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Late Review 01
“Bad abba the endgame. In-
seminal doomdom alert:
pueblo naturans or
else. But the breadcrumbs are gone, and the
story goes on, and how
haply an ending no
nextwise has shown us, nor known.”
by Dennis Lee
Anansi Press, 2007
Dennis Lee is probably most famous in Canada for his books of light verse written for children, particularly the book entitled Alligator Pie (with its eponymous poem). Given that A. E. Stallings has discussed the work of Edward Lear in one of her posts, I am hoping that I might now make good on my promise at Christmas to address in more detail some recent poetry by Lee—a writer whose singsong cadences and rhythmic nonsense might, at first, call to mind the work of such a Victorian influence.
Yesno is the sequel to Un—and like its predecessor, the sequel deploys a neologistic style (reminiscent of Paul Celan) in order to speak about the forthcoming catastrophe of the environment. Lee has written a poetic lament about the willingness of humanity to rush onward into an ecological holocaust of the future—and while the tone of the work seems mordant in its playfulness, Lee strives to rebuild our fractured discourse in order to sing out against a disaster too horrible for ordinary language.
Lee pries apart words, detaching affixes from their roots and stems, in order to remix them into new permutations, just as the “gene wranglers” might remix the DNA of organisms at the brink of extinction. Lee thus fragments his language into a “mixmuster of raggedy allsorts” full of coughing stutters with their own species of “whacked grammar.” The rugged syntax of his music almost calls to mind a bestial chatter, whose nonsense reveals the “high whys of/ lossolalia,/ one blurt at a time.”
Lee has explained such work by remarking: “it wasn’t enough just to speak about the pressure we’ve put on the earth; language itself was under the same pressure, and I had to listen as intently as I could, to discern the new forms it was taking.” His work suggests that the apocalypse of our ecological devastation has likewise entailed a linguistic devastation, to which poetry must bear witness, thereby testifying to the loss, not only of endangered habitats, but also of indigenous cultures.
Lee remains ambivalent about our future, taking note of both its hopeful promise and its direful outcome. He strives to “tilt at the corporate mindmills,” whose “noful” ethics might ignore the “swoosh of warmwarning,” even as he extolls the “bog templars” and “bupkus quixotes,” whose “yesward” ethics of stewardship might yet “cleave to the judder of habitat mending.” He implies that, amid this “clang of no alibi, the scrawk of un/ uttered,” we must nevertheless go “scritch-/ scratching for relicts of yes….”