Thursday, July 31, 2008

Revisiting Lake Nora Arms

In an essay in the thirtieth anniversary issue of Arc Poetry Magazine (summer 2008), Toronto poet Adam Sol writes about thirty of his essential books of poetry, including Toronto poet and fiction Michael Redhill's Lake Nora Arms (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1993; Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2001), writing:
Michael Redhill. Lake Nora Arms. Another lucky thing: one of the first people I met after my wife and I moved to Toronto was Michael Redhill. And he was so friendly and generous and welcoming that I was a bit nervous to crack open a book of his poems, for fear that it would suck, and that I'd be forced to avoid the subject forevermore. Lake Nora Arms relieved me of that concern, and it gave me a new landscape, a new kind of incantatory haunting, to inhabit here. Lake Nora Arms is full of loss and longing, doing for Lake Simcoe what F. Scott Fitzgerald does for Long Island Sound. That little book did more to explain the allure of cottage country than Stephen Leacock ever could.
The third of Redhill's five poetry collections, Lake Nora Arms burns through the mythology of an imaginary place; imaginary, out of somewhere that could also be real. “You are here,” he repeats, first as a map, and then, a blank space. When I first read this at the age of twenty-three, I was struck by the poem “Young Loves,” and the ending that writes:

When will unhappiness strike?
Who will be the first
to awaken in bed and feel alone?
Soon they will have to love each other
in the impermanence of what awaits them
and that will be difficult, that time
which life pays you for in advance.

There’s something about the deliberate naiveté of the work in this collection. There are echoes of the same kind of myth-making in his more recent Light Crossing (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2001), a far more mature work, but there is just something about Lake Nora Arms. How does a map get written? How does a map become more like a dream? He begins in his "Prologue":
I want to sleep in Lake Nora Arms. On your shoulder, beside you, the scent of diesel coming in through a window. Old men in alleys nearby. I want to soak a velour towel with us and wake with my mouth still drunk on you. Lake Nora Arms. Long stairwell. Blue hallways. Killers rented out rooms there. Bullets in the chambers. Dillinger stayed in one, maybe, with a single sunrise reserved for his pleasure. I want that sunrise, want the place his brain went. Hoover killed him. Now Hoover's dead. Now Hoover's dead. He killed him.
Light Crossing was certainly a more polished version of working a geographic dream, but it was here where the myth first took hold; more polished, but somehow less dream-like, less surreal. And then there was his Asphodel (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1997); was this named after the infamous American bookstore, or were both named from William Carlos Williams? His third poetry collection, after the privately printed Music for Silence (1985) and Impromptu Feats of Balance (Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 1990).

It's the framing that holds the poems in Lake Nora Arms together, not built as a concept book or a sequence but instead the tie that binds, perhaps; holds in place but does not restrict or limit breath. He writes at the end of the poem, "How To Find Lake Nora":
To find Lake Nora go Sherpa. Stop looking. Read the signs. To find Lake Nora follow the signal in your teeth. To find Lake Nora, return all your library books, believe in nothing.

To find me surrender.
How does the poem, the collection, shift as an a capella musical, adapted by Jane Miller and Brian Quirt and first performed by Theatre & Company in Kitchener, Ontario on May 12, 2005? The promotional material for the production talks about "an old cottage country hotel, warm summers of lakeside living," and the caption that
This is an evocative, beautiful work that rings with innocence, regret, longing and life lived. A perfect beginning to summer, and a wonderful way to remember a past that is just out of reach.
As Adam Sol writes, too, this is cottage country; this is Canadian Shield, writing Simcoe and shale and the lakes. These are vague and even slipped-in references to downtown Toronto and Simcoe country, and Redhill even moves as far as to personify that Lake Nora, Lake Nora Arms, whether as a woman, a golem or simply a return, dipping into the myth, the muscle that holds the flesh on the bone.

The Return

Lake Nora has gone missing in her own body.
Submerged trees leave question marks
swirling in the water. From our canoe
we see filaments of decay hanging up
and the sun moving through them unchanged.
You call out your own name
and the shale walls send it back incomplete
as if woken from a dream. The quiet scares us—
we feel the loss of something unnamed,
like someone has sealed off the world below us.
I'm watching you, you're watching me.
It feels like one of us might disappear,
suddenly. Then something
leaves a rock and enters the lake—
all we can see is the echo spreading.
It comes out to touch the boat. Stay with me.

Redhill works poems about the childhood past of the Lake, and the narrator's parents, going back into memory, which is much like a dream. Lake Nora Arms is a collage of various points along the lake, points of view and points in time; knowing the lake so well it becomes a character in all of the action. This collection works in a direct lineage, it would seem, from Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Toronto ON: Anansi, 1970) and Don McKay's Long Sault (London ON: Brick Books, 1976), so it seems little surprise that the two authors are thanked in the back as being early readers of the collection. The soft lyric of mythology, whether place or a character, Lake Nora Arms comes very much out of what those two previous books had achieved; but was Lake Nora Arms simply reworking the same set of ideas, covering the same (so to speak) ground? What does it mean to be "lake"? What does it mean to surrender? It even reminds, somehow, of more recent work by Vancouver poet and editor Stephen Collis, from his collection The Commons (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2008), that includes:

We shall now speak of the LAKES the
form of the lake which belongs particularly
to the lake the clouds the light all the
imagery of the sky and hill characteristic
of the lakes peculiar form of water present
to the reception of lakes wishing for an
interposition of green meadows trees that
lakes should be little mutual out of sight
upon a lake in winter the lake rises a line
of leaves and leavings surface passes fence
posts and surrounds smooth deposits of
otherwise men may not threaten adorned
dwindle their flat desolate habituations of
however the lakes turn meandering shores
fertile vales let us rather in imagination
the cultivation of flat or mountain among
bays of fine blue or upon reeds and bul
rushes exposed to gleaming with no certain

At the beginning of the collection, there is the evocation of the "other," a figure who is gone by the end of the book. Is this whole framing of cottage and family and memory book-ended by a relationship coming to natural (or unnatural) conclusion? Going south, so to speak, back to the city. Back to Toronto and away from the safety and security of this Lake Nora Arms.

In Redhill's Lake Nora Arms, what is it about the lake, and the dream of the lake, with the last poem in the book, "Last Picture of the Lake," that ends:
Can you hear me still, my pirate,
across your kingdom of night-time blue?
Do you still slip and cut your feet on stones?
I want you to sleep in Lake Nora Arms.

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