Dennis Lee is perhaps best known for his zany poetry for children, although his adult work exhibits the craft and intelligence of a top-flight poet. Civil Elegies and Other Poems, which made him one of Canada's most widely acclaimed poets, received the Governor General's Award for poetry in 1972. The collection is divided into two parts--"Coming Back," 16 poems that touch on relationships and language, and "Civil Elegies," a tightly knit series of nine longer poems that explore the meaning of Canada. For Lee, poetry is about paying attention to the world around him: "Outside, the rasp of a snow-shovel / grates in the dark. / Lovely / sound, I hang onto it." But every moment brings the possibility of profound questions in the midst of ordinary life: "Forty-five years, and / still the point eludes him whenever he stops to think." In the second half of the book, he turns outward to society, discovering that he is, among other things, a citizen and driven by a moral imperative to penetrate what Canada was, is, and could be. The "Civil Elegies" poems are also a struggle with emptiness and meaning, as much about the human condition as the Canadian condition, with humanity represented by the downtown crowds he observes in the vast square in front of Toronto's City Hall. In their raw questioning, in their naked revelations of a soul trying impossibly to fix its place in the world, the poems offer both great solace and great pain. --Mark Frutkin
Dennis Lee is the author of more than twenty books, including Civil Elegies, which won the Governor General's Literary Award, and Alligator Pie, the children's classic. Among many other honours, he was Toronto's first poet laureate from 2001 to 2004. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.