Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: Arguments with the Lake, by Tanis Rideout

The listless, monolithic hulk of Lake Ontario looms large in this stellar collection of interconnected poems by Tanis Rideout. Arguments with the Lake takes as its basis the lives of two teenage swimmers from the 1950s, Marilyn Bell and Shirley Campbell, the former of which was the first person ever to swim across Lake Ontario. By plunging into the aquatic depths of these two characters’ fictionalized emotional lives, Rideout pulls off a poetic rendering of two historical figures that is as consuming as it is invigorating.

Indeed, much of the success of Arguments with the Lake stems from Rideout’s use of what we might call a double metaphor. On one level, this collection likens the act of marathon swimming with an argument—the pull and drag, the fear of losing oneself to drowning, the overwhelming sense of needing to conquer a nemesis through persistent repetition. This idea plays itself out in an number of pieces, including the poem that lends the book its title, “Shirley, Midlake”:

The lake tries to soothe and slow, creeps cold into core, slips
into the sheltered bay of lungs, the hidden rivers around the heart.
It’s a fair exchange – beats per pleasure. For pain. Each of us is allotted
the strikes of the heart. I’m using mine, arguing with the Lake.

But Rideout places a second level of comparison over this metaphoric structure. Arguments with the lake extend to arguments with the self, with expectations of womanhood, with negotiating the competitive spirit, and what lay ahead when that spirit is extinguished. Here Rideout is in “Motherhood,” exploring a kind of parental malaise that is akin to sinking:

the baby she thought of drowning, of sinking to prehistoric muck –
all doubt and congealed evolution, as unchanged as those lampreys.
She found comfort in the rot and discard, swept away, blinded.
Waiting for something else to emerge from the muck.

As lugubrious as this passage sounds, it’s not indicative of the book’s tone in general. Arguments with the Lake strikes a hopeful, generous tone in so many passages as Rideout unleashes a precision and quiet beauty that takes one’s breath away in unexpected places. Optimism ultimately wins out in this collection. As she writes in “Shirley as Drowned Ophelia”: “O, the Lake. The only thing that kept me afloat/ was what I thought was on the other side.”

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