Lake of Two Mountains, Arleen Paré‘s 2014 Governor General’s Award winning poetry collection celebrating/lamenting lifetimes of summers on the shores and waters of Quebec’s Lac des Deux Montagnes at the confluence of the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence, a stone’s throw from Montréal, did not grab me with every poem. Many poems definitely did grab me. But none grabbed me quite as strongly as “Distance Closing In”, the first poem of the cycle. Rather than discussing the entire book, I will devote my attention to this single poem.
This devotion to a single poem should by no means be construed as a dismissal of the rest of the cycle: Lake of Two Mountains is a poetic tour de force, a magically varied study of years and generations of life in family and in solitude. Only two things could do justice to the entire slim book: a much thicker book of close reading and analysis, or, more obviously, get the book and read it yourself, out loud, over the course of days and weeks, making notes if you like. I did the second one because I’m lazy. But I’m going to try to do a bit of a close reading of “Distance Closing In”.
I’ll reproduce all twelve lines of “Distance Closing In” because I consider such reproduction in this critical study to constitute Fair Dealing. If Ms. Paré or her publisher, Brick Books, take issue I’ll remove the text. But I think such removal will be detrimental to an understanding of my critical argument, which argument is entirely praising of Paré’s poetic skill and artistry.
DISTANCE CLOSING IN
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
The alliteration leaps out immediately, particularly for one familiar with Mediaeval English verse. Five lines even have caesuras typographically indicated.
the poem begins, like an Old English elegy, the fricatives exploding in the stressed syllables and in the line’s closing sound. This is a poem of oral and aural activity.
And here we meet a remarkable thing. We read the poem — aloud without doubt — and our speech parts are flapping like everything. But, look at the page —
Only one single word, a lonely “hisses”, is actually a verb. This poem of great physical activity in the reading, is constructed almost totally of dull little nouns and fascinating gerundives.
Look at the things we might mistake for verbs:
“on the move” – prepositional phrase
“closing in” – gerundive and preposition
“collapsing” – gerundive
“waiting” – gerundive
“flinging” – gerundive
“stippling” – gerundive
“pummelled” – past participle (one might construe it as a verb in the preterite, but I think one would be wrong: the shallows are pummelled, they do not pummel the world.)
“hisses” – a verb!
“ringing” – gerundive
hisses with rain
the poem is verbally static. No single thing actively does, all are adjectivally doing, or, in the case of the shallows, already bruised by their preterite pummelling. Only the world, the totality, actively “hisses”. All the bits make up a series of still images, frozen in the gerundive, pregnant with the potential of the rain, released when the hissing starts and the visual is cut through, the audible hiss releases the smell and the light and the senses become present in the synaesthesia of the visible sound of “light ringing” and the coloured odour of the “iron-blue smell”.
At the centre
flinging itself backwards
The time has not been out of joint, it has been frozen, and now the future is closer, backward to the Now violently flung. The tension is building timelessly until finally the release of the rain’s hiss, the storm, and time have broken. The eternal stillness of the Lake’s potential here bursts into the Now with an iron-blue smell, and the sound of pewter light ringing. The flint-dark is now truly far-off as the storm wakens and blends the senses in audible light.
“Distance Closing In” is a startling poetic construction carefully crafted of grammar, meaning, sound and the physical act of speaking the poem culminating in the expressive synaesthesia that fills the hissing, awakened, active world.
“Distance Closing In” is just one of fifty-seven poems in Lake of Two Mountains. Paré is a viciously keen observer of the world in which she’s immersed and a meticulous crafter of her poems. Lake of Two Mountains is a cycle of poems to be read carefully with all the focus and attention the reader can bring to the rewarding task.