Governor General winner melds intensity and restraint

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November 20, 2014

Lake of Two Mountains

By Arleen Pare

Brick Books

83 pages, $20

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

Arleen Paré opens her Governor General’s Award-winning collection, Lake of Two Mountains, with “Distance Closing In,” a spare, moody poem with echoes of the Imagist poet H.D.: “sky collapsing from its bowl / shoreline waiting    taut / stones dark as plums.”

Paré, now known to all of Canada as a Victoria-area poet and novelist, is masterful in this mode of simultaneous intensity and restraint. Lake of Two Mountains is an elegy of sorts—in the tradition of the love-elegy as well as the elegy of loss. The beloved here is the lake, known passionately in childhood and now re-imagined from multiple perspectives. The collection is like an Elizabethan poet’s blazon, with the beloved’s parts mapped out as a geography—but here the metaphor and the beloved are one thing, a landscape at once infinitely interpretable and yet also always exceeding human attempts to grasp, to own, to define.

Poet Patrick Lane compares the poems in this collection to “monastic prayers for forgiveness,” and there is indeed something both contemplative and austere about them. There is no narcissism here, no confessional “I.” Instead, Paré, offers grammatical and figurative intercessors. Where we might expect that “I,” there is often a “you,” as in “How Fast a Life.” “You stood at the end / of the wharf, you and you sister. / Cautious. In handfuls, your mother’s ashes / catching the wind,” Pare writes, and this “you” thrusts the memory into the arms, so to speak, of the reader. Or a simple word like “let” creates poems that are both pleas and directives: “let him sit on the beach… // let him unreel / the past on the waves,” “How Mend a Life” incants.

The poetic voice comes closest to asserting ownership in the poems about family members. In “Dad Before Lake” there is the possessive “my mother”; in “How Mend the Years” there is “my uncle.” Most raw and intimate, perhaps, is “Dad in the Lake”: “His face as it clears each popping wave – / his eyes – / how unsure where he is.” “Figments” recounts the death of a mother, the eeriness of the body in death, its alien otherness as a kind of fossil evidence of the living person. It speaks of a retreat from language: “If you could, you’d live below theory.”

Indeed, language, in its precision, its power and its failure, is the collection’s ambiguous consolation. The poems often take formal shapes that elegantly echo their subjects. “Alnoitic Rock” (the name of a rare volcanic rock found in the region) presents “topographies herded flat, wide as the weft of caribou hooves,” and is written in long, widely-spaced lines. “More” is a poem about reflection that itself reflects, in shimmering, gently distorted echoes.

Lake of Two Mountains stands as a remarkably coherent, yet never over-formalized, whole. It is keen-eyed, full of detail and careful construction; there are many pleasures in its language. If I were to look for some further development on these strengths—say, in Pare’s next collection—it would be only this: that some of her carefully governed intensity be allowed to break through, both formally and emotionally, like the bolt of lightning that threatens but never strikes in “Distance Closing In.”

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet, essayist and reviewer.

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