Cadence, Country, Voice
Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley
Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies is a sprawling, complex poem about, inter alia, civic engagement, Canadian complicity with American imperialism and the connection between nature and the modern city—the “technopolis” epitomized by Toronto. As Robert Lecker points out in his valuable monograph, Civil Elegies, first published in 1968, has received little critical attention since the early 1980s. He bases his book on the premise that Lee and Civil Elegies deserve careful scrutiny (“I can think of few other poets writing at the beginning of the seventies who felt so fiercely about the relation between language, freedom, and identity”) and strives to demonstrate that the poem fundamentally enacts an individual spiritual and linguistic crisis rather than an overt political critique.
Lecker first briefly discusses Civil Elegies in the context of theoretical formulations about the Canadian long poem. He then advances his main argument that “The multiple struggles that Lee faces in articulating his lament are much more fascinating than the lament itself” and that “the most important political assertion in the poem” is that “freedom begins in abandoning connection, ambition, objectives. It means treating language as original and free.” This emphasis on the crisis of the self is illuminating. Lecker also helpfully includes excerpts of his own correspondence with Lee. But he too often resorts to hand-wringing instead of analysis: “I approach the poem. I want it to sit still … Yet it resists. It keeps lurching around … I redouble my efforts. Sit still. It won’t.” This tells us nothing substantial about the poem that Lecker seeks to explicate.
Lecker’s thesis proves overly reductive and excludes elements of the poem that command attention. While he rightly acknowledges the paucity of critical writing on Lee, he does not address Jonathan Kertzer’s discussion in Worrying the Nation (1998) of nationhood in Civil Elegies. Nor does he make use of Isaías Naranjo’s article (2001) on the important Heideggerian aspects of the poem. Although he describes Lee’s notion of earth as a “mode of existence tied to harmony with the natural world,” he does not examine the thematic importance of pollution or Lee’s awareness of ecological crisis in any detail. There are also more specific oversights. “I can see only the bread and circuses to come,” Lee writes in the sixth elegy. Lecker suggests that “‘bread and circuses’ is an apocalyptic metaphor” but he overlooks the classical origin of the phrase. By quoting Juvenal’s tenth satire (“panem et circenses”), Lee aligns himself with the Roman poet as a stern critic of a pandering government and a complacent populace. Lecker’s view that “The power of Civil Elegies has nothing to do with the actual substance of Lee’s complaint” can thus seem wanting. The poem has confessional elements but also demands to be read alongside politically charged works by poets as different from each other and from Lee as W.H. Auden, Robinson Jeffers and Allen Ginsberg. Civil Elegies is a poem of individual and political crisis; a thorough reading of the poem would recognize the complexity of Lee’s lament.
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MLA: Bradley, Nicholas. Cadence, Country, Voice. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #196 (Spring 2008), Diasporic Women's Writing. (pg. 161 - 162)
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