Saturday, December 21, 2013

Canticles for Seamus Heaney 1939-2013

Canticles for Seamus Heaney 1939-2013



On the radio, classical music from horizon-clear Martinique.

Mid-October, mid-afternoon, light breezes under the over-spreading mango,

across envined palmiste, through the abandoned garden, and you imagine the shadows

lacquered, set. The antique

stone staircase reduced to one forlorn curve and a few broken flagstones

leans against the shade.  In the frame, between grasses, is that an egret?

Pastoral pauses at Mount Pleasant, above Castries, in sight of Morne du Don villas,

                                                          high palms edging

the drift of hill across its barricade


of blue bent space.

Seamus Heaney,

phone calls from Stockholm, the graduation of apprentices,

afternoon softening to pastel, numinous,

over Choc’s procession of bright stones — what urgent

apocalypse hesitates to interrupt the coralita flirting among golden crotons?


On the radio, creole music of Malavoi from Martinique.



“Places of writing” – Sandymount Strand to Becune Point

by way of Mossbawn and Chaussée Road

then to Choc and Bellaghy – our corners and yours


where hens squawk under guava trees

and I imagine furrows of Derry in Autumn mists

the blackbird frantic on the skylight of Glanmore –


and Creole violons you loved with their ancient men

are gathering on Walcott’s surf-splattered verandah

with remembrances of you in lakonmet and moolala


and always, always, joynoise of friends and shac-shac players

tuned with our poteen. Ah Seamus!

We strike our notes and dig to roots of ploughs.



“Noli timere,” fear not, as we open the roof of clods

and let him down the mosswalls of Bellaghy

among the scattered cloths and beds


of poets, prophets and men of the palsy

who fall to Compassion in the hammocks of Love

and rise and walk in the grace of Mercy



Harmonies of harps and violons lift above

Carrauntoohil and Morne Gimie, Castle Dawson and Castries.
(c) John Robert Lee

Carrauntoohil is the highest mountain in Ireland; Morne Gimie is the highest mountain in St. Lucia.
Photo: Seamus Heaney with Augustin Papius, leader of the St. Lucian folk music band Manmay Kweyol. (c) J R Lee

This poem is published in Agenda (UK), the Poetry and Opera Issue, dedicated to Seamus Heaney (December 2013)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sighting and other poems of faith. Mahanaim Publishing, Saint Lucia.

While Xlibris have published a full colour edition of 'Sighting and other poems of faith,' in softcover, hardcover and e book format, my Mahanaim Publishing has produced a local edition. It varies slightly from the Xlibris edition with the addition of one poem as a Prologue, and some exchanging of photographic illustrations. The majority of photographs are my own. The Xlibris coffee table 8.5 x 11 is replaced by a 8.25 x 6.5 format, thus making this edition a 118p book.
The cover photo is my own, of our highest mountain, Morne Gimie, 3145 ft.
The poems of faith trace my journey of faith as a Christian from the late seventies. They reflect my 'Pilgrim's progress' through my Caribbean life and experience, my perception of the world in which I live, with a consciousness of the world beyond my island's shores. My Christian faith is essentially an orthodox, conservative, evangelical faith. The Reformation with its anchors in first century Christianity and its essential doctrines of justification by faith and Biblical inerrancy, is my theological base. My images are drawn from my landscape, my Caribbean culture and contemporary history. In terms of literature, the great Christian writers, past and contemporary, have been my models. The seventeenth century Metaphysicals and the modernists like Gerard Manley Hopkins and T S Eliot are literary forbears and teachers. Caribbean poets like Walcott, Brathwaite and others have been influences in terms of form and their perceptions of Caribbean culture and history. As Walcott has said, correctly, my poems try not to be "preachy or self advertising in terms of its morality." I recognise the benefits of living in a democracy and speak and write from my corner in a pluralistic world.
This collection is dedicated to the Church. The poems are gathered from several earlier collections and new work.
'Sighting and other poems of faith' is published and produced in St. Lucia. I have always thought it important to promote and support our local publishing industry, no matter how modest.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

