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'meandering through thorny labyrinths of faith'

Written by McDonald Dixon for online on Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Collected Poems 1975–2015 (Peepal Tree Press, 2017) by John Robert Lee represents one man’s spiritual journey meandering through thorny labyrinths of faith “…from inner city provinces to southern islands of Amerika…” (Challenger) which began long before 1975 when a young Robert witnessed his father Alleyne relishing a dessert of fresh ripe mangoes on a Sunday afternoon and began to contemplate seriously his romance with the written word. Engulfed by greenery in the little arbour at La Carierre on the outskirts of Castries, where he lived and intoxicated by night sounds from crickets and distant Hi-Fi sounds, it was easy to observe and dream.

Or was it? With Robert one is never certain. I would like to believe, it was a combined attack by all the senses on an inquisitive persona. Things like:

“…the stale, old lady’s scent
of righteousness that crawls from
under French soutanes;” (Vocation)

Or, images as he described later in ‘A City Affair’ the:

“ …soft-candle light settling from Mount Pleasant to Morne du Don to
Morne Fortune
sudden scattering of fine drizzle,
remembrances of yards, rooms, first loves
and evenings coming down to town —” 

Images moulting into urges, fomenting in his young mind, in particular the scratching and clawing that leaped from daydreams, begging to be put down on paper.

“Because I have flung myself unto the void
and have exploded into stars of nothing
that would shine for you,
I have known the edge.” (Dread)

I am acquainted with most if not all of Robert’s earliest work, (as he is of mine) in particular the poems in Vocation (1975), as we shared and critiqued each other in those giddy-headed days. Lines still ring in my ears with a nostalgic clarity, transporting the spirit back to a happier time when everything was pleasant, young, vibrant and carefree:

“…that ritual of Word and Gesture,
wrists uplifted, fingers plucking
outward, scratching at this altar,
daring faith and hope, changing them
into some clarity.” (Vocation)

Memory goes back to secondary school and a young Robert along with Patrick ‘Paba’ Anthony and Arthur Atkinson were my first customers at St. Mary’s College; they gobbled up my fare of war stories, retold as a form of promotion to sell my bread and jam or bread and corned beef, depending on what my profit margins were the day before. On me leaving school we parted company briefly until about 1969 when Robert joined Royal Bank as a teller and there began the lasting friendship kneaded together by mutual respect and reverence for the arts. We spent many a Saturday afternoon and sometimes Sundays at the beach trying out our early lines; ears tuned to the sounds of consonants and the actions of verbs. We were explorers, searching for poets as models, finding voices we hoped would serve our stiff prosaic styles, still learning to trust our readers with the line and doing all this within the geography of place.

The hopes and expectation of youth as well as the wry cynicism that is an integral part of Robert’s humour pointed to a promise. The timelessness of space caught in a warp shows rare contentment and a willingness to adapt to the new dispensation, which was Caribbean Literature, took hold. A search for self, which continued even after it was found, gave new depth.

“My plot of ground is dry and hard
as sidewalks are; at night street lamps
block out the stars, and hi-fi sets
replace the country violons.
And I must dig foundations deep,
plunge steel and concrete shafts into this city’s dirt,
and hope for structures firm,
and spare, no space for flair or show,
each entrance, passage, exit, clear and marked,
each section storing much within a little space.” (Lusca)

Robert’s journey may not be as historic as his Homeric counterpart, but is a journey no less filled with its own sagas recorded at every milestone along the route. Sorrowful as the fourteen stations of the cross, yet joyful as the joyful mysteries of the Holy Rosary in Roman Catholicism. One common yet profound mis-statement is to assume that Robert is just another simple Christian poet, whose sole aim is to win souls for his Maker. Nothing is further from the truth, because Robert’s faith is subsumed within his being and becomes one with his poetics. He does not expound on his faith in a loud canonical voice like our modern day tele evangelists, nor like Elmer Gantry from Lewis Sinclair’s novel of the 1920’s who transformed his god into a business of extortion by proxy. Robert’s tone is soft and resonant with honest truth that you may accept or reject at will. There is no fire and brimstone no pre-judgment. In his poem Prodigal, we hear rumblings of that deep rooted truth struggling to be whole in a world surrounded by irony – whether this is a good or bad thing, he leaves it to us to speak for ourselves:

“Labourer
man of the earth
teach me the divining certainty within your palms
that I may even now plunge down soft hands
into this heart of dirt and stone
to cup them firmly full around the darkening root of soil:”

The journey (rather than voyage) continues through young manhood where decay and decadence in the architecture of his town, Castries (made a city in 1967) becomes the symbolism for the ever changing fortunes of his life; the childhood dreams that blossomed into adolescent realities of wanting to know and understand the land and its people, but felt impaired by being a boy growing up a stone’s throw outside the city.

“Each love that inhabits
now only fractured scenes
of dream and memory.
The age grows gross with sins,” (From Silver Point, Easter)

The high-pitch melodic voice of youth that brings to mind such memorable lines as:

“ with sand in my toes
and sun in my hair,
my girl sleeping close
and sea everywhere” (I want to fill you up with words)

Or,

“And, I confess an indignation
being left
a kingdom of dreams that I must soon make real.” (An anniversary: for Paul Layne)

has not been altered by the passage of time, still holds its quaint lucidity even in middle age:

“Will love hold, tight-roped between tears
certain of storm, not wanting loss” (Will love hold)

Or,

“we return, never the same point,
that’s gone, that’s passed…” (Spiral).

Collected Poems spans more than forty years of writing by a skilled practitioner of the word who approaches his task with a trowel rather than a pen. Like the stone masons of former years who chiselled granite to fit the most discerning niches in a rubble wall to near perfection, so does Robert proceed to outfit the poem line by staggering line, with a lucidity that caused Walcott to comment: “Robert Lee has been a scrupulous poet…” Knowing Derek as we do, I will not delve into what he may have meant by “scrupulous” not wanting to invoke layered interpretation and simple stop at the prima facie meaning of the word: careful regard for what is morally right. This therefore leads me to my summation on this body of work which I find precise in its definition of time and nostalgia. Images fade in and out like in a film, with subtle dissolves and superimposes. The understanding of subtle differences between a line in poetry and a sentence in prose, could not have been more adequately covered than as follows:

“and across town,
you yearn after those sexy dancers
barreling through space,
arching, escalating over breath.

Contemplating Morne Gimie’s triple mornes
I envision Him
taken from our clouding sight,
upon the elevating air.” (elemental).

Note the subtle capitalization of Him, in the second strophe as the meandering eyes like a camera sweeps across town to country to be guest at a resurrection, where Morne Gimie becomes Mt. Tabor in the presence of the Trinity.

It is extremely difficult to approach the work of a writer who has been a friend for a much longer period than the poems in this collection were written, without some mild bias creeping in to your thoughts. I am not immune to this and feel constrained not to dwell on superlatives which this work does not require for it breathes. Robert has compiled for us a living journal of our lives as a Caribbean people, “growing up stupid under the Union Jack” but in time would find our rightful place in a world that will not recognize us unless we roar.

Congratulations Robert on a well-travelled path, your poems are more than a collage of memories they are a source of inspiration to all of us.

 

McDonald Dixon is a St. Lucian poet, novelist and playwright.

This is a review of Collected Poems 1975-2015

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