Life and Times — On John Robert Lee’s Collected Poems 1975-2015
Reviewer by Vladimir Lucien for Poetry International. Here are some excerpts. For the complete review click here.
About a month ago, I saw Robert Lee having lunch with a few of his mates. “Old boys”, I thought to myself (which is what his alma mater —also mine— calls their alumni). Something about the collegial, somewhat mischievous laughter, and the tone of those men, all in their professional attire, seemed to suggest this relationship to each other as “Old boys”. Generations apart from them, the tone was still familiar to me. Yet there is something about seeing an artist on the outside, in regular circumstances when you possess the knowledge that they write, they create, privately, the transcendent. It can sometimes make them seem dubious; makes them seem to be only accommodating the mundane, trivial world. They appear talismanic; exotic; hybrid. Robert however, among the Old Boys, was still very much Robert— the writer; the old friend, somewhat quiet, good-natured, with a healthy sense of humour and as sensitive to the mundane world as he is to the “risen life” of faith, and of art where this mundane becomes transcendent.
In Robert’s Collected Poems 1975-2015, we meet a career spanning four decades of serious dedication to poetry, and a continuous renewal of that “boyish” relish — though more measured, discriminating and subtle— of experimentation, innovation and virtuosity. Along with its epic journey of faith— a journey not devoid of experimentation— there is in Robert’s work a strong sense of responsibility to his Times, not so much as “social activism”, nor, as Walcott put it in his poem “Elsewhere”, to “make a career of conscience”, but as a chronicler of life in its complexity, to— as he put it — “the anonymous teeming of [this] culture” such as his poem ‘Harbour Log’. Seemingly a “found poem”, it takes its form from what its name suggests, stating arrivals and departures:
Motor Vessel Lady Stedfast, 87 tones, under capt. L.A. Marks, from St.
Vincent, consigned to Peter & Co.
Schooner Grenville Lass to Martinique.
Motor Vessel Fernwood to Barbados. (102)
The power of the poem, Robert knows, is in its evocative and nostalgic power for those who inexorably walked along the Castries harbour. Yet, he records what was equally native to this time: the casual— if disturbing— degeneration of his small society:
Sylvestre JnBaptiste, alias Master,
Seaman of Mary Ann Street, Castries,
was found guilty by the Magistrate in the First District Court,
on a charge of unlawfully assaulting and beating
Dorothy Drayton, Laundress of Brazil Street, Castries,
on July 23. (102)
What is key to Robert’s work over the years seems to be a simultaneous devotion to and seeing of his present space and time along with its eternal correlative through the craft of poetry and Christian epistemology. He seeks a reconciliation of the world with the Transcendent which manifests in visions of imminent apocalypse and in everyday manifestations of the divine in the ordinary (which he shares with Lorna Goodison and others), or in the ability of art to raise life above itself, whether for further scrutiny, or praise:
Yes, I would Sabbath Wednesday
proclaim procession through old parts of town
place shrines of palm booths under verandahs’ ancient fretwork
and players of instruments at random corners..(156)
He assumes the role of the chronicler, both in the public and private sense. But always honest about his relationship to his subject. Unlike Walcott, Robert is very much a city poet— a Castries boy. Whilst Derek was from Castries, his poetry was dominated over the years by imagery, even when around the city, more suggestive of the rural, or the coast. Robert who courts, and loves the “folk” who provide the vital force behind the culture he admires, admits his limits. So though the city poet may fantasise about “a shapely muse from Marc or Millet”(152), or he may celebrate this culture, he admits:
“my friends must know that town-bred as I am,
my hands are soft, my feet cling poorly to the land,
my fingers scratch in vain, my toes itch for shoes to wear;
here, I am Lusca’s lover, nice boy, but still from town” (18)
And so, he takes his own path, true to himself, and I can think of few poets in the Caribbean who have so thoroughly and sustainedly chronicled, captured and loved a city as he has through poetry. But more important than that, is that Robert writes from where he is. The persona at his home in Babonneau; viewing “horizon-clear Martinique” from his place of work at the Folk Research Centre; his walks through Castries; or leaning towards his radio or television set or computer taking in the news, watching the tragedies of the modern world — from the astronauts who perished in the Challenger Shuttle Mission in 1986; to the near disaster of Copiapó, Chile, where 39 miners were trapped for 69 days in a mine but were later rescued; to other ravages of time captured in his poem-sequence ‘SOUNDTRACK-2010 AD’. Increased crime in St. Lucia, earthquake in Haiti, hurricanes, ageing evident in “slipping names, insomnia, gathering pillboxes” “and other washings-away”, asking a question so central to his work which is not so much the questioning of a man of faith, but really of a mere man :
“So faith is certain of tomorrow’s epiphany,
but how to meet the apocalyptic moment of now”(133) (my emphasis)
[ . . . ]
One major Caribbean poet remarked that “we all know that Robert’s poems are often brilliant, remarkable and illuminating, and we know that we are faced here with one of our big poets who has built his career in relative silence.” But in silence, he has worked —“beyond talent/ beyond award,/ beyond tomorrow’s tomorrow”— chronicled his times, from within the limits of geography, of having to live in a single body, in a particular time and circumstances, but with, as Walcott said of Chamoiseau, “an amplitude of heart”. Even amid his certainty of the “promised parousia” and his visions of apocalypse, there is no shortage of tenderness, empathy, a complex humanity and indeed a love and feeling of privilege of having lived among remarkable and ordinary men, within his “beautifully insignificant” island and city.
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