The AUTHOR’S NOTE on page 1 of this collection is a very succinct explanation of what she wanted to accomplish and so I repeat it here:
“Marilyn Bell and Shirley Campbell were teenage swimmers, competing along the shores of Lake Ontario in the 1950s. In 1954, at age sixteen, Marilyn became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario, beating out champion American swimmer Florence Chadwick. In 1955 and ’56 Shirley attempted the lake crossing twice, but failed each time. Marilyn went on to swim the English Channel and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, then retired, married, and became a schoolteacher. Shirley lost her initial glory and for all intents and purposes disappeared from view.
These poems explore an imagined relationship between two girls, two women, and Lake Ontario. They are entirely the imagination of the author.”
Marilyn Bell returned to Toronto and the CNE in 2004 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her swim. She is in her mid seventies now and apparently enjoys the water but is dealing with a painful back condition that prevents her from swimming.
Shirley Campbell was nicknamed the Fergus Flash when she began racing but her life did not go as well in her later years. In 1953 she won $1650 and a trophy for Long Distance Swimming from the Egyptian Federation. When the Sports Hall of Fame on the CNE grounds closed, the statue went missing and in that period it was broken and the base was separated from the top. Campbell was reunited with the top part of her trophy 59 years after she won it.
I listened to Marilyn Bell’s crossing of the lake in 1954 on the radio and although I no longer remember the details I do remember how intensely we were focused on each new report from her coach, I think his name was Gus Ryder.
Here’s one of the poems titled The Fear of Silence:
A schoolyard dare. Patriotic indignation. A visit to The Star.
An American shouldn’t be the only one to challenge the lake.
Marilyn asked permission. Politesse and a smile.
The shoreline changes more than its citizens. The city
has leeched into the lake. Front Street really was the front.
Fishermen docked at the market’s doors. It is as though
we want to live in that water – press into it, fill it up,
like empty hours filled now with digital detritus
and the fear of silence. Flo gave up before dawn, puking
in the white noise of tossing lake. While we creep ever closer.
And here’s another one about the lake itself titled The Pressure:
At thirty-three-feet the lake is the weight of another
atmosphere bearing down. On the beach a column
the depth of my body weighs two point two tonnes.
Stare at the shore. Point past horizon.
Maybe this is the weight of water after all? More than
metaphor, or a way to find the level. On Saturn’s moon,
another Lake Ontario shores up against a frozen world,
cradled by its own tides. I’m hovering there. Just
a little heavier than here on earth.
Here’s the Jury’s Citation for the CBC Literary Award which is on the back cover:
“Aguments with the Lake is a coming-of-age poetic odyssey told in mythic and sensuous language. In these verses the poet engages the element of water to discover the many meanings of (her) life. McEwanesque in scope, Arguments with the Lake invokes in the reader a sense of timelessness and breathless wonder.”