Beyond civilization-versus-nature: Dennis Lee's new ontology of the natural world in Civil Elegies

2016-12-14T02:42:08Z (GMT) by Dickinson, Mark
<strong>Abstract: </strong>More than forty years after the publication of Dennis Lee's Civil Elegies (1972), an epic nine-part exploration of the spiritual history of modern Canada, some of the poem's most profound accomplishments remain unsung. While Civil Elegies has generated a number of critical responses over the years-on everything from the influence of George Grant and Martin Heidegger on Lee to the poem's use of air pollution imagery-one of the most intriguing and potentially fruitful statements about the poem was actually made by another poet, Lee's colleague and Griffin Poetry Prize winner Don McKay. In his landmark essay 'Great Flint Singing' from Open Wide A Wilderness (2009), McKay remarks that there exists in Civil Elegies the basis for a 'new ontological understanding of the natural world.' This different way of being draws its power from a paradoxical reading of colonial alienation, and is companionable with insights from continental European philosophy and Eastern wisdom traditions, in particular the interpenetration of being and nonbeing found in both Heidegger and the Bengali sage Saraha. It is this 'new ontological understanding of the natural world' I would like to explore here. Lee's poem not only completely dismantles the natural resources paradigm upon which the Canadian economy has been built-one so entrenched in four centuries of colonial history as to constitute an article of faith-but, more importantly, does away with the very spatial logic inherent in the Civilization-versus- Nature binary that assigns meaning to certain landscapes while banishing it from others. At its most hopeful, Civil Elegies brings together 'green of the earth and civil grey,' allowing nature and the city, the eternal and the everyday, to intermingle and coincide as part of a single, indivisible whole, as 'what is.' It is a primal encounter with the earth- an encounter with the land as it exists beneath and outside the categories of colonial and modern consciousness-that is the foundation of any human community if it is to survive and flourish through time.