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Human Finitude and Global Insecurity: A Review of John Robert Lee’s Pierrot

Written by Andy Caul for ACALABASH on Sunday, November 15, 2020

PierrotJohn Robert Lee’s third book with Peepal Tree Press, underscores questions that are global and local. Human finitude is interwoven throughout in form and content, and spirituality, and the sublime are prominent themes. The book is divided in two parts, a longer first part with a shorter second part. Lee provides us a book that is extremely composed and which you will enjoy reading and rereading. 

In the first poem, “Pigeon Island,“ Lee pauses to reflect on the beauty of the park, and he is deliberate; with vivid descriptions, he beckons the reader to slow down and revel in the sublime with him.  Yet, in all the beauty, one reads of “old fort and ruins / of the officers’ mess,” conjuring the 17th and 18th century wars fought between France and Great Britain over St. Lucia. Due to the island’s location, both colonial powers saw military significance in its occupation and control. St. Lucia was finally ceded to Britain via a peace treaty in 1814. Here we see the movement between the local and the global, and the triumph of beauty over human destruction.

Lee returns to the global in several poems. In “Letter,” he writes “of our blasted days, Aleppo now / and then Nice and yesterday Orlando // . . . Richmond Hill impossible to forget– // . . . babies broken on the beaches, Mediterranean” (12). In “Lepidoptera: After Lorette, Artist” we get a more strident voice: “the rubble-shrouded children of Aleppo” (14). Lee continues referencing the global with the lines “bloody alleys of Mosul, assaulted Christmas market Berlin” (20). These allusions to recent events are in reality laments for humanity and also a critique of modernity’s promise of security.

Turning his gaze to the United States, Lee writes of “young Trayvon, breath-stopped Eric, distraught / Sandra Bland, many who should be living now –” (14). North America holds a special place in Lee’s consciousness as he was influenced by the Black Power Movement of the 70s which came out of the US while he was a university student. This created a Lee who was very active in the anti-colonial movement in the Caribbean. By naming the victims of police brutality, Lee is identifying with them and condemning the structures that allow this injustice to continue. The structural critiques that one finds in this volume are delicately calm.

The last poem in this volume, “The Photos in The Obituary Pages Still Surprise Us,” deals with Thanatos, a counterpart to the life and beauty described in “Pigeon Island.” However, it seems Lee is preparing the reader for the last poem with “in sight of 70, anticipating retreat” (21). He also gives us “Haiku: At 70” on page 44, a mediation on physical deterioration. And he refers to turning seventy on pages 54, 56 and 57. A pastor and teacher in his church, Lee is keenly aware of Psalm 90:10, “The days of our life are seventy…” NKJV, and thus, there is a quasi-determinism about human boundedness in relation to the Divine.

Although the last poem is about death, the final note is hopeful because of the annihilation of death itself. Lee says, “And, yes death go die one day / . . . when Lord Christ come down / from that beautiful crystal evening-sky over Martinique” (72). This is Christian theology wrapped in Caribbean imagery at its best. Although one senses the influence of John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud,” reading Lee’s inflection on the end of death is Caribbean.

In a book replete with metaphor, I was particularly seduced by the dance of human finitude between the scissors-tail and the heron. Lee writes, “under the almonds, / cruising scissors-tails, / a beckoning horizon of the pewter ocean, // but you came, a curious brown heron / standing like a sea-stone on one foot, / fixed me to your insistent life” (30). The brown heron highlights the elements of surprise and relief that life can go on, though haltingly. Lee’s brown heron is in conversation with Walcott’ white egrets. There is much more to be accomplished, hence the ongoing tension in Pierrot.

Given the situatedness of poetry, St. Lucia is well represented in this book, and Lee provides incisive critiques of its market economy despite all the beauty he sees. He pens, “at end of year, accountants manipulate statements / of hurricane, earthquake and beach front loss to expatriate profit” (20). You will also travel the Caribbean with Lee: Martinique, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Maarten and Trinidad and Tobago. As he says in an interview, “I am a Caribbean man who lives in the parish of St. Lucia.”

Pierrot is a varied volume where you will experience the sublime, move with the Caribbean beat, appreciate the critique of global insecurity and identify with Lee’s brown heron as you contemplate human finitude. Lee’s Pierrot is, indeed, a worthy read.

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