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An Accidental Monument
by Chris Jennings

In his introduction to Louis Dudek: Essays on His Work, George Hildebrand claims to have avoided "versions of monumentalization" because "[t]his poet is no monument; rather his life's work, ongoing, is a continuous processła growth, a flourishing of mind". With Dudek's passing on 22 March 2001, Hildebrand's acclamations have been forced into the wrong tense and his reminder of Dudek's ongoing work now reads as an insistence on the completed work's continuing relevance. This small book, too small to address all of Dudek's works in any meaningful way, has become a monument against Hildebrand's wishes. Credit him with some dire foresight, though, because much of this book stands up better as eulogy than it does as engaging discussion of Dudek's works.

Most of the book concentrates on generic admiration in the form of old introductions and reviews. Michael Gnarowski verges on the Homeric in his introduction to Dudek: l'essentiel, defining the poet by his heroic opposition to "the shallow eccentricities of popular culture as well as the sterile and eviscerating exercises of the academy," which (as befits the antagonist of a Montreal poet) makes "Toronto its Vatican and the CBC its office for the propagation of the faith." Aileen Collins is subdued by comparison, but Stewart Donovan calls Dudek "simply our greatest literary critic", and Tony Tremblay, who contributed a memorial to The Antigonish Review 125 that reads as a coda to this book, adds the title "most recognized practitioner of the modernist poetic form in Canada". W.J. Keith is less concerned with precedence, when he calls "Dudek's prose writings ... a major contribution to Canadian intellectual and cultural debate," than with the poet's "sensitive wisdom ... that we ignore at our peril." In this context, such elevated praise raises suspicion, if not resistance, without more evidence and more analysis to support it. The fault isn't in Hildebrand's desire to compile old laurels but the limits introductions and reviews place on their authors' ability to engage and analyze. They lack the depth and scope to convey the complexity of Dudek's work that true essays would provide.

There are three essays in the book but only Hildebrand's debuts here. Both Frank Davey and Dorothy Livesay focus on the development of Dudek's characteristic poetic style. Neither essay seems dated, though they are 21 and 35 years old respectively, but their maturity conflicts with Hildebrand's contention that Dudek's best books, where "he had perfected his method", are more recent, Continuation II (1991) and The Caged Tiger (1997). New essays seem necessary. Hildebrand fills part of that void by discussing the way Dudek's "powerful treatment of the human experience of aging and the confrontation with death" dramatizes "the process of mind investing that most bitter of realities, that empty sign, with full human meaning," but he turns too often to the same kind of partisan protestations and panegyric as Gnarowski. Dudek is described as an avatar of "mediation, ideology, idea" and opposed to "many contemporary poets" who "have cowardly given up on responsible passion and the serious poetry that arises from a human reflection about man, mind, and the life-support system of this unusual third rock." Whom does Hildebrand include in this "many", and whom would he exclude? The conflict seems too sharply defined, too simple to convey the integrity and achievement Hildebrand intends. Despite more advanced theoretical gestures, Hildebrand's essay has more in common with the introductions and reviews than with the insights of Davey and Livesay. The same can be said of the last three entriesłan interview, Dudek's notes for a talk on romanticism, and an anecdote by Sonja A. Skarstedt that reflects Dudek's commitment to small presses. They confirm a pattern of general impressions and assertions.

The lack of analytical rigour, the preference for introduction over inference, may be explained by the fact that the book is part of the Guernica Writers Series, which aims for a wider audience than mere academics and scholars. Those who only know Dudek by reputation will want to supplement this introduction to his works by sampling from the The Poetry of Louis Dudek and his Selected Essays. For those who have read a significant portion of Dudek's work, this book will remind them why they read him in the first place, and perhaps encourage them to produce more probing essays than those included here. Hildebrand writes rather plaintively that "If people would only read Dudek's Continuation I and Continuation II and The Caged Tiger" they would recognize "the comprehensive unity of [his] vision." If this slim book sends readers back to Dudek's writing, then it will be an unintentionally monumental and sadly eulogistic success. ņ


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