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'animates the music created by humans'

Written by Hilary Davies for Temenos Academy Review on Monday, August 10, 2020

Collected Poems 1975–2015 by John Robert Lee. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2017. 180 pp. £10.99.

In the fiftieth year,
watching from Silver Point,
I saw the lampions falling
down the Morne upon

Castries, Corinth, Marisule,
and they made a Bird
that opened out Its wings
from Monier to Vigie,

that beaked the evening shallows
under Mount Pimard.

These lines, from the sequence ‘From Silver Point, Easter’ contain, like an emblem, much of what lies in store for the reader coming for the first time to the work of the St. Lucian poet, John Robert Lee. It is a poetry grounded, first and foremost, in the land of his birth: a nation-state island, with a surface area between that of Anglesey and the Isle of Man, whose spectacular geology is marked by steep volcanic peaks, and an ancient caldera that still steams hot springs, all set like a tropical emerald in the Caribbean sea. Its history is one of great ethnic and cultural diversity, as everywhere in the region: the towns that cluster along the shoreline bear witness to its dark past as a French and English slave-owning colony—the names of the settlements listed here reveal this— whilst today the overwhelming majority of the population are descendants of these first enforcedly transported African inhabitants.

But John Robert Lee’s words, of course, point beyond mere physical descrip- tion. The first line quoted here reveals his spiritual and literary allegiances. We hear Dante, ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’; we hear Dylan Thomas, ‘It was my thirtieth year to heaven’ (‘Poem in October’); behind them, we hear Ezekiel, ‘In the thirtieth year . . . by the river of Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God’ (Ezekiel 1:1). The theophany evoked here comes in the form of lampions or virgin lights, tiny candles traditionally lit and floated on bowls of water in front of an image of the Virgin Mary: these are the lights of Castries, or Corinth, or Marisule strung along the edge of the ocean, but they also drift down from the peak above (‘morne’ is a Creole word for ‘mountain’). They are sparks from the welkin, sparks from the volcano, sparks from Sinai, and, as they form themselves into the wings of a downward plunging bird, we see that they are sparks from the divine. We find all these influences, and more, running like threads through this Collected Poems.

John Robert Lee was born in 1948; his father came from Barbados, while on his mother’s side he can claim part Carib/Kalinago ancestry from Dominica, the only island in the area to have land still set aside for indigenous peoples. Her family lost what wealth they had in a catastrophic fire shortly after Lee’s birth; his parents’ marriage eventually soured, a result of the strain it was put under by their different denominational and social backgrounds, then the death of an infant son. In the four poems of ‘Artefacts’ he evokes the claustrophobia of poverty, bitterness and silence that surrounded him as a child, ‘A couple/chairs. Doors and windows/carried double/jalousies whose/ dustfilled flaps/were agony to clean./We slept together/in between//the front entrance/and the back room where/tables and trunks/were stored for years’ (pp. 61–2). Lee plays here with the etymology of ‘jalousie’: it is a window blind common in the Caribbean that shuts out heat, insects and excessive light, but here becomes symbolic of the stifling and secretive atmosphere in the family home; it marks the division between the dark interior and the vibrant world outside. The prosody, too, is pared right back: a short line of four to seven syllables, few adjectives, half-rhymes and unobtrusive end-rhymes all contribute to an immediacy that approximates to the unflinchingly direct observations children make. One thing breaks the gloom, ‘Her Bible was the/ first I remember://its frail tattered/pages glowing under/the hot chimney/of the kerosene//lamp perched on old/books at one corner/of a dresser piled/ with miniature//shrines of saints’ (p. 60). Here we discover why the virgin lights exert such power.

Lee was the child of what in a Christian context is called a ‘mixed marriage’: his father Anglican, his mother Catholic, in an era when the Catholic partner had to undertake to raise her children in that faith. So Lee’s imagery, and to some degree his sensibilities, are imbued with the incarnational nature of Catholic worship, ‘The Angel comes, they say,/with seven of these self-same braziers,/and the Fire of the Altar/waits to pour Himself a Kindling/on the tinder world’ (‘Elemental, 3. fire’, p. 95). Christ is in the land, ‘within the valley forest,/see Christ, the charcoal burner,/perfection raking wood and leaves/ spirit with bare feet of earth./His sweet blue smoke climbs steady up to heaven’ (‘Prodigal’, p. 32). Christ is on the seashore, ‘this flock of young birds,/. . . turn sharp and quick around us. About their Father’s business.//The sky is pure eggshell of afterstorm./The Sea Gull journeys,/brooding through it, Holy and Sedate’ (‘After’, p. 50). He animates the music created by humans, especially St. Lucian song, dances and instruments, which Lee evokes over and over again, ‘Let us praise His Name with an opening lakonmèt/and the graceful procession of weedova;/let laughing, madras-crowned girls rejoice before Him in the scottish/and flirtatious moolala, its violon hinting of heartache’ (‘Kwéyòl Canticles’, p. 110). In Lee’s poetry, worlds interpenetrate; the transcendent is always at our shoulder, if only we have eyes to see it and a tongue to give it voice.

