by Athena Kildegaard
1. The Real Poet Storyteller
Last year, Arleen Paré won the Governor General’s Award for poetry, the premier literary award in Canada. She began writing poetry after a career in social work; she came to poetry, later in life, by chance. She was writing fiction and was invited to join a writing group, but she didn’t have a fiction piece she was ready to show the group, and she didn’t have much time, so she wrote a poem. The group declared it “a real poem,” and thus was born Arleen Paré, the real poet.
Paré spent her childhood summers on Lake of Two Mountains, between the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers, in Quebec. When Paré pursued an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Victoria, she studied with Lorna Crozier, one of the most anthologized and beloved Canadian poets writing today. Paré credits Crozier with guiding her in writing her award-winning book.
In her third book, Lake of Two Mountains, Paré is a surveyor of memory, history, geology, and geography; she makes her own map of it. What does it mean to say that a book of poetry can be a map? Robert Bringhurst, the typographer, poet, and writer, translated the stories and poems of the Haida and Navajo peoples. This work led him to contemplate the nature of stories and their importance. In his essay “The Tree of Meaning,” Bringhurst argues that a text is a map that points to a territory, which is the story. But, he goes on, “The story however is also a map—a map of the land, a map of the mind, a map of the heart, a map of the language in which the story is told.” A story, like a map, points to a variety of territories: the land, the mind, the heart, the language.
Paré’s book is, in a way, a story, but it’s a story told in verse, and therefore does not depend on the forward motion of plot. Instead, the poems accrue momentum as they survey the various territories—of the land, mind, heart, and language—of the lake.
2. The Land & Language
The first poem of the collection, “Distance Closing In,” zooms us in from the first line—“flint-dark far-off”, to “water now stippling thin waterskin.” In these two lines from this short (12-line) poem, we see Paré having fun with sounds. Notice all the short i’s, working on us like raindrops hitting water: flint, stippling, thin, skin. And she uses the Anglo-Saxon hyphenated spondees in that first line to knock us into attention. The lake is not a static presence on the landscape, but a living being, and she’s going to dive into it, through language and music.
To map this body she takes us back to the Pleistocene, in the third poem of the collection, “Becoming Lake.” “Start early. Pleistocene. / 3 a.m. Let the Laurentide Ice Shield / wrench surface snow, blast / great pans of pale frozen foam.” Paré is a master of verbs—another way that she brings the lake to life. Later in the poem she converts nouns to verbs: “Let the bowl corrugate,” “spall, / brinell, press walls,” “daily rains gelatinate the sky.” Paré refuses to follow the old advice of avoiding Latinate vocabulary or of using obscure words; I had to look up “spall”–flakes or chips from another, larger body. She’s after something more than dictionary meanings here; this dense vocabulary serves to make physically dense the effects of glaciers on the earth’s surface.
She converts nouns to verbs for a different effect in the poem “Under Influence.” Here is the third stanza:
Bullfrogs horn the first part of nite,
half in, half out of the lake;
each domed note baritones
the last, migrations of sound.
This noun-to-verb play makes satisfying music.
The physicality of language brings the lake to life in other ways. In the poem “Alnöitic Rock,” Paré uses rhyme deftly: “Ice on the move. Leaving what cannot cleave.” And consonance: “Muskrat-skull rock.” And plays with homonyms: “Primordial cool, old questions weight in your palm.”
Finally, Paré literally directs us to map the lake in a long poem entitled, aptly, “Map of the Lake.” The poem begins
Draw the map three feet long, maybe four—
but not wide—on paper strong enough
to box-pleat left to right, store in a drawer.
Make it nautical, but add some terrain.
From there, we’re given directions for making the map. “Begin at page bottom,” “Pencil then to the left,” Draw rocks on the shore,” and so on. She cautions us that “This is a map, not real life,” though as Bringhurst reminds us, a map points to territory and story. By making our own map, if even only in our imagination, we are making the lake our own—Paré invites us into the story, physically.
