Like many readers, I encountered the writing of Dennis Lee at least twice for the first time. The initial occasion was before I can recall. My mother worked as a children’s storyteller and librarian, and I grew up within earshot of his most playful, ageless rhymes. The second encounter, fifteen years later, was with Lee’s politically concerned work of the 1960s, and his length of breath and breadth of vision was a revelation. At the time of that second reading, I recall doing a double-take. Immediately thereafter, however, something intuitively clicked, and I understood that Lee’s was a voice as varied as it was familiar.
For this reason, I decline partitions between Dennis Lee’s methods of address. And where Heart Residence is concerned, one may thrill to editor Robert Bringhurst’s decision to anthologize Lee’s creations for children — or, in the poet’s own formulation, those works written “as a children” — alongside the landmark long poem Civil Elegies; the mid-career erotica of Riffs; and the neologistic word-salad of his deep-ecological opus, Testament.
Kingdom of Absence
Bringhurst’s collection opens with only select portions of Lee’s 1967 debut, Kingdom of Absence, which alternate high solemnity and light verse in spurts, playful as any of his writing for children, and metrically indistinguishable therefrom:
I seen a
thirty dirty ladies on a pink kazoo
interdigitating while they masticated glue. (20)
The joy of wordplay undercuts the overweening seriousness of the collection, which proceeds from the modernist commonplace of civilizational crisis; licentiousness an index of decline. These near-sonnets sound an Eliotic melancholy at odds with a popular perception of Lee as an ebullient entertainer.
Where this moral plight and palette are concerned, one might offer that modernism landed several decades late in Canada, though this clumsy periodization and its implications are a special object of Lee’s ire. His 1974 essay, “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space,” primarily concerns the anxieties afflicting “colonial” writers vis–à–vis the prestige of European (or lately, American) culture. “The colonial writer does not have words of his own,” Lee writes. “The words I knew said Britain and they said America, but they did not say my home.” Lee writes movingly of this circumscription, but effectively depicts the difficulty of colonized speech as though it were crucible of a “Canadian” character, identifying himself with the plight of the colonized rather than with any function of the colonizer. Lee’s plea is understood, but this landmark essay considerably downplays the nourishing continuity that exists between European and Canadian literature, as evinced by his own recurrent themes.
Lee’s argument, however, is not advanced in a vacuum, nor intended to pertain for everyone, once and for all. It is a historically specific, and specifically personal, thesis as to the perennial vitality of the colloquial, a living thing, and it is tested over the course of a socially responsive writing practice over decades. In many respects, Lee’s ideas about writing for children are inseparable from his insistence on localism, insofar as he insists that poetry start from, and return to, the actual situations of actual speech.
This conversation is backdrop to 1968’s Civil Elegies, in with Lee addresses the concentric degrees of political exclusion constitutive of national identity, whose dispossessed congregate outside and above the city like so many Dantean shades. Lee is still elaborating upon Anglo-American modernism at this juncture but critically, to the degree that his city and his nation are tributaries of a sordid historical process:
Many were born in Canada, and living unlived lives they died
of course but died truncated, stunted, never at
home in native space and not yet
citizens of a human body of kind. And it is Canada
that specialized in this deprivation. Therefore the spectres arrive … (27)
Lee’s civic encompasses awareness of the atrocities upon which the nation-state rests. That the life of the city and certain of its denizens persists somehow in spite of this is a moral outrage, and only likewise does he extend a modernist tendency to opprobrium for dailiness in its political and aesthetic nonchalance:
And they prevail in their placid continuance, idly unwrapping their food
day after day on the slabs by the pool, warm in the summer sun.
Day after day the light rides easy.
Nothing is important. (32)
Lee’s is not a writing of judgmental distance from a fallen “them,” however, and the poet pivots to inculpate a first-person perspective in this complacency, a collective pronoun one may safely assume to be the normative settler subject of Canadian literature. The nine sections of this poem recurrently address a transcendental threat that Lee terms “void,” which manifests at first as remoteness from the “quirky particulars” of one’s surroundings, conducting the bad faith of the settler to the political malaise of the citizen: “And this is void: to participate in an/abomination larger than yourself.” (42) Civil Elegies thematizes this banality to the extent that any beneficiary of another’s exclusion is complicit in this operation:
… Doesn’t the
service of quiet diplomacy require dirty hands?
