Friday, April 10, 2020

The Passion and Resurrection Canticles

(c) John Robert Lee

The Passion and Resurrection Canticles


John Robert Lee

Easter 2017
Castries, Saint Lucia

The Passion and Resurrection Canticles

(for Charles Cadet)


Prologue: The alabaster flask


Over the bowed Head, the anointing oil of nard
pours from Mary’s broken alabaster flask—
certainly, she filled that room with the fragrant adoration of her Lord;
certainly, even then, some grudged Him that embalming, with their indignant jealousy—
you heard it in the thief’s voice, sneering at the poor;

and the Master, raising His burial, raising her memorial, raises their approaching loss,
beyond the maddening fragrance of the pure
ointment. But the bedeviled thief rose in envy, and over Christ, his bottled hatred broke.



“Who is this, this peasant prophet, wailing shoah on the city?
What is this riot of rags and branches down the thoroughfare?
And why this bacchanal of blasphemy resurrecting from Bethany?
Which Balak sends this Balaam’s foal to mock Messiah?

Where next this din of thieves, this unwashed brood of publicans?
Will they impale the merchants and the bankers and the priests on their hosannas
when they’ve stormed the precincts of the porch?
While their ambitious carpenter withers, as usual, in some forgotten Arimathean sepulchre?”



Bitter herbs, bread unleavened, wine, and lamb slain between the two evenings—
do the twelve comprehend they are settling the last rites of Exodus, sipping the watered dregs of that final Pascha?
And beyond fiction, in the Servant’s holy hands, the betraying heel. And the flat-footed denials. And the splayed doubts. And other such leavenings.

Out of the common dish comes the separating sop to deepen their perplexity.

So there, above some obscure alley in His City, all our wretched story— Eden, Sinai, Golgotha—
is passed over, for His Bread, His Wine, His bitter Tree.

 Later still, such talk under the brooding night! Then prayer, a hymn,
and over the Kidron, into Gethsemane.


What commenced in the other garden begins to end here,
in the shadow of an olive mill by a black brook.

“Behold, We have become like one of them, to bear
their sorrows and their griefs.” Let the wheel break
this Fruit on every tooth and tread. Bruise
the Seed under the trampling heel of the Bull
of Bashan. Pour the sweating barrel
of this agony into the cupping palms of God.


“Ecce homo”

“O Galilean, robed in purple, crowned with thorns,
is this Your estate? Is this Your kingship,
reduced to the scourge of their envy and spit? God born
of man, behold Your truth: silver kisses treacherous palms, shape-shifters
rend their costumes at cock-crow, the Pavement is soiled
by the desolation of Your bloody Purity. Look Carpenter,
is Caesar not adored, is Barabbas not preferred?
See, Holy Fool, You and Your Jews, I wash my hands of You!”


They leave Him nothing but irreducible nakedness—
no fig-leaf girdle, no swaddling cloth, no seamless tunic;
they impale the battered Scarecrow on the Skull’s brow; their final curses
perforate the darkening skin of the sun; His distending knuckles
claw the veil of the God-forsaken air; yet, even now,
He thirsts only for the sour wine at the end of the hyssop branch; stricken
between earth and heaven, His heart opens to a new covenant,
and pours its blood and water on the Father’s reconciling Hands.

Epilogue: Piéta of Joseph of Arimathea

“He was all scattered, empty-limbed, exhausted, gone,
when I gathered Him off the stake. O my Son,
my Son! I was more Your son than You were mine,
Your tentative disciple, peeping out the Council’s shutters for Your Kingdom.
O my wounded King! Holy, Holy, Holy Child! O my dear,bruised Prince!

O Father, receive Him in our poor linen, swathing His torn
flesh. May these paltry spices herald His approach
to Heaven’s Throne. O LORD, give this Your Servant rest in Your eternal Rock.”


