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  • We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy
  • Karen Weisman (bio)
Priscila Uppal . We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy. McGill-Queen's University Press. viii, 312. $80.00

In a field defined by studies of place, space, class, and the various forms of alterity, Priscila Uppal has entered the contemporary English-Canadian elegy into the arena of specialized scholarship. This provides her with an opportunity to extend the scene of Canadian poetry further and to test its relationship both with its geographical neighbours and its historical precedents. Her readings of individual poems are interesting and full of fascinating historical details, offering a meaningful engagement with elegy as a stand for continuity with the past. In Uppal's thesis, the future is vitally defined in the matrix of rapport with, even internalization of, the past. Claiming that such emphasis on continuity with the dead represents a break with the conventions of elegy, she divides the text into three sections. The keywords throughout the study are landscape and language, which Uppal understands as providing metaphors for connection to the dead, rather than the separation that she believes to be the dominant mode in non-Canadian elegy. Each section represents a natural division that she has located in Canadian poetry; that is, the poetry of this nation exhibits cohesive thematic unity, even when that unity foregrounds cultural difference, or laments cultural transplantation or misunderstanding.

Despite a persistent oversimplification of her view of the larger elegiac tradition, this is a compelling way of viewing the poetry. In her first section, she reads parental elegies, for which she claims that the Canadian elegy departs from its English historical precedent by insisting upon continuity into the future of the child-parent relationship. The second chapter, 'Method for Calling Up Ghosts: Elegies for Places and the Creation of Local, Regional, and National Identities,' includes particularly interesting discussion of the Canadian long poem and the long elegiac sequence, a poetic kind that Uppal takes up for discussion in all [End Page 568] of her chapters. In this chapter Uppal reads the Canadian elegy as revisionist in its implicit insistence on Canadian history and Canadian community as worthy subjects for elegy. The third chapter, 'What We Save Saves Us: Elegies for Cultural Losses and Displacements,' also argues for a revisionist understanding of the Canadian elegy. Claiming that we 'might expect to find more conventional war elegies, or poems idealizing heroic public figures,' instead we find 'the nameless, largely oppressed and poor, dead, and their subsequent progeny.'

These are all fine readings that can stand well as explications of the thematic threads in Canadian poetry. The difficulty lies in Uppal's reading of the larger elegiac tradition and in the way she situates the poems as radical departures from the dominant practices. Her introduction attempts an overview not only of her thesis about Canadian poetry, but of that phantom figure, 'the conventional elegy,' against which she reads her canon. The history of elegy is enormously complex, far more tortuous than Uppal's brief outline allows, and her conclusions about its dominant trends are supported by highly selective scholarly choices. It is simply not the case that the Canadian poem is the first place one encounters a resistance to easy closure in the elegy. Ironic self-questioning has been a staple of elegiac expression since its Greek models. Raising the dead and addressing the dead, as it were, especially in the service of establishing firm continuity with the past and with the object of lament, have been present in elegy since its recognizable beginnings. These tropes have been emphasized or de-emphasized at different historical moments, but it is historically inaccurate to argue that Canadian poetry breaks new ground in refusing to let elegy stand as the monument of separation from the dead.

This view of the tradition relies too heavily on a refraction of the Freudian 'work of mourning' as the primary point of reference. Uppal's individual readings of poems are continually tested not against particular poems from the English or American (or Greek) tradition, but mainly from other highly selective critical studies of elegy. Her discussion of the pastoral is...


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pp. 568-570
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