Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Lake, oh pure contradiction

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Lake, oh pure contradiction

This piece is a follow-up to rob's Sleeping in Toronto posted this September.

By rob mclennan

     The original site of Toronto was west of the downtown sector, Fort Rouille, established by the French, built to intercept British trade from the American port of Oswego, that kind of origin, taken by the British and re-named Fort Toronto after the Indian word “tor on to,’ place of meeting. The remains of the fort were no longer extant, a commemorative cannon looked out over the lake at the foot of Dufferin Street, adjacent to the Canadian National Exhibition grounds and not far from the Palais Royale and Fred Orpen’s spot where the gamblers went in their black Packards to shoot craps for five dollars a throw, that was Sunnyside, south of what had become a working-class Polish quarter of Parkdale. It was interesting, history was always interesting, but he was going to spend all of his time here working and trying not to think about Paris.
          David Donnell, The Blue Ontario Hemingway Boat Race

Tor-on-to, called York and then Toronto again, looking south, along the water. I find myself filling notebook pages on that lake, despite her immediate view of the bay instead, before the island that obscures the lake itself; when lake is not a lake. Saturday morning schooners soar like butterflies across her further west view, a slat between buildings looking through and then past island’s airport. Is this what Hemingway knew some ninety years back? Can a horizon line of water change over time? What properly is, lake.

imagine a lake. thinking in the dark,
a ferry’s gossamer wing

like flies. we pulled

what benefit. geography; came
for the twelve o’clock,

these birds;

            she happens; memory,

I would climb your broken limb
& kiss,

Outside her window, the Gardiner Expressway, Toronto Star, the shimmering effects of the water, ongoing Lake Ontario. Tales of Ernest Hemingway when he wrote for the Star in the 1920s, repeated boxing matches against Toronto’s own Morley Callaghan. The infamous knock-out by Callaghan, author of stories perhaps you’ve never read, refereed by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Lainna repeats the rumours to build a tunnel connecting the airport on Toronto Island to the mainland; why bother? An otherwise ferry ride of fifty-some seconds, not even a minute. What would a tunnel solve?

We head to a small pub on Front Street East to meet up with poets Andy Weaver, Steve McOrmond and Matthew Tierney, along with their respective wives, a regular group. Front Street, what used to be the bare water’s front before landfill continued to stretch lakeshore; before the Great Fire of 1849 took out so much of what, to that point, they’d decided to build. The James Gordon Pub, named for the owner’s son, and the “Kate’s Corner” at the back, named for owner’s daughter. Before we realized the McOrmonds and Tierneys lived so close, which explains Tierney’s poem of the immediate, “Alaskan Black Cod / At The St. Lawrence Market” from his collection The Hayflick Limit (2009), but inches from our collective pints: “History gives me a leg up, a vision / of ancestral pools, slick and nitrous, hissing / through rock; some idea, too, about the makeup / of my food, a giant’s tooth on the scale, mass, m, / under a kilogram.” McOrmond, on the other hand, hasn’t bit through Toronto-specific poems, working his way along the slide of other United Empire Loyalist trappings, other lakes. He’s written poems along the lines of Glenn Gould, who called Toronto home, but managed just about everywhere else, the Gould section of McOrmond’s Lean Days (2004) that included the poem “Lake Simcoe, autumn, 1981.” From one lake to another, ending:

The day sharp and toothy: cold drizzle, soot
from a stove burning green wood, chance
of flurries. Seen the wind? Who hasn’t.

The wind, that floats north across water and further, through buildings; the same that floats here, wind tunnel of Yonge (and a reference to W.O. Mitchell, to boot). Doesn’t it seem odd that you can’t see the lake from sections of Lakeshore Boulevard, hidden beneath buttress of the Gardiner Expressway? There is this, there is lake, the stretch of King and Queen that seem to deny the water there at all, holding in, holding back. To keep building back from.

During an early part of September, celebrating Lainna’s birthday on King Street at the Beer Bistro, where every dish on the menu includes the ingredient beer; mixing in with the Toronto International Film Festival, mixing in with the regular clientele that give the shape and shine of financial district suits. Who else sings happy birthday to herself? Who else blows out a sparkler, lit inches above her ice cream and brownie? Raining the sparks of her birthday wishes down the front of my white button shirt. TIFF, with daily sightings of such as Megan Fox, George Clooney and Drew Barrymore. Lainna lets out a squeal as she realizes actor Ewan McGregor in town; apparently he's my only competition, if they ever meet. I’m just lucky, I suppose, his motorcycle tour never made it more than a day through her Edmonton, one day in July after heading out of Dawson Creek, British Columbia, towards Calgary. Beer Bistro, where she didn’t realize I looked out of place in black blazer and jeans, long hair streaking further white out of the remains of silver, brown. Out of place, and wondering how it is I arrived here, with such a beautiful woman. So radiant, her caramel skin gives off a permanent glow.

Walking back to Yonge then south, I turn to look as far north as the street allows. According to John Robert Columbo’s Canadian Literary Landmarks (1984), “The statement that it is ‘the longest street in the world’ is based on the fact that it turns into Highway 11 and ends at Rainy River. From Queen’s Quay to Rainy River the distance is 1,178.3 miles (1,896.3 kilometres). Indeed, the Highway Book Shop, in Cobalt, has advertised itself as being located “at 200,000 Yonge Street!” Through the same volume, it’s disappointing to realize that the Toronto Star building obscuring Lainna’s balcony view of boats, the lake and island is actually a relatively recent location for the newspaper. It is not, as I’d first presumed, where such as Hemingway, Callaghan, Gordon Sinclair, Pierre Berton, Peter Gzowski and others worked, moving from its original 1894 home of 18 King Street West to 80 King Street West in 1929, and then only to One Yonge Street in 1971. This view of another history.

In The Art of Darkness (1984), Toronto writer David W. McFadden, originally from Hamilton, Ontario, perhaps gave his finest performance, including the poem “The Cow that Swam Lake Ontario”:

Anyway, on the evening of October 11 –-
I remember it well for it was my birthday –-
I was in a borrowed motorboat fishing for salmon
on Lake Ontario just beyond the Burlington canal
through which giant Great Lakes steamers
in fact huge ships from all around the world
enter the factory-lined waters of Hamilton Harbour
when I heard what I thought was a salmon
skipping along on the surface as they often do
and turning I was surprised to see
a bovine head, with two shining horns
and two eyes as full and calm as fresh-plucked plums,
ploughing steadfastly through the starry waves
heading, and for this I checked my map and compass,
in the direction of Prince Edward County
that peninsula on the north shore
two hundred kilometers across the cold night waters
of lovely Lake Ontario.

A plain-talking so straight, he moved into zen, writing haiku so clear they bend into the abstract. Did you know, in the 1800s, the tales of lost cows, island farmers who would let their herds graze out on the island’s south shore, the rare beast who would venture too far through swampy weeds, end up on the wrong side of this shrinking harbour? David W. McFadden, is that an airplane, boat or cow in the distance? Or, perchance, an echo of Marilyn Bell?


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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