Risen Man

“Have you ever shaken hands with a man who was dead?
Have you ever looked into the laughing eyes of a man who beat death?
Have you ever sat next to such a one and shared his salt bread?
Friend, do you know the incomparable odiferousness of the breath
of a resurrected man? Friend, have you been led in Zion’s psalms
by a voice that scattered the doomed wealth

of Satan’s domains?  Stranger, I have known the encompassing arms
of such entombing and embalming Grace.”

O Lord Christ, that we might,
with hearts' mouths hushed, see You
take the backyard-oven bread
You share with us, see Your hands

raise that plump loaf up into
this day's lavender end,
know with burning, blessed
sight, it's our Master bends

and breaks those dry-crust ends
of breasts of Paix-Bouche bread.

“In Caravaggio’s ikon”

In Caravaggio’s ikon of Thomas seeing Christ
all eyes are locked to the doubter’s firm finger
poking around the torn flesh, under

the strong hand of the Carpenter. Thomas,
Apostle to our secular, mocking, murderous
new age, meeting his worst-case scenario
with the firm grit of flesh under his thumb,
that index of incarnation— incarnation, Immanuel
God is with us — under the impossible rubble,

as we claw at the unimaginable earthfall, Immanuel—
over the body of someone’s son fallen in crossfire,
in shrieking shadowlands of betrayal,

through terminal disorientation of disease, Immanuel.
Because that wound is real, the death was certain,
here, beyond reason, beyond the apocalypse

of private disasters, is something else,
is Life beyond life, beyond heartbreak,
beyond assassination, beyond the tremblor

at 3 in the afternoon, beyond the amnesiac cancer of the mind.
Here, under our finger, is faith, here is hope,
and He asks us, against the brutal heel on the locked door,

the harsh fist of imploding earth,
the shroud covered bier—
“Love one another.”

So, faith is certain

So, faith is certain of tomorrow’s epiphany
but how to meet the apocalyptic moment of now
under fallen colonnades of the Presidential palace

tent cities of cholera and rape and empty-bellied children
the recurring decimation of mud in the kitchen
friends going to dementia, decrepitude and tumours

and in honest mirrors, the apparent dysfunctions,
slipping names, insomnia, gathering pill boxes
and out of reach, envied flirtations with perfect lips,

sloe eyes and teasing hips. Add inescapable
anxieties, dead-end jobs that pay bills,
no prizes, no awards, the country grown strange and foreign,

citizens mocking the devalued currency of art—
so, how to meet the apocalyptic hour
though faith is certain of the promised parousia?

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Sketches and Canticles of Lent

© John Robert Lee

Sketches and Canticles of Lent
after Shallon Fadlien

Pierrot – Mardi Gras

Filthy feathers, that painted shoe, trampled headpiece, etcetera
choking drains down the route,
street-light blinking out, stale roti

baddening the guts, your eyes sharp for midnight bandit
or coke jumbie looking to make ole mas
with the unwary 
                                    you clown prince, you celebratory idiot

you forget she was Coolie Devil original,
Jab-Jab Mistress, maker of scourges?

Socialite – Ash Wednesday

God, to be outta this talk-show bakanal
these infernal cycles of mamaguy kaiso politricks
perpetual, shameless, cell-phone scandals

and all else; man gone cold in Toronto
landlord looking for his portion,
me sleeping with my fantasies —
in the penitential procession

the priest and his boys washing
you, beloved masquerader, in their platter of ashes.

Masque – Good Friday

We know the triumphant end of that old scenario:
disembowelled shroud, vacant catacomb
incredible gossip of love-struck women

whose eyes and hands and arms
encompassed the impossible incarnate eternal,
the risen God —
                                    the empty mask, inanimate

signature of death’s humanity
crosses to centre stage before that tremendous denouement.

