A Review of Collected Poems 1975-2015 (John Robert Lee)

COLLECTED POEMS 1975-2015 by John Robert Lee represents one man’s spiritual journey meandering through thorny labyrinths of faith, “from inner city provinces to southern islands of Amerika” (“Challenger”). This journey began long before 1975: when a young Lee witnessed his father, Alleyne, relishing a dessert of fresh ripe mangoes on a Sunday afternoon and began to contemplate seriously his romance with the written word. Engulfed by greenery in the little harbour at La Carierre on the outskirts of Castries, where he lived, and intoxicated by night sounds from crickets and distant hi-fi noises, it was easy to observe and dream.

Or was it? With Lee, one is never certain. I would like to believe it was a combined attack by all the senses on an inquisitive persona. Things like:

…the stale, old lady’s scent
     of righteousness that crawls from
                                                                  under French soutanes
(in “Vocation”); 

Or images as he describes later in “A City Affair,” such as: 

 [the] soft-candle light settling from Mount Pleasant to Morne du Don to
                                                                            Morne Fortune

sudden scattering of fine drizzle,
remembrances of yards, rooms, first loves
and evenings coming down to town — 

Images moulting into urges, fomenting in his young mind, in particular the scratching and clawing that leaped from daydreams into “Dread,” begging to be put down on paper: 

Because I have flung myself unto the void
and have exploded into stars of nothing
that would shine for you,

I have known the edge.

I am acquainted with most if not all of Lee’s earliest work, in particular Vocation (1975), as we shared and critiqued each other’s scribblings in those giddy-headed days. Lines from that book’s title poem still ring in my ears with a nostalgic clarity, transporting the spirit back to a happier time when everything was pleasant, young, vibrant and carefree:

…that ritual of Word and Gesture,
wrists uplifted, fingers plucking
outward, scratching at this altar,
daring faith and hope, changing them
into some clarity.  

Memory goes back to secondary school and a young Lee along with Patrick “Paba” Anthony and Arthur Atkinson, my first customers at St. Mary’s College. They gobbled up my fare of war stories, retold as a form of promotion to sell my bread and jam or bread and corned beef, depending on what my profit margins were the day before. On leaving school, we parted company briefly until about 1969, when Robert joined the Royal Bank of Canada as a teller and there began the lasting friendship kneaded together by mutual respect and reverence for the arts. We spent many a Saturday afternoon and sometimes Sundays at the beach trying out our early lines; ears tuned to the sounds of consonants and the actions of verbs. We were explorers, searching for poets as models, finding voices we hoped would serve our stiff prosaic styles, still learning to trust our readers with the line and doing all this within the geography of place.

The hopes and expectations of youth as well as the wry cynicism that is an integral part of Lee’s humour pointed to a promise. The timelessness of space caught in a warp shows rare contentment, and a willingness to adapt to the new dispensation, Caribbean Literature, took hold. A search for self, which continued even after it was found, gave new depth in pieces like “Lusca”:

                My plot of ground is dry and hard 
as sidewalks are; at night street lamps
block out the stars, and hi-fi sets
replace the country violins.
And I must dig foundations deep,
plunge steel and concrete shafts into this city’s dirt,
and hope for structures firm,
and spare, no space for flair or show,
each entrance, passage, exit, clear and marked,
each section storing much within a little space.  

Lee’s journey may not be as historic as his Homeric counterpart, but it is a journey no less filled with its own sagas recorded at every milestone along the route. Sorrowful as the fourteen stations of the cross, yet joyful as the mysteries of the Holy Rosary in Roman Catholicism. One common yet profound misapprehension of Lee is that he is just another simple Christian poet whose sole aim is to win souls for his Maker. Nothing is further from the truth. Lee’s faith is subsumed within his being and becomes one with his poetics.  He does not expound on his faith in a loud canonical voice like our modern-day televangelists, nor like Sinclair Lewis’ eponymous protagonist in his 1927 novel Elmer Gantry, who transformed his god into a business of extortion by proxy. Lee’s tone is soft and resonant with honest truth that you may accept or reject at will. There is no fire and brimstone, no prejudgment. In “Prodigal,” we hear rumblings of that deep-rooted truth struggling to be whole in a world surrounded by irony.  Whether this is a good or bad thing, he leaves it to us to speak for ourselves:

Labourer
man of the earth
teach me the divining certainty within your palms
that I may even now plunge down soft hands
into this heart of dirt and stone
to cup them firmly full around the darkening root of soil…. 

The journey (rather than voyage) continues through young manhood, where decay and decadence in the architecture of his town, Castries (made a city in 1967), becomes the symbolism for the ever changing fortunes of his life: the childhood dreams that blossomed into adolescent realities of wanting to know and understand the land and its people but that felt impaired by being a boy growing up a stone’s throw outside the city.

Each love that inhabits
now only fractured scenes
of dream and memory.
The age grows gross with sins…, 

he writes in “From Silver Point, Easter.” The high-pitched melodic voice of youth brings to mind memorable lines:

with sand in my toes
and sun in my hair,
my girl sleeping close
and sea everywhere
(“I want to fill you up with words”);

or

And, I confess an indignation
being left
a kingdom of dreams that I must soon make real… 
(“An anniversary: for Paul Layne”);

or

Will love hold, tight-roped between tears
certain of storm, not wanting loss
(“Will love hold”);

or

we return, never the same point,
that’s gone, that’s passed…
(“Spiral”).

Collected Poems spans more than forty years of writing by a skilled practitioner of the word who approaches his task with a trowel rather than a pen. Like the stone masons of former years who chiselled granite to fit the most discerning niches in a rubble wall to near perfection, so does Lee proceed to outfit the poem, line by staggering line, with a lucidity that caused the late Nobel laureate Derek Walcott to comment, “Robert Lee has been a scrupulous poet….” Knowing Walcott as we both did, I will not delve into what he may have meant by “scrupulous,” not wanting to invoke either layered interpretation or simple stop at the prima facie meaning of the word, which is to have careful regard for what is morally right. I find Lee’s body of work precise in its definition of time and nostalgia. Images fade in and out as in a film, with subtle dissolves and superimposes. The understanding of the nuanced difference between a line in poetry and a sentence in prose could not have been more adequately covered than as follows in “elemental”:

and across town,
you yearn after those sexy dancers
barreling through space,
arching, escalating over breath.

Contemplating Morne Gimie’s triple mornes
I envision Him
taken from our clouding sight,
upon the elevating air. 

Note the subtle capitalization of Him, in the second strophe, as the meandering eyes like a camera sweep across town to country to be guest at a resurrection, where Morne Gimie (St Lucia’s highest mountain) becomes Mount Tabor in the presence of the Trinity.

It is extremely difficult to approach the work of a writer who has been a friend for a much longer period than some of the poems in this collection were written without some mild bias creeping into your thoughts. I am not immune to this and feel constrained not to dwell on superlatives, which this work does not require, for it breathes. Lee has compiled for us a living journal of our lives as a Caribbean people, a people once “growing up stupid under the Union Jack” yet destined in time to find our rightful place in a world that will not recognize us unless we roar. Lee’s poems are more than a collage of memories for me. They are an inspiring source of our rumbling voice.