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Yesno

by Dennis Lee

UN, Dennis Lee’s previous collection of poetry for adults, represented a significant stylistic departure not only for Lee but for English Canadian poetry in general. Unlike the long, often prosy lines of Civil Elegies, a book that won Lee the Governor General’s Award 35 years ago, and unlike even the syncopated improvisations of 1993’s Riffs, UN defied paraphrase or categorization. The pieces that made up the book were not so much poems as devil’s knots of lexical density and ambiguity.

Yesno, Lee’s 10th collection for adults, continues in this vein. It is, in fact, the companion and continuance of UN. Lee makes this clear right from the start: the previous book consisted of five sections; this new work begins with number six. So if UN left readers unsettled and uncertain, it was probably because the book was only part of a whole.

Together, the two books consist of 100 short poems (only one needing more than a page, another merely six words long) in 10 chapters. This number, and Lee’s concerns with human salvation and destruction, celebration and apocalypse, casts the work as a 21st century miniaturist remake of Dante’s Commedia and its 100 cantos. It’s Commedia as filtered through the post-Holocaust anti-lyricism of poet Paul Celan, whom Lee has acknowledged as a major influence on his new style.

The strangeness of these poems (one reviewer of the previous volume dubbed them “near-sense”) makes them resistant not only to apprehension and explication, but also to assessment. When faced with “How surd a blurward stut. How/peewee thingsong,/surfing the plenary killcurve,” how are we to orient ourselves once – or rather, if – we get over our initial confusion?

That excerpt, from the poem “ave,” is admittedly an extreme example, as it is one in which Lee has set the language blender on high. There are other poems that are much more easily grasped, and which offer moments of pure beauty: “Still itching to//parse with a two-tongued heart, shambala/scrapings. To/praise with a broken art.” It is this praising with a broken art that Lee has been up to, and there is a strong case to be made for seeing these books not as individual collections, but as one long poem, in which the more mangled movements are clarified by lucid interludes.

This isn’t to say that Lee should be let off the hook for the book’s weak spots, of which there are many. In spite of the freshness of his idiom, the odd cliché slips in. And when he gets carried away with his sound- and senseplay, the resulting poems are irritating for no justified reason, and often feel self-indulgent. This is amplified by Lee’s awareness of just how original and different he’s being, as evidenced by the repeated preening and self-referential moments in which the text comments on its own procedures. (“With a yes, with a no, with a/yesno:/sonics in simuljam.”) A little of this goes a long way.

But Lee is more to be congratulated than criticized. He has not only ambitiously pushed Canadian lyricism into different territory – which, even if unsuccessful, is commendable – but he has also found a way to articulate (or perhaps unarticulate) the ecological anxiety so prevalent in our society without sacrificing art in the bargain.