© Art: Masque by Shallon Fadlien

Poem in Pierrot. Peepal Tree, 2020.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

I am pleased to let you know that Peepal Tree Press, my publisher, is announcing the publication of my new poetry collection, Pierrot, on February 20th.
It is my third book with Peepal. (In 2019, Polly Pattullo of Papillote Press published my Saint Lucian writers and writing: an Author Index. I have published several chapbooks and books of my own under my Saint Lucian imprint Mahanaim Publishing.)
Thanks to my editor and publisher Jeremy Poynting and his hard working manager Hannah Bannister. The cover art is by Saint Lucian artist Shallon Fadlien who lives in Canada.
The write-up below is from the Peepal Tree web site and its section on upcoming books. Congratulations and all the best to my fellow Peepal writers with new books on the way.
And we continue to send congratulations and best wishes to Roger Robinson, Tdad/UK who won the prestigious T S Eliot Prize for his A Portable Paradise, published by Peepal. Continuing thanks also to Bocas LitFest, Calabash, Nehesi Publishers and the St. Martin Book fair and others at home and in our diaspora who make space and opportunity for writers to present their work through readings and book fairs. The NGC-Bocas annual awards are now among the most anticipated at home and abroad.
And thanks again to Peepal Tree and the hardworking folks there who since 1985 have been the foremost publishers of Caribbean and Black British literature. Amazing range of poetry, prose fiction and non-fiction if you look close. So many of Peepal's writers are now recognized names all over the literary world.
We press on
From Peepal tree web site:
"The sacred and the profane, dialogues with self and world, literature and politics meet in the figure of Pierrot. He is the sad clown, holy fool of literary tradition, the suffering artist who connects to Christ in his most human incarnation as Man of Sorrows, and he is also the Pierrot Grenade of Caribbean carnival, the most literary of carnival figures who can spell anything, who carries a whip, but lashes with his tongue. The two meet so that Pierrot is both the bedraggled figure at the sordid end of carnival who is weary of the “Infernal cycles of mamaguy kaiso politricks”, and the risen Christ who, if you listen, you can hear “crack His midnight robber word”.
In his ninth collection of poems, John Robert Lee contemplates his 70th year in St Lucia and the sad chimes of mortality as friends and literary and cultural heroes leave this life. It’s a time for a weighing up of where domestic, political, literary and spiritual journeys have reached. It is a time of both honest admissions but also renewed faith in all these journeys. 
If any of this suggests a retired poetry steeped in reflective sorrow, far from it. This is the most vigorous, demotic and experimental of John Robert Lee’s collections. There are new explorations of poetic forms such as the glosa, homages to the poetry of writers from Dionne Brand to Francis Thompson, the literary equivalent of the ekphrastic poems that have been appearing in his recent work. Pierrot is probably the most intimate of Lee’s collections, more of the man in all his guises appears here, a confessional voice lightened by self-irony and humour. Sometimes Pierrot is an archetypal figure, sometimes he may be thought to be Lee himself. And if salvation is the ultimate prize, few have beaten down the Babylon of the great northern neighbour with a heavier, more righteous lash than Lee wields in his poem, “Who made me a stranger in this world”."

Friday, June 8, 2018

Caribbean Literary Heritage - Lee


Photo credit: Davina Lee
What is the first thing you wrote?
I don’t know if I can remember the very first thing. But I do remember, after I left secondary school in 1967, and was working at a bank, I began to write a sequence of poems in an exercise book, which I recall, was about my father. Before that, at school, while I had always done well at literature and languages, I never wrote creatively. My first poems were published in 1970, in Link magazine, a St. Lucian literary journal, edited by Barbadian Stanley Reid who was living in St. Lucia. Two poems, titled “John 3:16” and “Rainbow.” One a religious theme, the other on racial issues. I was then at Cave Hill UWI, where as a literature student, I had begun to write in a more focused way. Link magazine, the first of its kind in St. Lucia, ran from 1968-1970. Caribbean Literary Heritage will be pleased to know I have those issues, well bound.

Who do you write for?
I ultimately write for myself and for those who will read my work. I like to think I write for St. Lucian and Caribbean readers, readers of poetry and prose anywhere, people interested in faith and art themes, Caribbean life. But ultimately, when I sit to write, I am writing first for myself, to put down as best and as clearly as I can, whatever themes are before me at the moment. I use the guidelines of “truth, beauty and harmony” to shape what I am doing. The words of Michael Mitchell, who wrote in an obituary on the late Wilson Harris, adapting Blake, sum up for me what I aim for: “grounded in the real world, transformed by metaphor, cultivating empathy, having a universal perspective." While this particularly refers to poetry, I also write scrupulously and with attention to detail and accuracy in my fiction and non-fiction (essays, reviews.)