Voice is a key, of course, to the whole collection, and it comes in many varieties. While a student at the University of the West Indies, where he studied French and French Caribbean, Lee lapsed from Catholicism and, in time- honoured tradition, turned his attention to literature, poetry and the arts. Like many of his generation, he also followed Rastafari, which explicitly returned Africa to a central place in Caribbean thinking and culture; this can never be absent from anyone writing out of this tradition, even when it is overlaid with other influences or other choices are made. In ‘Lusca’, Lee highlights the complex nature of his allegiances: he is ‘town-bred’ and does not know how to work the soil; the practices and gods of African-derived spiritualism have not been passed down to him, ‘Moonlit rings I never knew,/their songs, or dances, chances for first gropings in the dark’ (‘Lusca’, p. 18). Yet he is of this land, and remains inseparably Lusca’s, or St. Lucia’s, lover. Occasionally, the Rastafari word for God, ‘Jah’, peeps through. ‘Vocation’, dedicated to the ‘priest and folklorist’, Patrick Anthony, mingles Christian and ancestor worship so that they talk to, rather than silence, each other, ‘[they] could have told and would have told/of what they’d always known:/that like a hidden mountain stream caught patient swirling past the ages of the land/nothing dims that vision waiting gently:/of calm clean pools below the waterfall’ (p. 16).

This multiplicity speaks quite literally in the language, or languages, Lee uses. Most of the poems in this collection are written in standard English, with occasional phrases in Creole and one translation from the famous singer, Sesenne Descartes. Lee’s studies at university included some of the major figures in black French writing: the Senegalese, Léopold Senghor; and the Martiniquais poet, Aimé Césaire, founder of the ‘négritude’ movement, which sought to assert the value of black culture and counteract colonial perspectives within a Francophone context. So Lee is always speaking, and seeing, and hearing, out of an inner world which is multilingual and boundary-crossing, his human environment, like his spiritual one, always co-existing with others.

This is especially true of his relationship to the Christian literary and theo- logical canon. Lee acknowledges a debt to Augustine, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers and Chesterton, but also, as we shall see, to Calvin and Luther. We have heard echoes of Dante in ‘From Silver Point’; in ‘Lines’ for his friend, Derek Walcott, he is invoked again in the company of Blake, Orwell, Virgil, Aesop and Pascal. T. S. Eliot is a powerful influence hovering, ‘the fiery tongue of parting cloud’ (p. 86); ‘You must now enter the silence alone and listen. Wait./Wait for the translation of the first line . . . /The medium frames the sacred intercession./ To give face, posture and voice to the holy is no trite/matter’ (‘The Art of Faith Canticles’, p. 123). Hopkins, and Dylan Thomas, too, in ‘Prodigal’. But whereas the windhover is a cause for joy, wonder, uplift for the English poet, and of the terrifying forces of nature in Thomas’ ‘Over Sir John’s Hill’, Lee uses the image of a hawk as potentially redemptive, longed-for but out of reach, feared and fragile, ‘How like a hawk that slides along the air/my heart turns hoarse and beats away in fear/above the circling shadow of its longing’ (‘Prodigal’, p. 31).

The poems ‘Dread’ and ‘Prodigal’ hint at another major evolution in Lee’s thought and poetry. At the age of thirty, after lost years making ‘a pact with one whose name I do not know,/with one who waits for me in every dirty dockman’s bar,/in every corner doorway where I stop to strike a light’ (‘Dread’, p. 22), he had a conversion experience. It did not carry him back to the formal Catholic church of his upbringing, though that experience characterizes, as we have seen, much in the sacramental approach of his work; rather, he joined the Reformed Baptist church, where he met his second wife, Veronica.

The Baptist emphasis on the Word, on moving a reader or an audience to serious transformation through words and the Word, is therefore just as pronounced in this collection as the sensuousness of Catholicism. (Charles Spurgeon, the mid-nineteenth-century reformer and ‘Prince of Preachers’, by whom Lee has been influenced, regularly preached to 10,000 people at a time, his record being 23,660 at Crystal Palace in 1857). Lee is an affirmatory poet, and does not shy away from straightforward proclamations in this tradition, which he uses quite consciously on occasions to create a prophetic, Old Testament effect, ‘I shall arise, singing, from the far city,/against bludgeons, ghetto guns, gangs of the merciless . . . against the vacuous bakanal’ (‘Canticles of the Risen Life’, ‘Bloodfire!’, p. 121). There are moments when this tendency can feel insistent, even sleeve-tugging, but taken in context the reader sees that Lee’s aim is to overcome the often relentless evidence of suffering with a message of wonder and hope—not facile, because hope is not optimism—but hard-won, ‘so how to meet the apocalyptic hour/though faith is certain of the promised parousia?’ (‘Soundtrack—2010 a.d’, p. 133).

John Robert Lee’s avowed project is to sing his God, and he is unapologetic about it; not being a priest (though he is an elder in his church), he does this through poetry, the power of the word. For him, the two are inextricably linked, ‘And I,/who share a common celibacy/that priests and poets must endure,/ search the purity of syllable/seeking truths you’ve found/. . . I make too/the ritual of Love and Gesture’ (‘Vocation’, p. 16). Lee’s profound familiarity with the Scriptures, with differing traditions of Christian worship, with his literary and linguistic antecedents place him firmly in the line of those poets whose endeavour has been to evoke and convey our relationship with the divine. Even if ‘the times aren’t good for poetry or faith’ (‘Possessions’, p. 39), this fact does not alter the lived reality that is both of the here and now and the transcendent, ‘The cascading words of my hand/pluck His praise from eight- string bandolin and local banjo . . ./plant His steps in mazouk, lakonmèt and gwan won;//. . . He is the Crown, the Star of grace, the Dancer of creation,/ the Robing of righteousness, Tuning of the spheres,/Hand of the Incarnating Word’ (‘Kwéyòl Canticles’, p. 111).

This is a review of Collected Poems 1975-2015

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