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Chapbook Review: James Lindsay’s The Lake

By Terry Trowbridge

James Lindsay’s chapbook The Lake (published by Knife/Fork/Book, 2022), is a collection of 12 poems that fit together because they begin with the text, “I don’t know how to talk about my biological father, so instead I’m going to describe the lake” - a proclamation originally written by Tony Tost. James Lindsay found it in The Crying Book by Heather Christle, but that seminal origin doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that The Lake is a collection of 12 poems that begin with the premise that, “I don’t know how to talk about my biological father, so instead I’m going to describe the lake.”

The Lake (book), a vest, a paddle, and lifebuoy ring
Photo: Terry Trowbridge

Nobody says that you have to read a chapbook of poems in any particular order, and The Lake does not have page numbers, so nobody is even insinuating that the poems have a sequence. That is good, because there are a lot of us who like to talk about lakes, but it all comes out differently. Everyone’s relationship with their lake is different. Some lakes are comforting and feel like home. Other lakes can be demanding, or confusingly angry, or emotionally unavailable.

For example, I have always lived on the shore of Lake Ontario, at a shoreline where the opposite side is invisible, but the skyline of tall buildings that stretches from Burlington to Toronto is clearly visible as my northern horizon, especially in the gelid gleam of the humid winter Great Lakes night. Of course, behind Burlington, one of the swarthy rises of the Niagara Escarpment surges from the horizon just before the dolomite limestone of my version of the Earth veers west-northwest as a geological echo of the Pleistocene epoch that never quite relaxes its grip on the suburban/exurban/urban Anthropocene of Canada’s Golden Horseshoe.

Furthermore, my lake is surrounded by the Golden Horseshoe, not because of the buildings, but because of the macroeconomic significance of a social construction called the economy is a strong reminder of how lakes are not purely geological records, geographical features, or epochal leftovers, but also socially constructed boundaries of patriarchal capitalism’s abstractions. Not all of us can read that sort of thing into one poem, so you might appreciate twelve. My point is, for this chapbook review, that everyone’s lake is different but probably between the physical features and the social presence of lake people, we actually talk about lakes a lot. Much like James Lindsay.

You might cause some awkward emotions if you buy Lindsay’s chapbook as a present and give it to somebody who also has a hard time talking about their father. That’s okay, if you, however, think that the current healthcare crisis means they have no way to see a psychotherapist and maybe they need to think about how they have a hard time talking about their father. Why not use Lindsay’s poems as a mirror, or a journal writing prompt? If you do, though, they should begin with the last poem. It has the most directly dad-related bits and they are sorted in a way that enables the other poems about “the lake” to seem more introspective, dad-wise.

If you want to buy the chapbook for somebody who really likes lakes, there is so much lake detail in this chapbook that he whole dad thing is more of just kind of a literary device for squeezing more lake time into the word total. Maybe a professional sailor on a Great Lakes freighter will read some alternative meanings into it, or maybe if you Scotch-tape it to a Gordon Lightfoot EP and give that to a folk music friend, then the dad thing will be kind of transcendent.

However, the real winning combination will be if you give this chapbook to someone who actually thinks that they have no difficulty talking about their biodad and also had a happy childhood up at the cottage near Bancroft or Tobermory (where the Niagara escarpment slowly recedes like spent waves into the underground Pleistocene and will sleep so long it might never re-emerge to the surface of the planet). That kind of happy-camper cottage kid will find the whole premise comfortable and funny and probably will laugh at the pretend-neurotic diversions like their dad would.

Chapbook reviewed:


About the Writer:

Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, and a book reviewer. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.


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