While I move easily between free-forms and more formal type verse, I like the discipline given by formal structures, those I copy or those I create. I am strong on music, image, metaphor, beauty of line, in my poetry. While we hear much of “anti-lyrical” poetry, while we see much of a kind of obscure surrealism in modern poetry, I lean more to the descriptive-narrative styles, with substantial content (in theme and image) and with a fairly strong dramatic quality. Derek Walcott is a major influence. In recent years, I have been writing much ekphrastic poetry, responding intuitively to visual art of all kinds, including photography.

What was the first Caribbean book you read?
I honestly don’t remember, but I do recall early readings of George Lamming’s novels, Roger Mais, and I must have read Walcott. Once I got into Caribbean literature, in the late sixties, I read many anthologies of poetry and stories and grew familiar with the writers of the time.

How many Caribbean writers from the 1940s and 50s could you name?
Without taking up the space, I can say that from the late sixties, before I went to Cave Hill, UWI, in 1969, I had become familiar with the major and minor writers of the time. My friendship with persons like Patricia Ismond, McDonald Dixon, Stanley Reid and Roderick Walcott enabled me to discover the canon of the time, to engage in discussions of our literature. So I could name quite a few if needed. In 1972, I was at the first Carifesta as a stagehand, and was privileged to be in the company of many of our writers who were there.

How many women?
Phyllis Allfrey, Jean Rhys, Louise Bennet, Sylvia Carew, Paule Marshall. Pulling these from top of my head now.

Which writer do you wish you knew more about?
Am not sure. Perhaps early pioneers like Una Marson. I need to read more of Wilson Harris.

What is the earliest piece of Caribbean writing you have read?
In some anthologies, I have seen poems by writers from the 18th century.

Does the Caribbean’s literary past matter to you?
Yes it does. I have a keen interest in literary history. I consider myself something of a “literary archivist”, collecting photos and other kinds of information about our Caribbean literary tradition. I would like to see more biographies of our writers (and artists) and more studies of literary developments. Anne Walmsley’s “The Caribbean Artists Movement 1966-1972”(1992), Andrew Salkey’s Havana and Georgetown Journals (1971,1972), Bruce King’s two books on Derek Walcott and the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, Eddie Baugh’s various books on Walcott’s life and work, Laurence Breiner’s book on Eric Roach and the politics of Caribbean Poetry (Peepal, 2008) are still pioneering works in a field waiting to be explored and filled.

Who are our most important writers today?
Many of the older writers are still important: Walcott, Brathwaite, Naipaul, Harris, Rhys, Lamming, Hearne among others. Lorna Goodison, Mervyn Morris, Earl Lovelace, Ian McDonald, the late Victor Questel, Dionne Brand and those who follow that first “Golden Age” generation. Many new voices have arrived, many of whose works are rewarded by big prizes: Kwame Dawes, Claudia Rankine, Marlon James, Vahni Capildeo, Kei Miller, Vladimir Lucien, Tiphanie Yanique, Ishion Hutchinson, Shivanee Ramlochan, Ann-Margaret Lim, Richard Georges, Jennifer Rahim among others. These and their many other colleagues are important. Time will tell, of course, how truly important and significant they are. Then there are many Caribbean writers who have grown up in the diaspora: Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and others. Peepal Tree Press, Carcanet and Papillotte Press are doing a great job in publishing the works of the older and newer writers. And we have not even touched writers from the other language areas of the Caribbean.

