At Play in the Land of Language (Dennis Lee)

Body Music
by Dennis Lee
224 pages, $19.95

Dennis Lee knows his way around poetic sound the way Oscar Peterson knows his way around the piano

Reviewed by J.S. Porter

I write as a Dennis Lee enthusiast, and as someone whom Lee thanks in his preface, along with many others, for helping to clarify his hunches. I’ve bebopped to his children’s rhymes and staggered mind-drunk from his adult meditations for more than 20 years.

Dennis Lee is a song-and-dance man, and a deep-thinking man. He jitterbugs, swivels and caroms. He meditates and proclaims. He can swing into kid-rock or tunnel into the bog of being with equal ease — sometimes in the same poem ( Nicholas Knock ) or in the same book ( Riffs ). He’s as much at home bouncing as meditating, as happy in Heidegger as he is in Dr. Seuss.

Body Music, a collection of his selected prose and his 19th book, gives yet another dimension to Lee: the prose stylist and “sound” man. Like R. Murray Schafer, Lee has written his own soundscape. He’s at play in the wells of sound, linking page rhythms and voices to the beehive world at large. He knows his way around poetic sound the way Oscar Peterson knows his way around the piano.

The world, Lee says, rasps at you in polyphony and polyrhythms. “What makes you crazy — how to write the world as it is. Not consecutive but overlaid. How cadence teems on simultaneous wavelengths: slalom and moloch and crouch. And torque. And soar …”

Lee orders his book chronologically, but you can just as easily rejig it into distinct energy waves: his tributes to other writers — Bronwen Wallace, Judith Merril, Gaston Miron; his seminal essays on Al Purdy and George Grant; and his raps on rhythm and sound in Cadence, Country, Silence, in Polyphony and in Body Music.

Several of the essays — Polyphony, The Poetry of Al Purdy and Cadence — have already wiggled into Canadian letters. I recently came across Cadence in an Australian anthology of post-colonial writings: Lee in common space with V.S. Naipaul and Helene Cixous. Other essays, Grant’s Impasse and Body Music, in particular, seem destined to whittle a niche too.

I’m not sure if “essay” is the right word to describe what Lee does in his prose. I’m inclined to think Thomas Merton’s word “raids,” as in Raids on the Unspeakable, more accurately captures Lee’s dips into the sea of sound, his polyphony in synch with and respondent to ontophony (the music of being) and cosmophony (the music of the stars).

The raid on George Grant, entitled Grant’s Impasse, is probably the most intellectually demanding in the book. If you’re looking for dumb and dumber, go elsewhere. Lee makes no concessions to dumbing down here. Grant is not an easy read. Lee on Grant is not an easy read. You need to stand on your tiptoes and stretch, but what’s there is worth stretching for.

Lee explores what he regards as Grant’s central message: that you can’t shortcircuit the technological gridlock without using the very language that the gridlock has engendered. As Lee said in Savage Fields, “What form of thought can arise which does not re-embody the crisis it is analyzing?” The old theological language of good and evil, of grace and mercy, has no purchase on modernity; it has been mothballed and museumed.

Lee, through Grant, takes you right into the centre of the wordlock: Rationally, we have no words for the things we love aside from those scrubbed and fulgent from modernity itself.

Is there a way out? Yes, says Lee, but it may be non-linguistic or extra-linguistic. “Kintuition” (Lee’s coinage), or body music, is one such way to circumvent the impasse. To a degree, Lee’s whole book is written in answer to Grant’s, and our, impasse. The body can slip nooses in which the mind feels trapped. There is more than one way of knowing, ways that include the kinesthetic and musical.

Lee puts his mind in its rightful place in Body Music. It is, after all, only one of the body’s organs. The centre of Lee’s thought and meditation is the whole body: his body music. When he talks about how the body sweats language and waterwheels words, you listen attentively. His sound-raid called Body Music is like eavesdropping on Keith Jarrett playing the piano, telling you what he does as he does it.

In this rap, and throughout the book, Lee plucks language and bows it; he strums it, bends it and blows into it. He tells you as much about the transformation of language into music as a dozen manuals on prosody: “Body music is the mind of poetry. It’s rhythms think who we are, and what the world is. Not exhaustively… But for real.”

Body Music is for real. Lee tells a story of what he’s claimed by. And what he’s claimed by is poetry. He gives his life in poetry to the reader. He unveils how poetry works, and how poems get made, with precision and generosity.

J.S. Porter has written on Dennis Lee’s Poetry in Quarry and Grail.

  • Originally published in “The Globe and Mail“:, Saturday, October 17, 1998.

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