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Pierrot; Guabancex

Written by Laëtitia Saint-Loubert for Wasafiri on Wednesday, May 19, 2021

While a book should not be judged by its cover, John Robert Lee’s ninth collection of poems, Pierrot, deserves to be noted for its exterior. Not only is Saint Lucian artist Shallon Fadlien’s 2015 painting ‘at the heart of the mask’ presented by Lee himself as a prelude to the title he chose for his poetry collection, it also places the poet’s work within a larger ensemble of intermedial artistic practices. As Lee observes, Fadlien’s colourful, carnivalesque representation of Pierrot is at once local and universal, a figure deeply rooted in Caribbean culture – it ‘is a composite of the Trinidad early carnival character Pierrot, the later Pierrot Grenade, verbose Midnight Robber, Saint Lucian New Year masqueraders, including Papa Djab’ (np) – and an archetypal, Christ-like figure familiar to many. [...] Opposing the figure of the shape-shifting trickster to cultural invaders, Lee’s poems enter into a series of dialogues with works by various contemporary artists and (late) writers from the Caribbean, as well as with passages from the Bible. Several poems take the form of glosa variations that pay homage to a number of Caribbean voices, whereas other texts act as poetic translations of paintings and photographs that seem to corroborate Lee’s observation that ‘all poetry is ekphrastic’ (‘Ars Poetica’ 68). In ‘Doors: After Corrie Scott, Photographer’, for example, the poet presents passageways as entrances, thresholds, backways, and exits, echoing Scott’s ‘Caribbean Door Series’ composed of photographs she took of traditional houses in Dominica. Lee’s text begins with a description of doors that could be read alongside Scott’s photographs, all the more so as the poet makes explicit references to her work. The poet goes further as he creates a whole array of past and future possibilities for those doors, suggesting that ekphrasis, much like translation, is not only part of a hermeneutic process, but also constitutes infinite possibilities of extension for the original, thereby contributing to its afterlife.

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