3. The Mind
The map we draw eventually comes to “the place where the monastery stands.” This Trappist monastery stands but is no longer peopled. “Use middle grey. Draw the silence in blue—darker— / now that the monks are all gone.” From the poems that create the physical presence of the lake, Paré moves to other concerns, and one of these is the monastery and the monks who used to live there. For this purpose, Paré has written two sequences of poems that are interspersed throughout the remainder of the collection.
The seven prose poems of the first sequence are entitled “Monastic Life.” The first of these explains: “It is exterior, what can be seen, touched, not just what adjoins the pure mind.” Right off, Paré lets us know that the contemplative life exists only because there is also a physical life. So she begins this series with a poem about the physical body of the monastery itself, a “maze of outbuildings” that include “Hives. Barns. And near the barns, coops for the chickens and eggs. Sheds where tapers hang their long fingers to dry. A gazebo not far from the lake.” Inside the main building we find “gooseberry jams and mustards made from wild mushrooms.” Here is even a room “for the dead and for the families to story the dead.”
Subsequent poems in this series take us into the contemplative aspects of monastic life. “Monastic Life 2” begins “It is interior. Hidden in cochlea. Behind lenses, just under the skin.” “Monastic Life 3” turns even more inward: “It is confession. Inside: envy and anger, trespasses, how to forgive,” it begins.
“Monastic Life 4,” a prose poem, is a blessing. Here it is in its entirety:
It resides with honeybees, rows of hives along wire fences to the west, each queen drowsing in the jellied centre of a world. Bless each queen, that she survives the freeze, that she recites sweet piping sounds in spring as icicles release the sun. Bless the orchard trees as they hold up their plain grey twigs. Fields of clover one day will levitate, hover in July’s keening light. Bless the workers too, dull-huddled in their combs: that they remember flight, uncup their double wings against leftover cold. Bless each monk who dreams of honey, pantried light, stolen to illuminate dim winter shelves. They are praying for forgiveness. And for blossoms to burst April buds.
The sweetness of this blessing is counterbalanced by the sense of loss—the loss of the monks in the monastery, the loss of caretakers for the hives, and, whether intentional or not, the loss of bees that concerns so many of us today. “July’s keening light” mourns all these losses in this poem.
“Monastic Life 5” concerns the liturgical aspect of the monastic life. “Worship, proper times of the day. One time, then another, in order, each time reaching.” Worship involves “reaching out for God,” praising God, “Who hovers over the ferns, over faces hooded in barns, the brown backs of cows.” Even perch and fish, flower and grass reach out for God. Paré ends this poem, “All eyes look at what they are looking for.” This Zen-like observation returns us to the idea that place is integral to thought, that our desires are met by what is before us.
But how to find God in a place that is full of absences? “Monastic Life 6” confronts this question. “Silence colludes with shadow, pervasive blur that underhangs archways, between granite walls … Silence enters the body; the body does not enter silence.” To be in a place of absence is to allow that absence inside—to make a map of that absence and silence in our own bodies. “Be grateful. And for the boots that keep to the path. Grateful. Look down at the feet.” Where we are, what we are looking at, there is blessing, Paré suggests.
The last of these poems comes almost at the end and is an elegy, a poem for the dead. “It is gone,” the poem begins. “The last twenty monks left in a bus for a house somewhere north.” And it ends remembering the “two hundred” who “obeyed their vocations or their own mother’s hearts . . . In their small well-waxed cells, devotions and the splitting of hypothetical hairs. So much cider; there was honey and cream.” At the end there is absence, but there is also abundance. There is not end, in other words.
