If it walks like apocalypse: Dennis Lee's testament
This morning I awoke to some heavy rhymes. I caught only the last two lines:
And we plan about snacks and not washing our hands/
And the letter J. and he understands.
The he, in this instance, is a worm: my partner was reading Dennis Lee’s Garbage Delight to our 8 month-old twins. I did not grow up on Alligator Pie and Garbage Delight. My first encounter with Dennis Lee was his Civil Elegies and had to work backward from there. I looked closely again when gathering material for Open Field, the anthology of Canadian poetry I published with Persea in 2005. I had been planning on including an excerpt from Lee’s Civil Elegies but once I saw Un I knew I had to have it.
The anthology illustrates Canadian poetry’s particularly intense and complicated engagement between language and place (and nature), and Lee’s text became one of the most compelling illustrations of this tendency.
This spring Lee has just released both un and yes/no together in a new book titled testament. These original, spare constructions are Celanesque lullabies for a lost planet. Like Celan, Lee has to go on in a language heavy with destruction. The language we use daily to justify our overuse of resources, the escalation of carbon output, and in Canada, the dismantling of our environmental watchdogs at a time when oil sands production ravages and pipelines are set to be laid through some of the last pristine stands of nature in north America. How does he manage?
Recently Lee spoke with the National Post about the process of writing these poems: “With Un — I got really spooked with it. I hadn’t seen poetry like this. I didn’t even know if it was poetry. I was groping around. I had no idea if it was going to be a book…” This is not a description of the writing process that we hear often enough, to my mind. The poems were leading Lee far out of his own familiar zones, and while he was spooked, he went with it. And he did this for a decade, culminating in the full volume, testament. The new book contains, Lee says, about fifteen new poems. Otherwise it is a reconception of the two earlier books.
The poems are playful, but deeply, deeply sad. Still, anyone who can recite Jabberwocky will be in heaven here memorizing a poem such as “history,” (above) a poem that lodged itself in my brain after the first read and has been rolling around ever since, along with “inlingo,” and the very first poem in Un, and another favorite, titled “inwreck:”
In wreck, in dearth, in necksong,
godnexus gone to the fat of the land,
into the wordy disyllabification of evil—small
crawlspace for plegics, 4,3,2,1, un.
I find Lee’s writing process as fascinating, and instructive as the poems themselves. He reconfigures two books into one with testament, and he suggests that he wrote Civil Elegies completely over again, trying to find something fresh in it as he felt he was stuck. In “the first version everything was in a big, stentorian, public address voice and I started to feel, after 1968, that it was like driving a car that is in one gear.”
Later he says, “It seemed to me if the Civil Elegies sequence tried to speak more personally or in a more inward voice, it was still stuck in this declamatory, public voice and it wasn’t working that way. So, one of the big changes in the second version of Civil Elegies was that I found a more musing, private voice that some of the new material was in.” The crisis wasn’t necessarily in the words, it was in the speaker. So, change the “voice,” go further “inward” to go further out.
What happens when language fails to comfort? This dedication to seeing the thing through, even as one feels loss, or one feels pained by the process, is admirable. And it’s likely how we get to such a fresh approach to speaking about the planet. Christian Bök quotes Lee in his review of yes/no here on Harriet a while back: “it isn’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.” There is a deep relationship between language and nature, but also between language and the destruction of nature and of our world. There is a need for equally deep listening by us. How to undo the knot?
And witnessing. As Bök sees it, Lee’s “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…”
So, let language fall apart. Listen to the babble under the babble. Or, in Celan’s words: “Through/ the sluice I had to go,/ to salvage the word.”
Poems from Testament by Dennis Lee, House of Anansi Press ($19.95) used with permission from the press.
Sina Queyras grew up on the road in western Canada and she has since lived in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, and Calgary where she was Markin Flanagan Writer in Residence. She is the author most recently of the poetry collection MxT (2014) and Unleashed (2010), a selection of posts from...