After Garry Butte

I have long been fascinated by the art of Gary Butte. A young St. Lucian painter, his work reflects nothing of the traditional pastoral views of the famous twin Pitons of Soufriere, no fishermen, no sea scapes or landscapes. My usual comment on his work is 'not a Piton in sight.' Gary seems to have dug down past his young imagination to find some memory, some connection with some perception of African images, touched with Amerindian motifs. He has thus produced some of the most unique work, certainly among his St. Lucian contemporaries, and it would be good to have good art reviewers see how he compares with contemporaries in other Caribbean nations. With the help of the Alliance Francaise he has toured Martinique and Grenada, and has gone as far as London with his exhibitions. A tour of Mexico is lined up.
Several months ago, I selected a number of his works, saved them into a manuscript, and began to meditate on them with a view to writing some poems out of them. My approach was to make this an intuitive response to his work. I wouldn't approach it with preconceptions; I wouldn't plan any formal structures; I would allow the work to speak to my own innards, and bring out of me what it would, in content and form. I selected seven pieces. A I meditated on the work, I found marvellous correspondences between it and the work of the Kamau Brathwaite of Masks. You have my word that only later did I remember that Gary's most recent exhibition was titled Mask Parade (2011). So the poems counterpointed lines from Kamau in epigraphs, in a kind of jazz improvisation, as I played my riffs against Kamau and Gary.
Anyway, I've recently completed the poems after many months, and offer the first poem here. The titles were those Gary gave to his work.

After Gary Butte

So crossing the river

and walking the path

we came at last to Kumasi.” – Kamau Brathwaite


Prologue:       The merchant

Did he arrive at sunset’s orange hour

or with the anonymous midday bustle

markets busy before Sabbath—

and evening or noon height, him,

 stranger with strange wares

looking for a berth

in the fabled city.


Who wants cantos from placards of bewildered widows?

Totems to soft bones of decimated embryos?

Androgynous  puppets parading obscenely behind certain jars?

Any credit for dark sayings of Babylon, Bhutan or islands of the sea?


Fifth Avenue needs no merchandise of prophets—

with their Greek vases

their silicon tablets

their first editions

high speed subways and twin towers—

won’t spare a dime for this third world primitive

his ark of Mesopotamian innocence

his naive style.
(c) Gary Butte
(c) Kamau Brathwaite
(c) John Robert Lee 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

'Sighting and other poems of faith' XLibris, 2013.

"Have not yet got into the poem you sent but the first look is v/impressive and Quite some length!  Makes me want to ask you about yr religious Damascus, if i may put it that way.  in writing somewhere? or perhaps you've nvr specifically shared it?" -
This excerpt from an email to me from Kamau Brathwaite is the genesis of my new publication 'Sighting and other poems of faith.'
That query in Kamau's email got me thinking and I got a notepad and made some notes towards a prose 'spiritual autobiography', tracing my journey to a practising Christian faith.
At some point, in all this rumination, the idea came to gather my poems dealing specifically with faith from my published collections and some new, unpublished work. It did not take long to put a manuscript together since most of my poems are on my computer.
The poem 'Sighting', which I had not collected in my most recent 'elemental' (Peepal, 2008), seemed most appropriate as the title poem. It had been written in 1983 in Jamaica and remains dedicated to George 'Fish' Alphonse, poet, actor and director. The collection begins with 'Prodigal', my first poem dealing specifically with my faith and is dedicated to Kendel and Jane Hippolyte.
I included the whole of 'Canticles' (2007). I added a number of my photographs. The cover photo was a shot I had taken from my home in Plateau, Babonneau of Morne Gimie, our highest mountain. A couple photographs from other photographers accompany some of the poems excerpted from my Haiti sequence. I have also included some new poems which have appeared in BIM.
While the poems don't describe the 'Damascus' journey enquired of by Kamau (I'll have to go back to the prose memoir) they reflect my journey of faith after that point of turning again in 1978 to the faith I had as a child.
I have often described my poems as describing my Caribbean 'pilgrim's progress' of faith through my own landscape, my own flesh and blood experience surrounded by the language, the music, the events of the day far and near. My faith is rooted in what I know and live. And the poems try to speak out of that personal reality.
I first thought of a limited edition I would publish and print in St. Lucia. Then somewhere along the road, MacDonald Dixon pointed me to XLibris the print on demand publishing house who produces his work. They seemed to offer some useful benefits like an ebook, and full colour paper and hardback books. With the help of a patron, I sent off the manuscript and here we are. The book is available on Amazon and other on line sellers, including the Xlibris bookstore.
Around all that I have been compiling a bibliography of St. Lucian Creative writing, working slowly on a new collection of poems for Peepal Tree Press, and still have to go back to that spiritual memoir of my Damascus journey. I owe Kamau, and perhaps myself, that review of an earlier life.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

