Collected Poems 1975 – 2015 by John Robert Lee (Peepal Tree Press, 2017) represents one man’s spiritual journey meandering through thorny labyrinths of faith, in the poet’s words, “from inner city provinces to southern islands of Amerika.” (“Challenger”)
The journey began long before 1975 when a young Robert witnessed his father Alleyne relishing a dessert of fresh ripe mangoes on a Sunday afternoon and began to contemplate his romance with the written word. Engulfed by greenery in the little arbour at La Carierre on the outskirts of Castries, St. Lucia where he lived, and intoxicated by night sounds from crickets and distant hi-fi sounds, it was easy to observe and dream.
Or was it? With Robert one is never certain. I would like to believe, it was a combined attack by all the senses on an inquisitive persona:
“…the stale, old lady’s scent
of righteousness that crawls from
under French soutanes;” (“Vocation”)
There are other images, moulting into urges, fomenting in his young mind, in particular the scratching and clawing that leaped from daydreams, begging to be put down on paper.
“Because I have flung myself unto the void
and have exploded into stars of nothing
that would shine for you” (“Dread”)
I am acquainted with most of Robert’s earliest work. Lines still ring in my ears with a nostalgic clarity, transporting the spirit back to a happier time when everything was pleasant, young, vibrant and carefree:
“…that ritual of Word and Gesture, / wrists uplifted, fingers plucking /
outward, scratching at this altar, / daring faith and hope, changing them /
into some clarity.” (“Vocation”)
The hopes and expectation of youth and the wry cynicism integral to Robert’s humour pointed to a promise. The timelessness of space caught in a warp shows rare contentment and a willingness to adapt to the new dispensation, which was a Caribbean Literature took hold. A search for self, which continued even after it was found gave new depth.
“My plot of ground is dry and hard / as sidewalks are; at night street lamps /
block out the stars, and hi-fi sets / replace the country violins.
“And I must dig foundations deep, / plunge steel and concrete shafts into this city’s dirt, / and hope for structures firm, / and spare, no space for flair or show, . . .” (“Lusca”)
Robert’s journey is filled with its own sagas, sorrowful yet joyful. On reading Collected Poems, one may also be tempted to assume that Robert is just another simple Christian poet, whose sole aim is to win souls for his maker. Nothing is further from the truth. He does not expound on his faith in a loud canonical voice or transform his god into a business of extortion by proxy. Robert’s tone is soft, resonant with honest truth. You may accept or reject at will. In “Prodigal,” we hear rumblings of that deep-rooted truth struggling to be whole in a world surrounded by irony.
Man of earth
teach me the divining certainty within your palms
that I may even now plunge down soft hands
into this heart of dirt and stone
to cup them firmly full around the darkening root of soil.”
The journey continues through young manhood where decay and decadence in the architecture of his town becomes the symbolism for the ever-changing fortunes of his life; the childhood dreams that blossomed into adolescence, realities of wanting to know and understand the land and its people.
In Collected Poems one gets the sense that the skilled practitioner of the word approaches his task with a trowel rather than a pen. Like the stone masons of former years who chiseled granite to fit the most discerning niches in a rubble wall with near perfection, so does Robert proceed to adorn the poem, line by staggering line, with a lucidity that caused Derek Walcott to comment about the 212-page book: “Robert Lee has been a scrupulous poet.”
The collection is precise, certainly in its definition of time and nostalgia. Images fade in and out like in a film, with subtle dissolves and superimposes. The delicate differences between a line in poetry and a sentence in prose, could not have been more adequately covered than as follows:
“And across town, / you yearn after those sexy dancers /
barreling through space, / arching, escalating over breath.
“Contemplating Morne Gimee’s triple mornes / I envision Him /
taken from our clouding sight, / upon the elevating air.”
Note the capitalization of Him, in the second strophe as the eyes like a camera sweeps across town to country to be guest at a resurrection, where Morne Gimee becomes Mount Tabor in the presence of the trinity.
It is extremely difficult to approach the work of a writer who has been a friend for a much longer period than his poems, without some mild bias creeping in to your thoughts. I am not immune to this. With Collected Poems 1975 – 2015 Robert has compiled for us a living journal of our lives as a Caribbean people, “growing up stupid under the Union Jack” but who in time would find our rightful place in a world that would not recognize us unless we roared. Our voices are strong, vibrant and prepared to echo far into the future.
Editor’s Note: MacDonald Dixon is a St. Lucian author and Deputy to the Governor-General of Saint Lucia.