Dennis Lee on Writing UN

Three years ago I had a surprising experience. I had a bright idea for a book. But 
the book itself sat up and forced me to write something completely different. The 
result is UN.

My wife and I were in Barcelona for a few weeks. And I had a project. Like other 
thinking people, I was feeling anxious about what we're doing to the planet - the 
possibility that we'll make it uninhabitable by our own species, and many others.

I didn't believe that poetry could change that. But there was one thing I thought a 
poet could contribute. It sometimes seems to me that we get so distracted by all the 
welter of crises and panic attacks that we can avoid looking at the terrible fact: 
that we may be destroying our own home. And if that happens, there's very little 
chance that we'll make calm, steady choices about our real priorities.

So my project was to see if I could write a book that did imagine the worst. Not by 
writing editorials or scientific reports; and certainly not in order to wallow in 
despair. What I wanted was a book that enacted the movements of the moral 
imagination, as it wrestled with our contemporary fate, and tried to look directly 
into the heart of darkness.

Now, that's a fairly accurate description of the book I did write, so you might 
wonder where the surprise comes in. Let me tell you. What I expected was that I 
would be writing long meditative poems, which discussed the strange, endangered new 
reality we've made of the planet.

But what actually happened was something very different. A series of short, 
compacted pieces started to come out, in a language I could scarcely recognize at 
times. Let me give you an example:

Scribblescript portents unfurl, world-
to, worldfro.
And to comb the signs, to
stammer the uterine painscape
in pidgin apocalypse - now not not
gag on the unward, the once-upon, us-
proud planet?

These dense and jagged little pieces kept coming over the next few years - unlike 
anything I'd written before, and in fact not much like anything else in English. The 
language itself was breaking down and being re-made. And I started to realize that 
it wasn't enough just to speak about the pressure we've put on the earth; language 
itself was under the same pressure, and I had to listen as intently as I could, to 
discern the new forms it was taking. The medium had to be remade as much as the 

Here's another example. You'll catch what's going on if you listen carefully to the 
word nothing.'" As if there was a verb, "to noth" - meaning something 
like "to annihilate, to bring to nothing - to 'un,' if that could also be a verb." 
And so "nothing" would be the present participle of that verb.

And are creatures of
I noth you noth we
long have we nothed we
shall noth, staunch in true
nothing we
noth in extremis, noth until
habitat heartstead green galore & species
relinquish the terrene ghosthold;
crumble to alphadud, stutter to rumours of ing.

There were a couple of odd things that started to happen. One was that while the 
subject matter of the sequence was pretty grim most of the time, this wild 
unpredictable energy in the language imparted a kind of vital dance to the poems. I 
started to feel that the greatest affirmation of the sequence was emerging, not in 
pious hopes for a turnaround, but in the dance of this new language itself. It felt 
as though that was touching a living possibility for renewal, which of course is 
what we have to hope for. And I found that when I showed the manuscript to other 
writers and attuned general readers, they caught that sense of uncanny vitality too. 
There was great risk in it, but a celebratory energy as well.

Another thing that happened was that even though these pieces are small-scale in 
themselves, when you read the whole series of fifty-one, there's a kind of 
monumental effect. It's like that weird effect when you look at a sculpture by 
Giacometti - it may be only six or eight inches tall, but if you live with it for a 
bit, you get a sense of great spaciousness.

Let me read you a final, bittersweet piece. It suggests a greater resignation than 
the whole sequence conveys, but it may be a good place to end:

Lullabye wept as asia
rockabye einstein and all.

One for indigenous,
two for goodbye,
adam and eve and dodo.

Fly away mecca,
fly away rome,
lullabye wept in the lonely.

Once the iguanodon,
once the U.N.,
hush little orbiting gone.

So that's what I've been up to, in my first book of adult poetry since 1996. I know 
it's the riskiest book I've ever written, and at the moment I feel it's the best.