Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Haiku at 70

Flying fish return for Easter, CBC Barbados, March 2018.
HAIKU AT 70 BY JOHN ROBERT LEE
i.
on arthritic spurs
the aging cock’rel prances
to the chortling chicks.

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

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

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

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

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

vii.
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.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Sint Maarten

© John Robert Lee

Sint Maarten (for —)


i.
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.


ii.
“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.


iii.
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:

Arrivals:
Motor Vessel Lady Stedfast, 87 tons, under capt. L.A. Marks, from St.
Vincent, consigned to Peter & Co.

Departures:
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:

Meanwhile:
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,
“Flirtations”:

“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 Dant√©? 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.