Review by Geoffrey Nilson
The diversity of Dennis Lee’s writing can be daunting. From the Governor General’s Award winning philosophical inquiry of Civil Elegies to the experimental polyphony of his most recent collection, Testament, (not to mention his playful children’s verse) Lee has never been afraid to follow his own muse. But as Paul Vermeersch writes in the excellent contextual introduction to Riffs, Lee’s rambunctious mid-career poetry collection reissued in 2015 as part of the Brick Books Classics series, the book “is more than just the chronological midpoint of Dennis Lee’s career; it is the book that unites his various voices and lyrical personae. It is a book in which all his poetic attitudes are in harmony with one another.” (19)
Riffs imbues the lyric poem with sonic romance and moral philosophy. The reader joins a narrative in medias res: the speaker’s life unraveling. Reeling from a disintegrated marriage, he looks to new passion as a reprieve from the chaos of his life:
lady laid her touch a-
mong me, gentle thing, for which I stand still
startled, gentle thing and feel the
ache begin again,
the onus of joy. (23)
He can’t be alone with himself, alone with his reality, “apart six hours and there’s this / gravitational yank across the city.” (25) The longing seems legitimate but even early in the book there is a sense it isn’t reciprocated. The speaker notices his lover “flicker with / panic at being held,” (25) and his anxiety plays out in full view.
He looks for salvation in his lover, which in the end is impossible to achieve. The lover is married and chooses not to continue the affair. Happening at the midpoint of the book, this is an easy out for Lee, creating the tension that fuels the dexterous flights of language and rhythm, while making life hard for the protagonist. The reader roots for him through all his anguished caterwauling, but we understand that he is deluding himself. The new love is only a distraction from the fact he must sort out his private complications on his own. No person and no relationship will do that for him. He speaks the lies of “touch me and save me and us.” (65)
While the reader is easily drawn in, the narrative is only a facilitator for moral and philosophical questions. Lee is clever enough not to ask his questions straight out. The speaker ignores that his lover is married, using their beating pulse, the “sheer valhalla overdrive” (63) of their connection, as an excuse for his participation in adultery. Always the trickster, Lee buries his inquiry in linguistic story, tangential spin-offs of the bubbling romance.
Why do we ever rub con-
tours, if not to conjure
shapes of what we aren’t and
crave to be? (53)
The poems do not feel improvisational, as one might expect from the title. They feel carefully structured and musical with an abundance of crackling diction. Sound jumps through the line break—a continuation of thought through separation. Lee’s close attention throughout the sequence promotes an othering of the language, removing it from the prescriptive connotations of love and adultery. The more fractured the syntax, the more unwilling the speaker is to connect with his reality.
There is a pure
load, & it
I want that. I also want
In his essay as interview, “The Luminous Tumult”, appearing in Riffs as an afterword, Lee writes of the protagonist in his narrative: “Words are the only thing he’s got now, so words are where the lightning has to strike. The riffs themselves become the erotic fix.” (96) But even that “erotic fix” doesn’t last. The speaker receives only sporadic phone calls from his lover and he tortures himself with the sound of her voice on his answering machine. A resignation creeps in. He admits their “season is / over.” (83) There is acceptance:
The dolphins of need be-
lie their shining traces.
Arcs in the air.
They do not mean to last. One
upward furrow, bright & the long disappearance,
as though by silver fiat of the sea. (86)
“The long disappearance” is what Lee is most upset about, how a person lingers, how they keep in sense memory like the throb of an absentee limb. It would be so easy to move though life without having to own up to the truth of the affect. In this perspective, Riffs is not about the power of love to heal but about the power of self to rebuild after love lets him know that he is still alive.
Geoffrey Nilson is the author of We Have To Watch, a chapbook forthcoming from The Quilliad Press. A writer, editor, multimedia artist, and musician, his poetry and essays have appeared widely and recently in Poetry is Dead, Event, subTerrain, Lemon Hound, Qwerty and The Glasgow Review of Books. His work has been shortlisted for The Malahat Review Far Horizons Award for Poetry and his book-length manuscript Paraphrases from a public whiteboard won Honourable Mention for the Alfred G Bailey Poetry Prize. Nilson is the Social Media Editor for The Rusty Toque, a Contributing Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine, and studies writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He lives in New Westminster, BC, with his daughter.