What are you reading now?
Always too much piled up on my desk to read, lol. But these days I am reading Loretta Collins Klobah (Ricantations), Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné (Doe Songs), an English poet, Hilary Davies (Exile and the Kingdom,) Kwame Dawes (City of Bones), Jacob Ross’ short stories, “Tell no one about this.”.  I have also been dipping into a casebook on the recently deceased Garth St. Omer and a fascinating book by Jean Antoine-Dunne, “Derek Walcott’s love affair with film.” This means finding time to read in between a full time job and other activities, including my theological reading and my own writing. But bit by bit, I get a sense of what our contemporaries are doing. In earlier years, I did more reviewing and often think I would like to do more again, in response to all I am reading and all that is happening.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Haiku at 70

Flying fish return for Easter, CBC Barbados, March 2018.
on arthritic spurs
the aging cock’rel prances
to the chortling chicks.

the mango blossoms
above its shingled, brown bark,
stubborn, entrenched roots.

with blustery rain
the dog peeps reluctantly
out its small window.

put out, the cat glares at us,
mewling plaintively.

well-lit, spacious rooms
books, memorabilia
unused plates, termites.

the sexy dancer
stares past your idle glances
over fresh-laid wreaths.

the plunging seagull
bores the veined, heaving ocean,
 lifts the flying fish. 
John Robert Lee is a St Lucian poet and contributing editor of ArtsEtc. His Collected Poems 1975-2015 was published by Peepal Tree Press in 2017.    "Haiku at 70" was written on the occasion of his 70th birthday May 6, 2018.
Statements Made: Caribbean Collected Works
by Vladimir Lucien and John Robert Lee
            When John Robert Lee first thought of compiling his Collected Poems, Kwame Dawes the associate poetry editor at Peepal Tree Press, said to him, “A collected is a statement.” Indeed, several such statements have been made in the Caribbean over the years, with several major Collected volumes appearing within the last two years from major Caribbean poets. And somehow, looking back on the early fledgling years of any of these poets, the rise to prominence or at times notoriety, the quarrels, the quality of tumult both individual and within the wider Tradition that by turns were signs of vigour and at others, the hari kiri for which so many artists are known — after all these years, after all that life, there is a way in which such statements in and of themselves are unanswerable. They seem to settle all quarrels simply by the industry they represent, the endurance. There is a phrase we in St. Lucia use here for Walcott — “He has done his work”, expressing admiration for the fervency with which one obstinately adhered to his vision and produced substantial and beautiful evidence. This is also an expression of critical praise that goes beyond agreeing with a writer’s politics or being attracted to his aesthetic. There is alas, beauty even in quantity, for it is the beauty of true labour, of human sweat— a good life’swork. The gestalt of such industry, is the sense of having made a “statement” in the way that Dawes seemed to suggest.
Ian McDonald. Collected Poems. Peepal Tree, 2018. 400 pgs

Mervyn Morris. Peelin Orange: The Collected Poems of Mervyn Morris. Carcanet, 2017. 258 pgs

Lorna Goodison. Collected Poems. Carcanet, 2017. 602 pgs.

What follows is not meant, in any way, to be a close review of the Collected works depicted above. We both were reflecting on the number of Collected editions of poetry by Caribbean poets that have been appearing in recent years. We were thinking about the significance – ‘canonical,’ indicative, literary-linguistic-historical, etc – of collections of poetry in particular (leaving prose stories and essays for the time being). The writers of these works are /were accomplished Caribbean writers and their lives and work circumnavigate, as it were, Caribbean history, social change, arts and literature, and interface with the wider world. And in familiar ways, they are representative of their generations of our writers in their themes, styles and achievements.

John Robert Lee. Collected Poems 1975-2015. Peepal Tree, 2017. 180 pgs.

Victor D. Questel. Collected Poems. Peepal Tree, Caribbean Modern Classics, 2016. 295 pgs.

Derek Walcott. The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013. Selected by Glyn Maxwell. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 617 pgs.

Among these writers is the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, with appropriately two large Collecteds. He has also published several Selected editions.  Many of our poets are no longer with us. Lee, turning 70 in 2018, is the youngest among them. From Jamaica to Guyana they embrace the archipelago of these islands and continent of the Americas. As compilations of a life’s work, the book lengths are notable. Walcott and Goodison lead the group here.
Derek Walcott. Collected Poems 1948-1984. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986. 516 pgs.

