1306 The value and force of friendship

by Arleen Paré

London, ON: Brick Books, 2021
$20.00 / 9781771315425

Reviewed by Candace Fertile


The latest book of poems by Governor-General’s Award winner Arleen Paré, First, delves into her first friendship and moves out into broader considerations of the role of memory and creation of personal worlds. Paré dedicated the book to Pat Hurdle, the childhood friend who was the impetus for the pieces, which follow a loose linear approach to the girls’ relationship.

Paré starts with an explanation in prose of the two lives. The girls met when they were six and five years old and eventually lost touch. And then find each other many years later. Paré uses a variety of styles, including lineated poems and prose poems, organized into seven sections with titles suggesting the larger scope of the beginning of life. For example, the first section is titled “Before the First, Before the Time” with poems such as “Beginning in gravity” and “It begins in a driveway.” The sixth section is “Black Holes,” and the final one is “The Curve of Time.” The poet is playing individual lives against a much larger canvas.

Arleen Paré lives on Vancouver Island

While the basis of the book is non-fiction, there are certainly times when Paré invents a detail and is honest about doing so. And it doesn’t matter. Memoir is always somewhat invented as memory is fluid. Are we remembering an event or the last time we thought about it? Photographs can help although they are hardly definitive. In “In the beginning was a noise and a flash,” Paré recounts how a photographer came to the family home to take a picture, and she is looking at the black and white evidence of the past many years later. The violets and leaves on her dress are grey, but she knows they were mauve and green.

The poems about childhood are particularly effective, perhaps because they encourage readers to contemplate their own childhood and the specific details that are retained. In “A child gathers answers,” for example, Paré creates a long list of details in prose format, a list that has a wonderful rhythm. A snippet demonstrates the effect: “red rover red rover Red River coats and red Red River mittens grade one grade two grade three a party line a best friend.” The technique of no punctuation in the list of details is used in other pieces to lovely effect. And in more prose pieces, Paré uses conventional punctuation.

While I found the prose poems engaging, I am more drawn to lineated poems, and Paré does a beautiful job with line breaks. In “First family: semi-functional answers,” Paré examines her own family: “we weren’t a happy family Father Knows Best nothing like that / but we weren’t unhappy either / anxious maybe…” and ends with the point that she cannot remember particular names that her father could: “but you have forgotten / you are forced to invent them / he’s no longer alive.” The cultural reference used throughout the book position the time frame clearly, and one of the best touches is the use of Nancy Drew to imagine solving the mystery of what has happened to her friend Pat.

Overall, First is a sensitive look at the value and force of friendship, and even the past in general. At times, the emotion strays into the overwrought (at least for me); for example, in “To bite into the apple,” Paré asks, “and yet if she disappeared   if she truly is missing am I not missing too.” But the book is Paré’s personal journey, not mine, even though the book invites readers to ponder their own lives.


Candace Fertile

Candace Fertile has a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta. She teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, writes book reviews for several Canadian publications, and is on the editorial board of Room MagazineEditor’s note: Candace Fertile has recently reviewed books by Ian Williams, Amber DawnRachel RoseSusan AlexanderKatherine FawcettMarjorie CelonaGarry Thomas Morse, and Nazanine Hozar.


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