Dennis Lee's serious poetry is all too often eclipsed by his other accomplishments: his cofounding of the House of Anansi Press and the now-legendary Rochdale College and his hugely successful books of children's verse, including Alligator Pie and Jelly Belly. Nightwatch collects the bulk of Lee's literary verse, drawing largely on the Governor General's Award-winning Civil Elegies and Other Poems, The Gods, No Abstract Harmonies But, The Death of Harold Laddoo, and Riffs. Most of this volume is composed of long, lyrical, meditative sequences dealing with the problems of Canadian nationalism, the terrors of the artist's existence, and the travails of daily life.
Lee's longer poems, with their loose forms and irregular long lines, immediately suggest an early postmodernist Whitman or even a less naive and more verbally nimble Ginsberg. His political concerns are of a piece with these writers, too; his "Civil Elegies" are among the most successful political poems written in Canada. Of the plight of "the few tenacious / citizens of a land that was never their own," and their struggles to attain some form of moral civil existence, he writes:
But some face exile at home and sniping at corporations, At their best, Lee's later poems share this intensity of thought and rhetoric. "Nightwatch," the newest poem contained in this volume, does at times feel too much like an echo of Michael Ondaatje's Secular Love, but Lee's inimitable voice reclaims his subject--a Scotch-drenched male midlife crisis--and makes it interesting once again.
manic at times, and the patsies of empire their leaders lying for votes,
till the impotence floods in their veins, there is
shame abounding and sometimes a few good
gestures between the asphalt and sky that might have been
adequate once, and finally dying on occupied soil.
Yet still they take the world full force on their nerve ends, leaving the
bloody impress of their bodies face forward in time, and I believe
they will not go under until they have taken the measure of empire.
The decision to restrict Nightwatch to Lee's serious works is perhaps not an entirely happy one; readers who were raised on his children's verse (or who read those books to their children) might wish for at least some acknowledgement of this side of Lee's considerable talent. Nevertheless, Nightwatch is a cohesive and satisfying selection. Even Lee's early poems have lost none of their urgency, and it is wonderful to have them back in print. --Jack Illingworth