The sacred and the profane, dialogues with self and world, literature and politics meet in the figure of Pierrot. He is the sad clown, holy fool of literary tradition, the suffering artist who connects to Christ in his most human incarnation as Man of Sorrows, and he is also the Pierrot Grenade of Caribbean carnival, the most literary of carnival figures who can spell anything, who carries a whip, but lashes with his tongue. The two meet so that Pierrot is both the bedraggled figure at the sordid end of carnival who is weary of the “Infernal cycles of mamaguy kaiso politricks”, and the risen Christ who, if you listen, you can hear “crack His midnight robber word”.
In his ninth collection of poems, John Robert Lee contemplates his 70th year in St Lucia and the sad chimes of mortality as friends and literary and cultural heroes leave this life. It’s a time for a weighing up of where domestic, political, literary and spiritual journeys have reached. It is a time of both honest admissions but also renewed faith in all these journeys.
If any of this suggests a retired poetry steeped in reflective sorrow, far from it. This is the most vigorous, demotic and experimental of John Robert Lee’s collections. There are new explorations of poetic forms such as the glosa, homages to the poetry of writers from Dionne Brand to Francis Thompson, the literary equivalent of the ekphrastic poems that have been appearing in his recent work. Pierrot is probably the most intimate of Lee’s collections, more of the man in all his guises appears here, a confessional voice lightened by self-irony and humour. Sometimes Pierrot is an archetypal figure, sometimes he may be thought to be Lee himself. And if salvation is the ultimate prize, few have beaten down the Babylon of the great northern neighbour with a heavier, more righteous lash than Lee wields in his poem, “Who made me a stranger in this world”.