, the lake, the reflection, the reader. You is the Mohawk and the governments appropriating their lands. You is the monks, the trees, the sturgeon frozen by the cold one fish at a time. No concern is ancillary to another; presence, not possession, is given equal weight. The speaker recognizes she is not of this place—not descended from this land over a long period of time—and that as the child of immigrants herself, her claim here is different, born more of memory and nostalgia than shed blood:
not that you live here but
would you leave if you had to
(your life being trespass)
and where would you go?
to Ireland’s south-west where your mother’s people are from
or to Antrim where your father’s father or Glasgow
where your father was born
displacements and exile
this not being your people’s original place
can you go back
you never have been? (“Kanesatake”)
Compelled by the narrative impulse to observe, reflect, and categorize, the poems sometimes employ an open form (as in the prose poems) and other times utilize stanzas of various, un-patterned lengths. While the poems are not formal, there is an urge to order—to formalize or contain—the speaker’s ever-shifting eye and mind. Extra space within the lines often accompanies a more fractured lyric, as if indicating a wish to abide in the instant, no matter how chronologically removed. The poems do not march along a clean temporal progression, but leap between now/then, person/place, native/intruder, the song of the book becoming that of the unbounded lake: a temporary hold, where entrance and exit intermingle, collide, and overlap. This layering is not an accumulation of all the ways a place might be occupied from this point forward, but all the ways it has been occupied, historically, intimately, and ecologically. Layers appear not only in motif but in image:
the two aunts
on the long middle bench bicker
under sun hats made of pink straw (“To Oka”)
Under their hats, the aunts sit on the bench. Under the sky and sun, they sit in the boat above the water. Below the surface are currents, lake-life, and fossils. Over the surface move people, property, and weather. Paré is a mapmaker of loss, tracing in her poems the ways place and person intersect, documenting not simply her own wonderment but creating a chance for the reader to wonder at the miracles and travesties of the human presence in the world, however they are held and recorded. A rock in the yard may disappear, but it remains in the imagination of a child and becomes the memory of an adult. Never querulous, always querying, the Lake of Two Mountains, like time, is where Anything that passes through is transformed.