(Does the sun in summer pour its warm light into the square
for us to ignore?) (41)
The poem opens upon its orator occupying one such sunny square, “brooding over the city.” Pages later, the city is called to account by invocation of a common element, the sun’s oblivious beneficence. This much praise is implicit in livelihood; thus, Lee decides, “to go on saying no to history is good,” provided that this ‘no’ elsewhere necessitates the affirmation of “a saner version of integrity.” This is good: “And best of all is finding a place to be/in the early years of a better civilization.” (49)
Lee does not offer that “we” are anywhere near that better place, which would be as voiding, or avoidant, of reality as to suggest that this better world exists somewhere else already. “Nor do we have recourse to void,” he writes, the ineffability of which obliges one to the social. (ibid) Ultimately, Lee repudiates the nihilist option in a wonderful dialectical stanza:
For void is not a place, nor
negation of a place.
Void is not the high cessation of the lone self’s burden,
crowned with the early nostalgias;
nor is it rampant around the corner, endlessly possible.
We enter void when void no longer exists. (ibid)
Void is not, nor not-not, and it figures over the course of the poem as a world-blotting inertia, or indifference under occupation. That said, however incredulous, the poem is not without its colonizing gestures. “We live on occupied soil,” Lee reports before a litanizing evocation of a natural sublime, “inhuman yet/our own,” nominating the landscape painter Tom Thomson as emblem of humility before, and within, a common nature. “For many are called but none are chosen now, we are the evidence/for downward momentum …” (35) In a colony, to state the obvious, any lapsarian insinuation would be doubly colonial. Yet Lee’s poem remains in many respects the most thorough attempt of its decade to confront these problems from a settler’s vantage, and continues to speak vigorously to the gentrifying cityscapes of the twenty-first century.
Like any number of readers come of age in Canada, I encountered Civil Elegies at least a decade after I was raised on Alligator Pie, Lee’s pan-regionalist attempt to craft a “Canadian Mother Goose.” With this personal chronology in mind, Bringhurst’s anthology draws attention to those images Lee’s nursery rhymes share with his epics of civic concern. “Skyscraper, skyscraper/Scrape me a sky,” he incants, addressing a child looking infinitely up, and forward:
Tickle the stars
While the sun’s climbing high,
Then skyscraper, skyscraper
Scrape me some sky. (56)
Throughout these poems, Lee recites landmarks and historical figures, proper nouns unique to the geography and history of Canada, intending to subtract from his metric those signs that say nothing to his audience of their actual surroundings. This ambient pedagogical intervention is in many respects exemplary, but sounds eerily where one considers the sounding of certain nouns, chosen for metrical and alliterative purposes, within a national horizon:
If I lived in Temagami,
Or Lynx, or Michipicoten Sound … (56)
The sonorousness of these place names, from Cree and Ojibwe among other sources, is a property of Canadian vernacular speech only to the degree that this catchall vocabulary is imposed on, and composed of, those of countless other nations. Insofar as Lee’s inclusive musicality affirms a world including all of the above, it may be preferable to redescribe his explicitly Canadian nationalist project in broadly counter-hegemonic terms, to the degree that the life of language belies the mandate of a given state.
In these lyrics for children, one may perceive Lee attempting to put the utopian intimations of Civil Elegies to the page in playful, non-didactic morsels. In this respect, Lee is absolutely committed to writing for children as equals, which informs his poetic in two directions, as though “children” and “grown-ups” were ways of understanding implicit in any poetic address. On one hand, this requires that one speak to children as any other audience. On the other, it follows that one ought to serenade grown-ups as one would a child, with an ear to the sensuous non-sense subtending ideation.
In the essay “Child Psychology and Nonsense,” G.K. Chesterton writes, “it is an excellent thing to teach men and women to take pleasure in children, but it is a totally different thing from giving children pleasure.” By comparison, Lee’s writing takes seriously the necessity of getting in touch with one’s “inner child,” but on a playful principle that precedes disciplinary mnemonics. Lee describes nursery rhymes as relying on “the absolute basics: raw sound and rhythm, directed by movements of feeling.” This precedes narrative and, as importantly, image. Chesterton speaks of the fantastic conjunction that occurs in poetry between familiar objects elsewhere incompatible; but these fantasies appear persuasive insofar as sound elements are more or less equal within a general poetic economy.
One ought not to romanticize the ear of children, as though it were de facto closer to the poetic ideal of the absolutely singular, acoustically verifiable utterance, which thrills or fails to thrill on the basis of something other than established reference. Rather, this describes a primary attunement that remains throughout one’s listening and speaking life. By this intuitive account, understanding is basically superfluous to, but requires, enjoyment. The most obvious symbol for this principle might be Alligator Pie itself, as the requirement of full speech and poetry in particular:
Give away the green grass, give away the sky
But don’t give away my alligator pie. (55)
Whatever the flavour of this fictional confection, it consists in syllable alone, immanent to the buoyant line in which it occurs.
