Dennis Lee’s new poetry collection, UN, is no book for children. Unless, that is, you think children should be prepared for 21st-century adulthood with frank discussions of cultural brain-death and planetary extinction. These are staggering themes, maybe even too big to be approached head on. Yet UN has the kind of despairing chutzpah the subject demands. Maybe it’s also true that, given the daily showers of catastrophic imagery in everything from news reports to video games, the nightmarish range of what Lee dubs “coldsweat futures” has become thinkable, even routine food for thought.
In any case, Lee’s collection speaks directly to our epoch of cataclysmic fears, any five of which informed readers will surely be able to list in a heartbeat. His poems link such disasters to the overabundance and undersignificance of us and all our words: “Green-to-mind ratios a/barbous disproportion:/Amazon stripmind.” The book’s fragmentary title works like a splintered road sign in a bombed-out landscape, pointing to a world of negative meditations on language with no meaning in a world undone.
As he showed in Civil Elegies long ago, Lee can be an earnest and affecting mourner of lost promise. That book was merely a lament for an unfulfilled nation; UN offers a book of “planet blues” or lullabies for humanity. What UN laments is the state of the Earth and the end of the lovely fairy tale of the humans, the ones who named the world and now threaten it: “How now not/gag on the unward, the once-upon, us-/proud planet?”
Since it’s divided into five sections and contains two poems called “genesis” and “exodus,” it’s tempting to call the collection a Pentateuch (the name for the first five books of the Bible). A narrative of (apparently toxic) birth and uncreation definitely runs through the collection as a whole. Part I offers the traditional invocation. In this case the poet is begging for language to match the dreadful subject matter: “I want verbs of a slagscape thrombosis.”
As the middle sections evoke a countdown toward nothingness, they nevertheless can’t help including affirmative grace notes along the way. Despite everything, “to be is a bare-assed wonder.” The book’s final sections repeat the desire that something be remembered of “adam and eve and dodo,”or everything that’s extinguished. The book’s concluding image of a last footprint leaves open the possibility that some future archeologist or Robinson Crusoe will read this final trace.
To say that such a book is enjoyable seems almost perverse, but Lee’s impressive feats of style make it so. The sense of real anguish that pervades the book is lightened by Lee’s acrobatic syllable-craft – there’s so much pleasure to be had in the sound and rhythm of his words, even words offered as epitaphs.
A sense of last-gasp delight shines through poems like “inwreck,” “skewy,” and “slub,” even as they read like choked-out oracular blurts or apocalyptic coughs. Lee draws on a depth of experience that few Canadian authors can match to craft an impressive poetic idiom here. At times his diction seems hardly composed of words at all. Instead, amputated roots, stems, and pried-off prefixes litter his no-man’s langue of suffering syllables. Part of the book’s aim is to give voice to “sublingual agon.” It works. That achievement alone makes the book a worthy addition to Lee’s own impressive body of work.
Stunted and impaired though these poems may appear, scattered and unobtrusive allusions show that they grow out of a rich humus of reading. From Yeats through Finnegan’s Wake, from Dylan Thomas and Samuel Beckett, Lee hints at a long lineage of inventive writers whose work appeals to the ear as well as the mind. Like these writers, Lee never stops hearing the song within speech. So even though these poems often “speak athwart the scrutible,” they also sing stuttering psalms.
This leads to the real problem with writing epitaphs for creation itself (think of Beckett’s “imagination dead imagine”): they can end up sounding so good that you feel better about creation, which you know is not the intent. To put it another way, if the poems measure up to their subject at all, they prove that any epitaph is premature and call into question their own occasion. UN can’t overcome this paradox: it’s a problem that goes with the un-territory.
The book also has to contend with the abstraction of its subject. The state of the Earth, or even humanity, is a vast subject to grasp and to anguish over. This lends even more urgency to efforts to find the properly stirring words, but UN suffers a little from the generalized sweep of its unquestionably genuine concern.
These are poems written in a visionary mode, however, with myth-making scope. The mere act of writing in this vein makes a hopeful statement about the redemptive power of language and imagination, no matter how crippled or “plegic” Lee makes his “scribblescript portents.”