As we reviewed the works gathered here very generally, we wondered whether enough attention had been paid, in a substantial way, to these works and the “statements” they make about Caribbean poetry and literature, writers and their lives at home and abroad, and the achievements represented. Walcott understandably has had the lion share of critical attention. Lorna Goodison, currently the Poet Laureate of Jamaica, was also recently awarded a Windham-Campbell prize from Yale University. But alongside the unceasing flow of new writers and writing, with fresh talents burgeoning with every new publisher’s catalogue and announcements of annual awards regionally and internationally, we questioned whether enough notice has been given to these career-crowning anthologies. Peepal Tree with its Caribbean Modern Classics has been ardently returning to us pioneers such as Una Marson and Eric Roach. Carcanet has brought out the Collecteds by Morris and Goodison, and Farrar Straus & Giroux, Walcott’s “omnibus” collection.
Ian McDonald, whose Collected is now issued by Peepal Tree, had some relevant words on this matter in his foreword to the collected poems of Eric Roach (1915-1974):
“This is an extremely important book. Before its appearance no literary historian or critic, let alone lover of poetry, will have been able to measure the full richness of West Indian poetic creation in the era since the Second World War….the presence of the poet in the imagination is not whole until his work is brought together full bodied and complete in spirit in some definitive collection such as this.”
A statement indeed. McDonald’s foreword is worth reading in full. He puts Roach’s poems into the writer’s historical, social and literary contexts. And we would say that his remarks here remain important when we consider the portfolios gathered in these few cited works.
There is also great diversity to savour in these Collected Works published so far. Mervyn Morris and Lorna Goodison, both Jamaicans, offer distinct styles and approaches to the word, distinct aesthetics, but both with the force of character, of conviction to have over the years continued to not merely be faithful to an aesthetic, but as faithful to nurturing and evolving it. We can mark in these works the ways in which writers may have influenced each other. In dedications we can snatch the perfume of admiration among devotees of the craft, we can run our fingers through the pelt of the period in which the writing took place. All the delights that Collected Works generally bring, but in this case for an often obscured tradition that deserves the world’s attention. Even more fortuitous is the returning to us of those writers who have gone before us long ago now, who were from a time where publishing was even less easy to come by, and to gain a substantial audience, even harder. Dominican Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s work comes to us, so long after her transition, thanks to another publishing house devoted to Caribbean work, Papillote Press, run by Polly Patullo.

Phyllis Shand Allfrey. Love for an island: the Collected Poems of Phyllis Shand Allfrey. Edited by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Papillote Press, 2014. 94 pgs.

Una Marson. Selected Poems. Edited by Alison Donnell. Peepal Tree, Caribbean Modern Classics, 2011. 164 pgs.

Even as we seek out the new voices, place them in their seeming lines of influence, send them forward with blessings and exhortations, we also must look at those who have laid,  are building and maintaining, and renewing the foundations of our Caribbean literature, as manifest in these Collected works of poetry. The recent awarding of the Windham-Campbell Prize to Goodison augurs well and may invite the eyes of the world to probe deeper into our tradition and its unique accomplishment. Readers will certainly be familiar with other important collections. And there are other writers from whom we eagerly await their own gathered statements.
Anson Gonzalez. Collected Poems. Peepal Tree, 2010. 242 pgs.

Wayne Brown. On the coast and other poems. Peepal Tree, Caribbean Modern Classics, 2010. 112 pgs.

Martin Carter. University of Hunger: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Edited by Gemma Robinson. Bloodaxe Books, 2006. 323 pgs.

E.M.Roach. The Flowering Rock: Collected Poems 1938-1974. Peepal Tree, Caribbean Modern Classics,
1992. 216 pgs.

John Robert Lee is a writer from St. Lucia. He has published several collections, most recently, his Collected Poems 1975-2015.(Peepal Tree).


Vladimir Lucien is a writer and critic from St. Lucia. His debut collection Sounding Ground (Peepal Tree) won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature in 2015.