Saturday, January 27, 2018

Sint Maarten

© John Robert Lee

Sint Maarten (for —)

The Blue Bitch Bar, on the boardwalk
behind Front Street, Philipsburg,
was where we read, Friday night,
during the Book Fair —
dogs chased kids on Segways
a band played Third World classics
waitress gave me the wireless password —
patrons were polite
writers applauded each other,
and you reminded me
of someone I loved, and who loved me
45 years ago.

“Casino country” said a friend,
and downtown, lining narrow cobbled streets,
jewellery stores everywhere, their elderly women
who get a tip if you enter and buy —
a yellow antique car decorates Old Street
Indian shops offer deals on saris and ipads,
and back at the book tables, you sign faith
for a young one who believes
in more than cruise-ship terminals —
but we can’t go back, you and I
to undivided lives, to love as seminal
as pelicans browsing uninvaded shallows.

At Boundary Monument, driving to Marigot
Shujah points the flag of the independence movement
for a united St. Martin
no more French lagoon, or Dutch salt pond,
a mosaic “island of dreams”, multi-national, multi-lingual
cosmopolitan Caribbean —
I didn’t see enough
of bay-embraced quartiers and small hills
to measure the fantasy,
like bridging the points
between archived nostalgia
and relentless vague desire.

Life and Times - on John Robert Lee's Collected Poems 1975-2015

Life and Times — On John Robert Lee’s Collected Poems 1975-2015

Vladimir Lucien

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 tons, 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 poemsequence ‘SOUNDTRACK-2010 AD’. Increased crime in St. Lucia, earthquake in Haiti, hurricanes, ageing evident in “slipping names, insomnia, gathering pillboxes” “and other washingsaway”, 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)

Apart from apocalypse there is also the closer, more intimate lament for private disaster—

“A woman who has loved me for fifty years is dying.
Weak, losing weight, she is terrified, denying.” (164)

—celebration of the present, and of lives well-lived by friends already gone, tender reflections on
life, love, friends/hip; the ageing of both the poet and the increasingly grey and secular world. One
of my personal favourites being the poet’s remembrances of his father in his section entitled ‘Mango’
from the long poem ‘Artefacts’:

On Sunday afternoons in mango season,
Alleyne would fill his enamel basin
with golden-yellow fruit, wash them in clean water,
then sit out in the yard, under the grapefruit tree…..
The yellow basin, chipped near
the bottom,
its thin green rim, the clear water, the golden fruit,
him eating slowly, carefully picking the mango fibre from his teeth,
under those gone, quiet afternoons, I remember.
Me sitting in the doorway of my room, one foot on the steps
that dropped
into the yard, reading him, over a book. That’s the way it was. (67)

We also find in the book fleeting and sometimes sustained examinations of desire, both in younger
and older age, one of the best being in the quiet questioning of the really quite beautiful poem,

“Stranger, what is it that searches me as I probe my interest in you?…
Can I trust you? With my — what?
With my angling protestations, my mid-life confusions?
With what confessions?
Will you misunderstand? Or understand too well?
And see through the old man’s fumbling contradictions?
“What does he want?”
Affection settles warily
like a pup unsure of the hand’s intention. (125)

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.

(A side note: One wonders whether the hailing of Robert as the “foremost Christian” poet and the
constant qualifying of the work by this label does not do it an injustice. Is this for instance insistently
said of Danté? Geoffrey Hill? And if Robert is the foremost “Christian” poet in the Caribbean
then who are the other contenders? And how many of them have the word “Christian” wedged between the words “terrific” and “poet”? It is as if one is saying that poetry by default exists within
an epistemology or reality that is divorced from that which exists for the man of faith, when any
poet worth his/her salt knows that nothing could be further from the truth! )

Through his poetry we can mark the deaths of several significant Caribbean poets whom he elegises:
Tim Daisy, Bob Marley, Victor Questel; we remember the major disasters of the second half of
the 20th and the still incipient 21st century; the trajectory of his small modern society, blown up in
significance through its simultaneity with the Old World of Robert’s faith, the Bible and the local
visions of Apocalypse. “Rain”, a modern day envisioning of the biblical Flood is a poem that, ironically, shows Robert to be quite simply a fine poet as Derek Walcott calls him. Full stop. What is
good in the poem, what it leans on for its devastating beauty, is not its Christianity, but the depths
of the writer’s —God-given— gifts! :

We’ll never see the sky again.
The sun is dead under that slate shroud roped to buried horizons
And the water tearing off the roofs is not funny anymore.
The merchants’ curses chase their bazaars down pouring thoroughfares.
Already, already, fretworked gables are clinging to their astounded citizens…(115)

In the book, like one should want in the Collected Poems of a “big poet” as was said of Robert earlier, one looks for a sense of the fullness of life, for a world or trajectory we can share with the poet.