The Life of Harold Ladoo
The long-form elegy, an important form for Lee, returns of sad necessity in 1976 with The Death of Harold Ladoo. Ladoo was a two-time novelist, published by Lee’s own press, House of Anansi, who was tragically killed in Trinidad in 1973. Lee’s reminiscence rehearses their friendship and the reactive, reeling antipodes of grief, including bitter renunciation: “Ladoo, you bastard, goodbye: you bled me dry.” (90) Lee renders the youthful indiscretion and braggadocio of the inseparable pair in language onomatopoeiac of creative agitation:
and strove we hoped to open room to live in, enacting in words
the right to ache, roar, prattle, keen, adore — to be
child, shaggy animal, rapt
celebrant and all in the one skin … (88)
Here as ever, Lee’s statements of artistic purpose are pro-social: an artist’s intuition must be honed against the input of others, whether invisible shades outcast from the city, or a dear friend departed too soon under tragic circumstances.
“For eight straight years of crud in public places/we worked to incite a country to belong to.” (91) This echo of Ezra Pound’s poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, an elegy to the loftier illusions of precocious youth, fares better by contrast for that the beneficiary of the poet’s labour, over the course of which self-improvement transpires as corollary, is civic space. In this respect The Death of Harold Ladoo is a seasoned criticism and continuation of Civil Elegies.
Lee’s fretful recitation of the sensuous pleasures lost to his departed friend trace the body: “no more to saunter on the sidewalk, the/way a human does,/sensing the prick of/renewal each spring.”(96) Death is a categorical disaster, severing the pact between subject and object that poetry traverses; and Lee’s postulate of an irrecuperable void beneath experience is acutely felt throughout this work of mourning.
Believing the Honkabeest
Bringhurst separates the children’s verse into sections more formal than chronological, and the second selection for children, though drawn from some of the same collections as the first, emphasizes narrative. Serving as an ars poetica, The Cat and the Wizard is a rollicking, rhymed poem of unlikely friendship forged in play, concluding with a vocational wink and nudge: “The wizard is me,” Lee affirms. (114)
The saga of Nicholas Knock, a curious boy who befriends an alleged ‘honkabeest’ at the corner of Brunswick and Bloor in Toronto, is savvy with respect to its place in a canon of nonsense. Compare Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” in which an aged patriarch exhorts his beamish ward to slay the eponymous beast, a task which the hero carries out to accolades. Nicholas, however, is not out to harm the beast in a display of filial duty. He encounters the honkabeest on his own, in a public space of unfettered independence, on the relative time attending play:
One year it was Tuesday; Nicholas Knock
Went noodling off for a bit of a walk.
He hid on his brother; he raced a dog;
He helped a little kid catch a frog.
Then at the curb, and walking east,
He spied the silver honkabeest.
A trick, a flicker of the light:
The tiny creature, like a flight
Of warblers, seemed to ride the air
And shed a frisky lustre there.
And yet it did not move a hair. (132)
When Nicholas attempts an introduction, his parents inveigh against his new friend in multiple registers, first disputing its existence, and then demanding its arrest, which borrowed-kettle structure of argument typifies any prejudicial regime. An alphabetic slip betrays much: the honkabeest becomes a “Honkabeast’” in the police-speech of parents. While Nicholas enacts the open-hearted credulity of nonsense verse before novel vocabulary, the adult voices tend to repudiation and persecution. Nicholas appears before court, where he declares that he will never give up his conviction that the honkabeest exists. The second-to-final section of the poem is agnostic, following Nicholas through familiar streets in search of the creature whose reality he has averred. A ballad form conveys a hunt less chivalrous than existential:
But neither could he give it up
(And this is what was queer),
For every time he started to,
The thing would reappear
And light would flicker, light would fizz
Like whispers made of steel,
Till, silver in its secret life,
The city felt like real. (141)
Nicholas Knock is a grand statement of Lee’s repeat insistence on the ageless quality of wonder that any poem must commence from and return upon. It is one of Lee’s masterpieces, for anyone who reads to animate the city, at any age.
