Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review #27: Civil Elegies and Other Poems by Dennis Lee

A classic collection of poetry by one of Canada's finest poets.

Dennis Lee, one of Canada’s most widely acclaimed poets, received the Governor General’s Award for Civil Elegies in 1972. Lee is perhaps best known for his zany poetry for children, although his adult work exhibits the craft and intelligence of a top-flight poet.

The collection is divided into two parts: ‘Coming Back’, sixteen poems that touch on relationships and language; and ‘Civil Elegies’, a tightly knit series of nine longer poems that explore the meaning of Canada.

For Lee, poetry is about paying attention to the world around him: “Outside, the rasp of a snow-shovel / grates in the dark. / Lovely / sound, I hang onto it.”

But every moment brings the possibility of profound questions in the midst of ordinary life: “Forty-five years, and / still the point eludes him whenever he stops to think.”

In the second half of the book, he turns outward to society, discovering he is, among other things, a citizen. He seems to be writing under the pressure of a moral imperative, internally driven to penetrate what Canada was, is and could be. Humanity is represented by the downtown crowds he observes in the vast square in front of Toronto’s city hall.

The ‘Civil Elegies’ poems are also a struggle with emptiness and meaning, as much about the human condition as the Canadian condition. In their raw questioning, in their naked revelations of a soul trying impossibly to fix its place in the world, the poems offer both great solace and great pain.

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