Robert writes about himself and his Times, himself in his Times, and the Times in himself. We meet
friends from his childhood, with him parading news of his family’s “Grundig radio”, to “Gabriel
Mondesir and my mates at school”(69) to Gabriel’s death fifty years or so later, still calling or referring to him, in the primary school way, by his full, teacher’s-register name:

Why does news of your death surprise me, music man,
surprise me with my love for you
my first star, my-mate,
Gabriel Mondesir? (154)

There are tender reflections, “public announcements”, celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries, dedications, obituaries— all the neglected life-valuing, life-affirming rituals left in the modern world in the spirit of these poems; in the desiccated era we meet towards the end of the book, where there is
still room for praise:

last night, intimations of death clogged
faith, chills and panic attacked prayer,
every gavel drop of the loud clock
paced the anxious heart peering
away from sleep at corner shadows;
would I lurch against the snorer
swear an incoherent groan
of a farewell, and then, and then…?
Against indignant protests of the grackles,
gnashing chorus of the barkers, my neighbour turns
up his system on this holy day
shuffling Marley, Patrick
St. Eloi, passed-on chantwelles and their violons, they
I love, gone beyond terrible intimacies of the dark—
So hear me chantin’ loud, see me skank and zouk,
on this green-foliating, bird-bazaaring, Rose-of-Sharon-bloomingday. (169

Rites: after Mosera

(c) John Robert Lee

Rites: After Mosera

no news to me, news of my death
though telebituaries trace coordinates
of relative history

news-clips flatter their distortions
and those who loved me
research the corners

of archived regrets
fictions of our passings
to see the first passions

of hand-in-hand, intimate desires,
before we seduced ourselves

with stupid, silly distractions —           

no news to me, news of my death
among the shades of Sheol.

in the end was the hating word
and that was that —
I knew the track to end the world

under the almonds
cruising scissor-tails
a beckoning horizon of veined ocean —

but you came, a curious brown heron
stood like a sea-stone on one foot
fixed me to your insistent life

until I let the fool of a man
go drown.

it wasn’t all needles and cracked hos
the far city, homeless under aqueducts
wrestling filthy strays over pizza boxes —

in the beginning, beautiful companions
jazz clubs, hit shows,
late-night coffee and smoke in penthouse studios

names and faces of the day, Basquiat on the wall
soap-opera romantics with heiresses
the predictable, worthless fantasies

— those who loved me I broke
under the guilt on my fatherless back.

Talitha, errant mythologies notwithstanding
truth be told, Mystery calls through traffic
and sound-systems of Jeremie Street

on Friday evening, looks over the shoulder
at you on the pedestrian crossing,
is the unknown number ringing your phone

in a bank queue ­—
when you fall beyond dream
into alien, torrid shadows

Mystery is the somehow familiar, tender wing
that lifts you to Himself.

 Art by © Ras Mosera.

Monday, May 8, 2017

After Dionne Brand: a glosa

(c) John Robert Lee 2016

after Dionne Brand: a glosa variation

“all I can offer you now though is my brooding hand,
my sodden eyelashes and the like,
these humble and particular things I know,
my eyes pinned to your face.” – Dionne Brand (Inventory)