“Hot for Tremendum”
Lee’s translations of Hungarian poet György Faludy, who spent the better part of the seventies and eighties living in Toronto, evince an Epicurean ease around sex and the body, avowed themes of Lee’s own poetry. This is most overt in the bracingly ribald text of the 1993 collection Riffs, which at the time of publication was Lee’s first book of “adult” poetry in fourteen years. In Bringhurst’s selection, however, it is preceded by the plainspoken pubescent vignettes of SoCool, a 2004 collection for younger teenagers. This is one of many boldly successful editorial decisions, for the teenage and midlife accounts of sex are oddly parallel in autoerotic incident. In a poem relating a wet dream, “paradise gets leaky.” (164) The teen speaker of a poem, marveling at the mystery of things, wishes to make life “sheer shine in this miracle ache of a world.” (161) The midlife poet of Riffs is reunited in love with “that deep, departed hunch of a life abounding” (178); upon abandonment, he dreams his lover returned: “but then I/woke and the sheet was drenched, it had loved-in/holes in it …” (194) Lee is young in love — channeling Lewis Carroll, the new affair is “frabjous,” a space apart from day-to-day drudgery:
inch by inkling: niche by hunch.
Rock at my temples; sheer drop; fingertip
grips & a piss-poor attendance record in the daily adhesive world. (203)
The poet’s truancy is heartfelt. Rhythm and blues inform these slangy, purple, hyperbolic lyrics — eighty-eight in all, corresponding to the keys of a piano — which run from cringing burlesque of blues idiom to richly resonant neologistic stew. However, after “six weeks of/plonk and longing,” the affair falls to pieces and things take on an arch-male Catullan viciousness: “never did care for your flirt your flounce your paeans,” the poet inveighs in narcissistic agony, the better to savour his distress:
From one half-wasted by
bourgeois heaven & hell, and some tonight
would crawl 5 miles to be (mildly) discomfited so,
so taut is their agony —
whom do I pray to?
what do I centrally serve? (229)
The arc of this affair is related so as to prize and preserve its most fidgety moments, enacting an elliptical fidelity to lost love, even after the fact of an ending. It is so supremely unselfconscious that it feels wrong to notice the unevenness, which evokes the texture of a metamorphosing obsession.
In love and in poetry, Lee strives to feel as an innocent. It is telling, then, that in the contemplative suite “Not Abstract Harmonies But,” Lee identifies the age of his present perspective with a childlike wonder, and the youthful precocity of his “driven twenties” with a forgetting, “I guess because our lives were abstract,” he says, his company would frequently omit the sort of emotional detail upon which his later poetry essentially depends. (264) Lee puts aside not childish things per se, but their practical sublimation in the career-years of his own writing life:
But I, being lately recovered, choose never
in thought or word or deed
to totter back to the kingdom of the young (264)
Once again, Bringhurst’s choice, not to chronologize but to separate poems out of their corresponding collections into thematic sections, conveys the affinity between modes and bodies of work. The next section reproduces the shorter poems that coincided, and were collected, with Civil Elegies. Like an urban Purdy hopped up on philosophy, these earlier poems help to contextualize Lee in the Canadian sixties. His writing is flexible and innovative, but never altogether rogue, always informed by or looking forward to his peers. It consists essentially in a perceived conversation. A newer poem, “Autumnal,” concludes this section, picking up the bluesy bawd persona of Riffs (“Whiteboy meets the body”) and conveying it to the ruminative re-modernism of the longer elegies: “My far-off years & companions — how/fiercely I cradle them now.” (284)
Otherwise, the socially concerned early lyrics of this section are a formal and polemical segue into the manifold elegy of Nightwatch, an oratory commencing from the aftermath of a marriage that becomes a rumination on survival more broadly: “in a glitzy thuggish time how does anyone stay in a marriage/when the one good left is the will of omnipotent ego,” Lee asks. The poem continues angrily to indict the “wilful amnesias of a criminal civilization,” impelling humanity to “soar above creaturely protocols” in wanton destruction of the earth. (294)
Lee’s elaborately melancholic performance weighs a sense of personal responsibility for a failed relationship against the responsibility of each actor to their environment. “We thought/new paradigms come easy,” Lee laments, but the miniature civic of the family is beholden to what came before, and what comes after. (292) When Lee writes of children as a parent himself, it is moving in light of his own avowedly childish poetic:
… Oh man! it could break your heart,
how they itch to leave you behind and still be your child forever.
