“Robert Lee has been a scrupulous poet, that’s the biggest virtue that he has, and it’s not a common virtue in poets, to be scrupulous and modest in the best sense, not to over-extend the range of the truth of his emotions, not to go for the grandiose. He is a Christian poet obviously. You don’t get in the poetry anything that is, in a sense, preachy or self-advertising in terms of its morality. He is a fine poet.”
—Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureate 1992
“John Robert Lee’s Collected Poems 1975-2015 is a testimony of the significance and high quality of contemporary St Lucian literature. His is a voice that has recorded its history, journeyed on its waves, refracted the lucent Caribbean light, its community and the kingdom of God — all with care, lyricism, heart and intelligence. Yet, the yearning in him persists — and that is a hallmark of a fine and committed poet.”
— Sudeep Sen, Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015 (London Magazine Editions) and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor)
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 Kweyol language of the St Lucian folk as well as the voice of the English master and, latterly, display an growing interest in the relationship between poetry and the visual arts.