I must tell you how moved I was
astonished, perhaps like the wind’s castanets in palms
outside my window, like the shak-shak of shells

under the interfering proddings of surf —
how you drew me close, yes, to brimming
over your so-unexpected full-veined

lines that were the archetypal echo
humming under my breath
and, indeed, here you were Brand —

all I can offer you now though is my brooding hand,

parsing your notations, perusing your inventory
of our blasted days, Aleppo now
and then Nice and yesterday Orlando

tomorrow Laventille again, Trench Town recurrent
Richmond Hill impossible to forget —
ossuaries, yes, of failed states and their politricks

babies broken on beaches, Mediterranean
drowned in overladen caravels
our islands’ doomed alleys mocking

my sodden eyelashes and the like —

exhausting, these post-modern certainties
no truth, no meaning, no author
no beauty I suppose in the old songs of remembering

upon drum, string and bones
dimpled laugh of the old woman who loves you
long arms of the dancer from San Fernando

sacramental light rimming the ends of sunsets
languid cruising of scissor-tailed seabirds
through our horizons, reading a fine poet from Toronto —

these humble and particular things I know,

add thresholds of jalousied doorways I crossed
pursuing mystery love, drawn even then by the echo
quivering on metronomes of evening softnesses

to find faith waiting in lines of dread-locked canticles
pointing couplets of dark sayings
terrible chapters of mighty prophecies —

anyway, like some minor April epiphany
am downtown Port of Spain, corner Hart & Abercromby
and you reading, tenderly, at Bocas

my eyes pinned to your face

Song & Symphony

My long ekphrastic poem, Song & Symphony, responding to the art of St. Lucian artist Shallon Fadlien, has been published at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Collected Poems 1975-2015 - John Robert Lee

Cover art by Gary Butte (St. Lucia).

Peepal Tree announces Collected Poems of John Robert Lee
Peepal Tree Press (UK) has announced on its website the forthcoming publication of John Robert Lee’s Collected Poems 1975-2015. The book will be published on April 3rd 2017.
In 2008, Peepal Tree had published Lee’s “elemental: new and selected poems.” Peepal is the leading publisher of Caribbean literature. Several St. Lucian writers are on their list, including Garth St. Omer, Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King, Vladimir Lucien, Adrian Augier and Earl Long.
Peepal says: “John Robert Lee’s Collected Poems tell both of a continuing journey and a subtly changing voice but also of an underlying, consistent attempt to hold together in one space the things that matter. This is seeking first the kingdom of God; maintaining the community of men and women who incarnate that kingdom and make life meaningful; the beauties of St Lucia’s natural world and its rich traditions of folk-culture; and the challenges and demands of poetry.
Whilst sometimes Lee’s poems involve a quiet self-communing, more often they are conversations with God and with those people who are close to him. At points they rise to being canticles of praise that express the experience of, or the yearning for the transcendent, through the imagery of the visible world. And whilst the poems connect to the wider world of travel and world affairs, their touchstone is always St Lucia. Like Derek Walcott, like Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King and now Vladimir Lucien, John Robert Lee’s poems demonstrate how possible it is to find an enriching, puzzlingly complex and intellectually stimulating world in a small island society.
The journey the poems tell is from the young man enthused with the energy of the radical decolonizing spirit of the 1970s, the years of deepening of Christian faith to the present of maturity and the acceptance of loss as well as gain, and the stamina needed for the continuing struggle for St Lucia to emerge from its colonial past and be ever more itself. In the later poems there are more glimpses of the private man who recognises that “My heart holds rooms I’ve never entered/ doors concealed, secret entrances.” And whilst over the forty years of the poems one hears always a personal, signal voice, over time the poems increasingly invest in the Kwéyòl language of the St Lucian folk as well as the voice of the English literary masters and, latterly, display a growing interest in the relationship between poetry and the visual arts.”
Recent publications by Lee, released under his own Mahanaim Publishers imprint, include Sighting and other poems of faith (2013), Bibliography of St. Lucian Creative Writing (2013), After Gary Butte (2015) and City Remembrances (2016). In 2014, he co-edited Sent Lisi: poems and art of Saint Lucia, with Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King and Vladimir Lucien. In December 2016, he will be issuing Song and Symphony, a cycle of poems written in response to the art of St. Lucian painter Shallon Fadlien.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

City Remembrances: Poems

My new chapbook, City Remembrances: poems, 42 pgs, illustrated, limited edition of 200 copies, is forthcoming. Sells at $30 EC, $10 US. Under my publishing imprint, Mahanaim Publishing. Designed by Raphael "Rinvelle" Philip. His art work is included. Printed by The Document Centre, St. Lucia. On sale in St. Lucia at the Folk Research Centre.