Me too. I want that too. (293)
This expressly Oedipal desire to retain one’s place in a mutually fulfilling familial whole mirrors the citizen’s insistence on both independence and belonging, and girds the ecological conceit of the poem in general: “I am no wilderness scout but there is a bodily homing which/I too was permitted to know.” (302) A desperate refrain (“I can change! I can change!”) attends the end of a relationship, where mounting promises are made that neither party means to keep, only too late. “What shitheads we became,” Lee excoriates, which intimate breach of ethics configures political failings: “it’s back to the shame and the/scotch, for as a citizen I/reneged.” (302)
Heart Residence concludes with Lee’s most recent and perhaps most important work, the pair of books comprising Testament, a deep ecological poem of apocalyptic bearing on the present. Lee has always been willing to revise for reissue, and his books vary from edition to edition. Testament, though published in a single volume, was preceded by two separate, book-length suites, Un and Yes/No, rewritten slightly here. At a glance, Lee is doing something new, and one might ask, how are we to read this poem? First and most importantly, I’d say “aloud,” and to each other. Orality is the principle conveying words to one another here:
Lady of nichtlichkeit, you flower semantic, en-
tropic, dyschthonic, till
no thing is proof. (329)
Here we have an unclear loanword; a flower that could be either noun or verb; an abrupt, mid-word enjambment that intervenes in a technical term’s ready meaning, cleaving the interiorizing prefix from the sense of a turning or a literary device; either a neologism or a lisped neurological condition; and to cap it all off, what could be a slogan for the whole tenuous endeavour of this kind of piecemeal interpretation: “no thing is proof.” No thing itself, no isolate, no noun, may act unriddling referent where the poem is to be embraced as an ecological concept. What prepares us for this kind of reading is, precisely, our already having been raised on a diet of Alligator Pie.
An epic constructed of gnomic miniatures, Testament appears to answer the concerns of Nightwatch in experimental fashion, affirmative if frightful. The poems enacts a kind of anticipatory elegy, the vision of which is — as the separate titles suggest — hopefully self-negating. In these torqued and tormented lyrics, Lee appears to use everything he knows; bebop and limerick, smut and banner, a propensity to coinage overreaching talk-for-trade. And this work, consummately weird, feels like a culmination of this anthology, answering formal and ethical questions posed at its very outset. The “immortal scrubland” and “bedrock schist” of Civil Elegies might figure here, too, and the anxiety of this writing before catastrophe calls to mind a harrowing question from the earlier epic: “What if there is no regenerative absence?” (48)
Un offers a chastening answer, starting with the title: a negating prefix and a numeral, an indefinite article and a sign of unity. (“Il y a de l’Un,” as Jacque Lacan insists.) And yet the void that gapes behind and below, threatening the convictions of Civil Elegies, asserts itself from the start:
In naughtsong apprentice. In no-
And the coldsweat futures collide, they
pathophanic edge. No fore-
lore, only the underthrum.
Only the fat-chance shitpant survival inhale. (340)
The void is no-zone, an easy pun and non-place condensed. The hurtling futurity of these odd lyrics commences in deep history, as both antecedent to present events and a constant backing or “underthrum.” The poem’s orator, however righteous, would seem to possess an inhuman omniscience, regarding the swoop and downward spiral of history as sedimentary, each moment devouring its predecessor:
Is — now
there was a word. Was
funnelforce eddy of
strut & incumbence; pelt
yenful carnivorous abc-meat. (331)
The “pidgin apocalypse” of Testament may be referred in certain respects to one account of Finnegans Wake; that Joyce intended to narrate the history of English and its speakers, all the traumatic encounters compressed into English, where word-nodes have the bearing of whole cultures. Lee’s poem is less playfully genetic, where language is a point of paranoid departure rather than re-arrival. Lee fears the cessation of speech that is species-death:
That the names will end, that the
naming will end, that
claimable foreducts of is will
eddies of post and pre. (330)
Broadly stated, Testament anticipates the disappearance of the human arbiter by which temporal designations such as “post” and “pre” attain to meaning. Lee’s language is intended to span the gamut of canon, a unimportant specialization of expressive activity, and in the grander scheme to minimize its scope. Where cultural catastrophism is concerned, one ought always to ask “for whom?” So it is important that Lee’s poem flummoxes the universal pretensions of English, as a living index of imperialism and colonization. One of the feats of this poem is that it remains incredulous of, and consistent with, its own sounds. Likewise, Lee situates his effort at the point where “hope disorders words,” which are offered as a concession to finitude and limitation. (382)
Such a cathartic finish is provisional, of course, where this collection is concerned, but leaves one with the overwhelming impression of a unitary arc — formal and thematic concerns honed over the span of decades unto an integral testament. If the collection of the same name playfully intends to recapitulate phylogeny in language, this conceit is all the more successful for how it summarizes the lifelong project of this anthology.
Truly, the strangeness of Un brings me back to those wishful spaces where I encountered Jellybelly for the first time, as a child training upon the buoyancy of another’s voice. This unwavering throughline, as long as any reader’s life, describes not only this collection but Lee’s ethic in general, which ongoingly supposes us, his readership, to be agog and growing as the children we are, sorting the shards of a future we fretfully share.