'will love hold' - after photo by poet Vladimir Lucien

Will love hold, tight-roped between tears

Certain of storm, not wanting loss


Howling to horizon’s abyss, heaving from despair?

Will love hold, memoried to casual harbours—


And we were happy for a while, and forgot

Tomorrow coming, and coordinates we couldn’t


Will love hold, when all is broken

And merciful tides of amnesia

cradle us till we wake?

(c) John Robert Lee 2013

Photo (c) Vladimir Lucien - 'Boats at Moruga, Trinidad'

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

There are a group of writers whose work I have long admired. They have much in common. They are prose and poetry writers, have contributed to newspapers and magazines, have broadcast their writings. They have, many of them, been recognised as literary scholars whose works are still highly respected. They have all been practicing Christians. Much of their work has been Christian apologetic while their prose and poetry reflect Christian theology. I do not profess an indepth knowledge of all their work, but I have been reading and rereading a number of their books over many years and keep coming back to them as a personal touchstone and reference point for my own thinking and writing. And I suppose I admire them and look to their work because, in a modest way, I have been a straggler along the trails they have trod.
The writers are George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers. There are others like Charles Williams and Madeleine L'Engle, but those I mention are the ones I keep coming back to. I have been rereading, as 2012 turned into 2013, Tolkien's The Silmarillion. Wonderful mythmaking with strong Biblical parallels, though Tolkien says forcefully, in a seminal essay accompanying the edition, it is not an allegory. (That 'essay' is in fact a letter Tolkien wrote to his publisher in 1951 concerning the writing of his great stories, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.)
One writer who is not mentioned here but who I also reread often, is a former student and friend of C.S.Lewis, Harry Blamires. He too, like many of these mentioned, is a creative writer and literary scholar and writer of Christian apologetics. His books of literary criticism include studies of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Milton.
I have been reading his works like The Christian Mind (1963), Where do we stand? (1980), and The Post-Christian Mind (1999). He writes very much in the tradition of Chesterton and Lewis, bringing orthodox Christian theology to bear on the secular world of our times. He does so with astuteness, a fine intelligence, a clear understanding of the issues, the times and the Biblical theology he espouses.
In the midst of constant bombardments of orthodox Christianity, the rise of new atheists who still raise the tired trumpet of the god science, who still shout the old well worn arguments that deny revelation and mock faith, Blamires is a clear voice of the reason of faith. In the brave not so new world of iclouds, ipads, mobile technology, moral and theological confusion, a world that is more lost than ever in its hedonism and glitter and hopelessness of political directorates, Blamires is a strong voice of faith in its rationality for those who want help to understand how to live their faith in the twittering social whirl of secularism.
Here is a taste of his writing from Where do we stand (1980) in a chapter on Idolatries: "The Christian's intellectual, moral and spiritual disciplines are his only means to stability in the morass of current irrationality, amorality, and materialism. The bases of a differentiated Christian commitment are essential footholds at a time when the flood of secularist propaganda would wash away the landmarks of supernaturally-orientated allegiance. The tide muddies even the springs of language. Our words are taken over, smeared with secularist overtones, and returned to us almost too soiled for Christian use. We have seen how this has happened with words like 'love', 'compassion', and 'forgiveness', which have been so freely exchanged as counters in marketing cheap self-indulgence and easy lust that they come back into our hands coated with the grease of a thousand grubby fingers, and are scarecely recognizable as coinage." (p 120).