- The Cadence of Civil Elegies
The Cadence of Civil Elegies is a brief book on a touchstone work in the development of Canada's national literary consciousness, one that deserves our renewed attention. Seeking to record what he describes as his 'passions as a reader,' Robert Lecker offers us a phenomenological reading - a dramatization of the critic's emerging discoveries as he delves into a text - of Dennis Lee's long poem. This approach has inevitable strengths and weaknesses: in creating a narrative of the act of reading and interpreting, it brings to life the readerly experience of the work but makes the critic part of his subject. Its success depends on the creation of a persuasive voice and an engaging persona; the danger is that with a large personality (such as Lecker's) the critic overshadows the text. And Lecker frankly tells us that he has a lot at stake here:
I was valuing Lee's nationalism, his militancy, his willingness to take risks by starting a small Canadian publishing house [Anansi] and editing Canadian writing, including criticism. Looking back now, I see that, in many ways, I had unconsciously identified with Lee. My early training as an academic was bound up with nationalist pride. Later, I myself came to found a small publishing house and to edit Canadian criticism. And later still . . . I found myself publishing articles about the threat to Canada posed by separatism . . . Probably my original interest in studying and teaching Civil Elegies was not really about Civil Elegies. Probably my interest was in studying me.
Nevertheless, this book manages to give Civil Elegies its due, providing a fresh look at what Lecker calls 'one of the most disturbed and manic poems about Canada ever written': 'Its rational, thinking, narrator is [End Page 516] completely falling apart. The poem's nine sections need to be reread from this perspective.'
The existence of this study was alluded to in Dr Delicious (Lecker's memoir, published a few months before this book), where its rejection by Anansi was part of the author's general disillusionment with a career as a literary critic: 'Once upon a time Anansi was a press that was willing to . . . go out on a limb to support different kinds of Canadian writing - the writing that the big-name publishers would never touch. But it had become a bottom-line press like most of the others withdrawing from CanCrit . . . because the sales weren't there.' (Like many of the complaints in Lecker's tale of having moved from national idealist to cynic, there is an unexamined irony here - in that ECW Press, which Lecker had co-founded specifically to publish 'CanCrit,' had withdrawn from this project even earlier and had become profit-driven in a way Anansi never has.) In this context, Lecker's study of Lee looks like part of a struggle against the burnout he chronicled in Dr Delicious. The book emerged, he tells us, out of his experience of teaching upper-level undergraduates about 'the theorization of the contemporary Canadian long poem.' He found in these students a 'desire to think outside . . . theory and to respond . . . subjectively' that roused in him a similar desire 'to respond to the works with a level of honesty . . . I had long ago learned to shun.'
These claims of a newly direct, authentic, and impassioned encounter with the poem are undercut for me by the way Lecker's reading of Lee is freighted with the weight of vintage deconstruction and deconstructively inflected postcolonial criticism. For that reason, though Lecker takes one more of his obligatory whacks at Canadian thematic criticism ('no one really believed the thematic critics' argument that Canadians were essentially a fallen people, inhabiting a garrison that isolated them from a threatening wilderness'), his deconstructive lens makes his book thematic in its own familiar way:
The central problem in the poem concerns the difficulty of finding a language, and a poetry form, that does not speak in the language of any oppressor. Yet Lee knows that if such a language were available to him he would...