Well, what a coincidence. I was just finally sitting down today to write a review of Arleen Paré’s poetry collection Lake of Two Mountains and guess what popped up on my social media feed. Paré has been nominated for the Governer General’s award for poetry! This is obviously fantastic news for Paré and for queer Canadian literature lovers—she’s one of two queer woman nominated for a GG this year (Mariko Tamaki is nominated in the children’s literature category). (In other Canadian literary prize news, Shani Mootoo’s new novel Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab was on the longlist for the Giller Prize, but failed to make the shortlist). I’m always happy to see queer Canadian women nominated for the big awards, especially since they come with much-needed financial support! So I am glad that Paré has been nominated. This is despite the fact (gulp) that I didn’t really enjoy her book that much.
With full knowledge that some people (possibly more qualified than me) liked this book, here’s why it didn’t really do anything for me:
- CANADIAN. NATURE. POETRY. Except for very exceptional exceptions (am I allowed to use those two words together?), I just really don’t want to read any Canadian nature poetry ever again in my life. Maybe this is because I wrote a qualifying Ph.D. exam in Canadian literature and was forced to read way too many terrible poems by such racist douchebags as Duncan Campbell Scott. Paré actually quotes Archibald Lampman (a contemporary of Scott’s) in the epigraph to one of her poems! In any case, I think I’ve had my lifetime’s worth already. I would never give a book like Lake of Two Mountains to a Canadian unless they told me they loved nature poetry, because it’s just the kind that most Canadians have been forced to read at some point in their years as a student: the kind of poetry that puts you to sleep, makes you think all poetry is boring, and stops you from reading any (Canadian) poetry ever again. I’d like to surprise people with what kind of poetry is being written in Canada today, not confirm their worst suspicions.
- I have no emotional connection to rural Ontario and Quebec. So I can see how someone who does, especially to the lake country, might like these poems. My personal connection to the lakes in Ontario is someone suggesting we go to the “beach” one day when I lived in London and bitter disappointment when I realized they meant the fucking lake and that the ocean wasn’t miraculously closer than I had somehow believed. I’m sorry, but the lake is NOT the beach! Someone who went to the “cottage” in the summer would probably connect with these poems too. Me? The word cottage still sounds unbelievably snooty to me, but the Ontarians really don’t mean it that way. But anyway, I much prefer how Nova Scotians say “the camp” or my go-to, “cabin.” By the way, there’s quite an interesting old Globe and Mail article about the regional linguistic differences in Canada for that nature weekend getaway, if you’re nerdy like me and so inclined.
- Some parts of this collection made me feel like I was reading something that should have been titled “The Settler’s Lament.” Like this segment of the poem “Kanesatake”:
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?
I don’t know, this just sounds eerily like the kind of ignorant dumb-ass with settler-background saying today in response to Indigenous activism: “What am I supposed to do, go back to England?” We’ve heard enough of settler perspectives on these issues; it’s time to listen to Indigenous people.
- Also, God. I don’t care about God. Especially not old missionaries and imperialist churches and some dude named Frère Gabriel. End of story.
How about I end with the one poem in Paré’s collection that I liked? No doubt about it, Paré has a beautiful way with words.
Ghosts Moving in Forested Shade
light through the low woods
unbinds clavicle soles
deciduous shadow and shudder
quiver with unabashed shine
what is fixed in the truth is in flux
sleights the eye there is goodness
there are ghosts moving
faster than the wind through low bush and leaves
they move more surely than light