BOOKS

A garden of adult verse

THE DIFFICULTY OF LIVING ON OTHER PLANETS By Dennis Lee

John Bemrose November 16 1987
BOOKS

A garden of adult verse

THE DIFFICULTY OF LIVING ON OTHER PLANETS By Dennis Lee

John Bemrose November 16 1987

A garden of adult verse

THE DIFFICULTY OF LIVING ON OTHER PLANETS By Dennis Lee

(Macmillan of Canada,

112 pages, $12.95)

Readers of Dennis Lee’s more serious poetry have been waiting eight years for a book to match The Gods, his last collection for adults. But, increasingly, the poetic gift that crafted the passionate, muscular free verse of that and earlier books is looking like a spent force. Most Canadians know Lee as a versifier for children, the puckish author of Alligator Pie and Jelly Belly. Now, with The Difficulty of Living on Other Planets, the Toronto poet adds yet another chapter to his popular canon of witty doggerel. The book’s back-cover blurb feints toward Lee’s original audience, declaring that the poems are for “adults and teenage readers.” But the appeal is to the sort of adult who enjoys reading Ogden Nash and creating limericks—and The Difficulty of Living on Other Planets is a far cry from Lee in full flight.

The book is padded with some of Lee’s best poems from earlier collections, including When I Went Up to Rosedale with its insights into Canada’s conservatives (“A claque of little men/ Who took the worst from history/ And made it worse again”). There are some fine new verses as well, particularly on childhood. Suzie Saw the Blue Balloon is about a girl who loses her treasured balloon—and her sense of innocence—to the vast sky above. Writes Lee: “And things awoke inside her/ Which they’d never told her of;/ But four years old is not too young/ For missing what you love.” But Lee’s most fetching quality is metaphysical playfulness, the ability to juggle with the illogical. In There Was A Man, he writes, “There was a man who never was./ This tragedy occurred because/ His parents, being none too smart/ Were born two hundred years apart.”

At times the jingling rhymes and rhythms become tiresome. And the sentimentality of several poems is shocking in a writer once renowned for mental toughness. Reading The Difficulty of Living on Other Planets is like watching Buffalo Bill shoot clay pigeons in a travelling road show: the flash and finesse only emphasize how far removed he is from the open range.

JOHN BEMROSE