4. The Heart
The heart is such a pliable muscle that it can make story out of the lives of others—that is to say, through empathy, the teller can embody others. And so Paré imagines a particular monk, whom she names Gabriel. In another series of prose poems, interspersed as with the first series, she recreates Frère Gabriel. We see this monk at work and at prayer, following the rules set down by the abbott. His father dies and Frère Gabriel lives a life of penance in which each prayer “wings a soul past the stone walls to rest in the willows that weep on the shore.” Frère Gabriel may be inside, kneeling, but his spirit is outdoors near the lake. Though he strives for the bios aggelikos, the angelic life, as Paré tells us, that life is on the shore of the lake.
The map of the heart is drawn not just through empathy, but also through memory. And so we find here poems about Paré’s family. We meet her dad, who “called the lake Shangri-La” and wore a “lewd, close-fitting jersey-knit / swimsuit, della robbia blue, drawstring / at his waist.” We meet an older aunt who “never swam, didn’t / even toe the water’s edge,” and Uncle Bobby who “slept in a cot on the screened-in veranda, / half in, half out of the house.” “Mornings, he’d sprawl / on the wharf or sit in a lawn chair, / slathered in baby oil, / remembering what?”
In Paré’s family, we find people who are present near, on or in the lake, but who are, finally, inscrutable. With our minds we seek what is knowable, but with our hearts we seek the inscrutable. And so one of the unanswerable questions raised by Lake of Two Mountains is “Can you / go back / to where / you never have been?” These lines end the poem “Kanesetake,” the name of a town on the north shore of the lake. In thinking about how we can know a place, or not, Paré also wonders about leaving a place, as the monks and some of the Native Americans had to do. She asks “would you leave if you had to / (your life being trespass) / and where would you go?” This question of trespassing guides the whole collection.
Seeking is a kind of trespass, in an older sense of the word—to seek is to make a passage toward something desired. To trespass is also, of course, to break a law, to commit a sin—to cross into a place that does not belong to you. One could ask, what exactly is the place that belongs to us? Are we trespassing when we go back to places we once lived in? And if we go to a place we’ve never been, are we trespassing? Perhaps only the heart knows.
5. The Lake
Midway through the collection appears the first of a pair of prose poems, “Lake 1.” Paré brings back the image, from the first poem, of rain on the lake. This poems begins “The lake harbours no greed. Rain comes, the lake simply receives.” The lake is beyond scrutiny. It is both permanent and changing, receiving and giving. Here is all of “Lake 2,” a prose poem that eschews punctuation.
drawing cowls of quiet around uncertain space sinking through pebbles and coarse grains of sand no sound it spreads into grass lies flat for seasons timeless hovering even at shore a presentiment a mirage shape-shifting mesmer holding the surrounding rocks in place through reverence alone the air above claims no geography the lake needs nothing but river’s brown mouth solitary quiet as the dragonfly that quilts nimbussed gloss as the eel that ribbons the squelch as unlit fish surveying beneath cirrussed weeds even when shirred when breezes scoop atoms of foam even when the world slants with rain and with wind the lake won’t complain white noise alone nothing the ear can locate even in early morning when heron spears frog no sound will ring out
The lake is, that is all.
And yet, we want to make it ours; so we tell stories, we bring up memories and tap history and imagine ancient seas and glaciers. Still, there is an inscrutable quality to place, to this lake, since ultimately we cannot really make it ours. Bringhurst reminds us of this:
Every map is also a territory, and every territory a map—but not its own. To be and to mean and to think and to tell are the same, yet all of them rest on that tissue of interconnection. The story that you tell and are is you but not your own.
Paré tells her story and lets it go. Her directions for making our own map of the lake are her way of telling us to take the story and make it our own, but to remember that even in reading it, even in making it, we are giving it away.
Athena Kildegaard is Bloom’s Poetry Features Editor. She is the author of three books of poetry, Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011, a Minnesota Book Award finalist), and Cloves & Honey (2012). Her fourth collection is forthcoming. She teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
photo credit (homepage): Long shadows via photopin (license)
photo credit: The Novices’ Chamber, Battle Abbey, East Sussex. via photopin (license)
such a fine essay and review, Athena – thanks so much!! Arleen