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By J.S. Porter, Hamilton, Ontario
According to Robert Bringhurst’s enlightening Foreword to Heart Residence, Dennis Lee wrote his first poem at age seven and had it published at age eight. For over 50 years he has enriched our sense of citizenship, deepened our sense of fun, laid bare the many manifestations of love, and illuminated our struggles for meaning. He has written poems to sing, to skip to, cry over, ponder, wrestle with, pray with and dream by. He has tickled our funny bones and stretched our imaginations.
His much anticipated new book scoops up a selection of poems from his early Kingdom of Absence to his recent Melvis and Elvis. Heart Residence also presents intact his Civil Elegies, The Death of Harold Ladoo, Riffs, Nightwatch and Testament. While his collected children’s poetry awaits another day, this volume does include a meaty scattering of poems aimed specifically, though not exclusively, at children and does make room for Canada’s most popular poem – “Alligator Pie.”
Heart Residence is not so much a book as it is a series of books – Longing, Play, Prayer, Thought, and Joy where your hands clap, your feet tap and your body sways. A mix master, a sound master, a practitioner of polyphony, Dennis Lee is a man of many musics and many voices. Children’s voices. Teasing, playful voices. Frolicsome. Sober, serious voices. In-between voices. A little happy, a little sad. Play with me, says the young voice. Pray with me, says the old voice. And the poet Dennis Lee says, I’ll do both. Sometimes in the same poem.
Lee excites the page in various ways. Sometimes with rage, sometimes with heartache and longing. The “sizzle of/is…” is always present: how language heats up or cools down what we perceive to be real. “Day-one tremendum” reverberates in his lines. (You’ll discover that this key Leesian word is there from the start in Kingdom of Absence, present throughout the elegies and riffs, and occupies a vital space in the more recent Testament.) Tremendum has to do with the majestic, the terrible, the mysterious, the awesome, the urgent. When the lightning bolt of tremendum cleaves Lee’s lines, you respond in shivers and shakes, and a deeply grateful silence.
Lee puts hallelujah and amen on the page, singing and thinking (“thoughtsong” he calls it) together, simultaneously aware of “the slaughterhouse world” and “the numinous presence.” I find myself particularly drawn to the play –poems where my body shouts hallelujah, the prayer-poems where my heart whispers amen, and the poems where play and prayer are voiced as one. Take “The Mystery,” for example,
Can’t talk about it,
don’t know if anybody else even feels it,
animals live in it; maybe they don’t know it’s there,
little kids the same;
grownups act oblivious—situation normal.
Half the time I just mooch along, then I laugh too loud.
But it catches me late at night, or in winter when
branches glow with snow against the bark, or some dumb old
song cracks me up and I want to go
howl in the city, or smash windows, or make my
life sheer shine in this miracle ache of a world.
A poem like “The Mystery” — and a dozen like it, including “Deeper,” The Coat,” and “Summer Song” — speaks to human beings of all ages, the young and the young at heart. We all seek moments when we fall into awe and thankfulness. We all feel the “miracle ache” of this world.
The poet Rimbaud says that genius is the ability to recover childhood at will. If that’s the case, Dennis Lee is some kind of genius because as an aging man he has kept alive a direct connection to the child’s imagination. He can recover childhood at will. Moons, cats, wizards, kites, imaginary animals, transitional objects, bubble rings, balloons, bubblegum, honkabeests, special and sacred places, all figure in his work.
The poet Coleridge speaks of an “educated innocence” where the feelings of childhood are articulated by the powers of adulthood. That’s what Dennis Lee does, and does as well as any poet in the language. With his educated innocence and his fusion of child-adult feeling that keep alive the child’s sense of wonder and freshness, Lee in the quicksilver of his thoughtsong composes with the child’s openness and the poet’s gift for words.
In his essay “Roots and Play: Writing as a 35-Year Old Children,” Lee put it this way: "I write as children, as an adult children. And I write well only when there is an integration of the two." In the same essay he speaks of the “one-ing of the world” in which lyricism “is not simply a singing rhythm or a felicity of phrase, but the perception of a coherence of being.” He names his poetic poles as the lyric and the meditative, and in my view lays down his poetic manifesto: "I will not be content till I can include both [the lyric and the meditative] in the one poem.”
In his best work a body of lightness shines within his body of concern and contemplation. Night Songs and Simple Songs, the Songs of Summer and the Songs of Winter, intermingle and blend. His aim as a song-and-dance man, similar to his calling as a contemplative poet, is to reclaim wholeness and re-unite play with prayer.
At times, the line between "heavy"
and "light," between "child" and "adult," is skipping
rope-thin, and can be crossed with a leap or a lunge, as in these poignant lines
from “Summer Song:”
And what was singing in my mind
Was in my body too:
Sun and lawn and aster beds
Murmuring, I do—
Earth, beloved, yes, I do I
Too am here by grace,
As real as any buried stone
Or any blade of grass.
In “Not Abstract Harmonies But” Lee links the music of the self with the music of the spheres in what appears to be a personal credo, knowing that “each mortal being announces the pitch of itself/in a piecemeal world” in “the living coherence.” The poem integrates all Lee’s selves, all his voices and musics. In the poem he comes to the realization that “each thing gropes to be itself in time…” and “it holds & presides/ in the fragile hum of its own galvanic being.”
The speaker at times can hear “the hymn of the fullness of being-/…across the scales of/orchestration in many-/dimensional play…/telling the grace of daily infinite coherence.” This coherence is “never achieved in our lives…” and is “never wholly absent…” The speaker— in lines that bring me to my knees, that make the hallelujah-amen tension indissoluble— signs off:
jangle is hard, but not to be quickened is death.
And we are a botch and a warmup, although
I do not know for what,
and who tunes us – if it can be
said that way at all – is an endless vocation.
The joy of reading Heart Residence is reading Lee whole— unbroken words, undivided lines, where the child and the man sing side by side and sometimes in unison. “…[H]ow/dumbfound how/dazzled, how/mortally lucky to be,” the master poet writes, and how lucky for us as Canadians to have a singer and seer like Dennis Lee.
J. S. Porter, www.spiritbookword.net
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