Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Lake, my pretty name

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Lake, my pretty name

by rob mclennan

This article is a part of rob's personal essay series on Toronto, following The CN Tower.

Why, I said to Bob in Ottawa,
worry about origins?
We’re here, arent we?
          George Bowering, “Endless Vees,” Urban Snow (1991)

How appropriate to begin this book on the water, looping to return to where her Toronto begins, where the city started. Rising up from the water, starting there and working slowly back. As Patricia McHugh wrote in the second edition of her Toronto Architecture: A City Guide (1989): “This is where the city began. The Indian ‘place [of] trees [and] water’[…]” Named after the native word “ontario,” but disagreements on who spoke it, and what it meant, back and forth from the Huron, meaning “great lake,” to the Iroquois, meaning “beautiful lake” or “sparkling water.” First called by such by Europeans in 1641, and on maps as early as 1656, drawn in as “Lac Ontario ou des Iroquois” in the Relation des Jésuites (1662-1663).

That night I dreamt
Ned Hanlan, 1860s, age of five
living on an island off Toronto
that would later be renamed for him:
I dreamt I was him,

paddling the harbour in a makeshift skiff.
I awoke confused and far from home
in time and place I’m him or me
so faraway from him and home
I woke on Lake Eustache.
          Chris Chambers, Lake Where No One Swims (1999)

Trees and water, and Captain John’s Harbour Boat Restaurant and Banquet Facilities at the lake’s end of Yonge Street where we threatened to dress up like pirates, and celebrate “international talk like a pirate day” in September. Her home underwater, when Front Street originally ran along water’s edge, building landfill up along Lakeshore south, the Leslie Street Spit, inventing street after street over parts that weren’t previously land. Even earlier, the water up to what now Davenport, the Scarborough Bluffs. As John Bentley Mays writes in his emerald city: Toronto Visited (1994):

          North of the steep drop-off running lengthwise across the city between St. Clair Ave. West and Davenport Road is a high, well-drained plateau, rising gently as it backs away from Lake Ontario, and much scarred by valleys and gulleys. The downtown skyscrapers and all other structures built south of Davenport stand, in contrast, on the low, swampy bed of post-glacial Lake Iroquois, still a deep catch-basin for the glacial runoff less than 12,000 years ago. After the waters had fallen below the clay bluffs and rocky beaches of Lake Ontario, the great forest took root where it could, among the beaver ponds and marshes on the old lake-bottom. The early explorers who passed this way were struck by the thick stands of walnut, sycamore and chestnut edging Lake Ontario; de Lamothe Cadillac, in 1702, viewed these hardwood stands as “so temperate, so good and beautiful that one can justly call it the earthly paradise of North America.” Cadillac knew nothing of the glaciers, of course, since their existence had not yet been discovered. The land, however, remembered the high, ancient lake on whose bottom the beautiful forests stood. Its steep, long shoreline is balefully familiar to anyone who’s ever skidded in an icestorm down the abrupt decline of Avenue Road (or Yonge Street, or Dufferin) south of St. Clair.

The land and the lake, given similar names, this parcel of land where she lives belonging to both, if but one at a time. Where once lake now land, standing Ontario firm, upper Canada. Staking up from the shore. Loyalists, and shades of the War of 1812, what those south of the border called “Madison’s War,” after the single-minded President who had initiated such, despite the protests of much of the American population, with even a New England that nearly seceded to join us.

Through holes in leaves
a blue sky, a bluer island, freshwater
sea we call Ontario. The trees break

and her deep beauty is seen.
          Adam Getty, “Blue Ontario,” Reconciliation (2003)

Rain. In mid-October, a haze over the upper stretches of skyscrapers. The dwindling tower, going slow fade to Canadian grey. Indistinguishable cloud cover. The whole city spreads to fade. She tweets a reference to rain, something she has to remember to adapt to, after her near-decade in Alberta.

The night before, Lainna reading my Tarot, placing cards on her carpeted floor. What do I know about Tarot? More children in my future, she says, and a happiness to come beyond anything I’d imagined. A question at the end I have to ask, picking cards to read my answer. I don’t tell her what my question is, but when she says yes, she catches my eye and smiles. Leans over and kisses me, slow. Which, by itself, is the correct answer.

Eventually I compose a series of poems on that lake outside her condo window, but nothing, as yet, on the tower on the alternate side, beyond her bedroom window.

lake, glacier

lake, what the
lake ice

          a gentle stirring,
          to use a tactic, name

strata, lake and torn; the form
goes acrobatic

          stripped bare, back
          the sides of country

to storm out, broken door
to storm, abstain; a pillow

darkened fifths;

          carved out of weak,
          soft, Silorian rock

Canadian Shield a graze,
a simple treaty


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), kate street (Moira), wild horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review ( seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at He will be spending much of the next year in Toronto.

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