Letter from the Caribbean: Life and Times — On John Robert Lee’s Collected Poems 1975-2015

Life and Times — On John Robert Lee’s Collected Poems 1975-2015
By Vladimir Lucien

About a month ago, I saw Robert Lee having lunch with a few of his mates. “Old boys”, I thought to myself (which is what his alma mater —also mine— calls their alumni). Something about the collegial, somewhat mischievous laughter, and the tone of those men, all in their professional attire, seemed to suggest this relationship to each other as “Old boys”. Generations apart from them, the tone was still familiar to me. Yet there is something about seeing an artist on the outside, in regular circumstances when you possess the knowledge that they write, they create, privately, the transcendent. It can sometimes make them seem dubious; makes them seem to be only accommodating the mundane, trivial world. They appear talismanic; exotic; hybrid. Robert however, among the Old Boys, was still very much Robert— the writer; the old friend, somewhat quiet, good-natured, with a healthy sense of humour and as sensitive to the mundane world as he is to the “risen life” of faith, and of art where this mundane becomes transcendent.

In Robert’s Collected Poems 1975-2015, we meet a career spanning four decades of serious dedication to poetry, and a continuous renewal of that “boyish” relish — though more measured, discriminating and subtle— of experimentation, innovation and virtuosity. Along with its epic journey of faith— a journey not devoid of experimentation— there is in Robert’s work a strong sense of responsibility to his Times, not so much as “social activism”, nor, as Walcott put it in his poem “Elsewhere”, to “make a career of conscience”, but as a chronicler of life in its complexity, to— as he put it — “the anonymous teeming of [this] culture” such as his poem ‘Harbour Log’. Seemingly a “found poem”, it takes its form from what its name suggests, stating arrivals and departures:

Motor Vessel Lady Stedfast, 87 tones, under capt. L.A. Marks, from St.
Vincent, consigned to Peter & Co.

Schooner Grenville Lass to Martinique.
Motor Vessel Fernwood to Barbados. (102)

The power of the poem, Robert knows, is in its evocative and nostalgic power for those who inexorably walked along the Castries harbour. Yet, he records what was equally native to this time: the casual— if disturbing— degeneration of his small society:

Sylvestre JnBaptiste, alias Master,
Seaman of Mary Ann Street, Castries,
was found guilty by the Magistrate in the First District Court,
on a charge of unlawfully assaulting and beating
Dorothy Drayton, Laundress of Brazil Street, Castries,
on July 23. (102)

What is key to Robert’s work over the years seems to be a simultaneous devotion to and seeing of his present space and time along with its eternal correlative through the craft of poetry and Christian epistemology. He seeks a reconciliation of the world with the Transcendent which manifests in visions of imminent apocalypse and in everyday manifestations of the divine in the ordinary (which he shares with Lorna Goodison and others), or in the ability of art to raise life above itself, whether for further scrutiny, or praise:

Yes, I would Sabbath Wednesday
proclaim procession through old parts of town
place shrines of palm booths under verandahs’ ancient fretwork
and players of instruments at random corners..(156)

He assumes the role of the chronicler, both in the public and private sense. But always honest about his relationship to his subject. Unlike Walcott, Robert is very much a city poet— a Castries boy. Whilst Derek was from Castries, his poetry was dominated over the years by imagery, even when around the city, more suggestive of the rural, or the coast. Robert who courts, and loves the “folk” who provide the vital force behind the culture he admires, admits his limits. So though the city poet may fantasise about “a shapely muse from Marc or Millet”(152), or he may celebrate this culture, he admits:

“my friends must know that town-bred as I am,
my hands are soft, my feet cling poorly to the land,
my fingers scratch in vain, my toes itch for shoes to wear;
here, I am Lusca’s lover, nice boy, but still from town” (18)

And so, he takes his own path, true to himself, and I can think of few poets in the Caribbean who have so thoroughly and sustainedly chronicled, captured and loved a city as he has through poetry.  But more important than that, is that Robert writes from where he is. The persona at his home in Babonneau; viewing “horizon-clear Martinique” from his place of work at the Folk Research Centre;  his walks through Castries; or leaning towards his radio or television set or computer taking in the news, watching the tragedies of the modern world — from the astronauts who perished in the Challenger Shuttle Mission in 1986; to the near disaster of Copiapó, Chile, where 39 miners were trapped for 69 days in a mine but were later rescued; to other ravages of time captured in his poem-sequence ‘SOUNDTRACK-2010 AD’. Increased crime in St. Lucia, earthquake in Haiti, hurricanes, ageing evident in “slipping names, insomnia, gathering pillboxes” “and other washings-away”, asking a question so central to his work which is not so much the questioning of a man of faith, but really of a mere man :

“So faith is certain of tomorrow’s epiphany,
but how to meet the apocalyptic moment of now”(133) (my emphasis)

Apart from apocalypse there is also the closer, more intimate lament for private disaster—

“A woman who has loved me for fifty years is dying.
Weak, losing weight, she is terrified, denying.” (164)

—celebration of the present, and of lives well-lived by friends already gone, tender reflections on life, love, friends/hip; the ageing of both the poet and the increasingly grey and secular world. One of my personal favourites being the poet’s remembrances of his father in the section entitled ‘Mango’ from the long poem ‘Artefacts’:

On Sunday afternoons in mango season,
Alleyne  would fill his enamel basin
with golden-yellow fruit, wash them in clean water,
then sit out in the yard, under the grapefruit tree…..

The yellow basin, chipped near
the bottom,
its thin green rim, the clear water, the golden fruit,
him eating slowly, carefully picking the mango fibre from his teeth,
under those gone, quiet afternoons, I remember.
Me sitting in the doorway of my room, one foot on the steps
that dropped
into the yard, reading him, over a book. That’s the way it was. (67)

We also find in the book fleeting and sometimes sustained examinations of desire, both in younger and older age, one of the best being in the quiet questioning of the really quite beautiful poem, “Flirtations”:

“Stranger, what is it that searches me as I probe my interest in you?…

Can I trust you? With my — what?
With my angling protestations, my mid-life confusions?
With what confessions?

Will you misunderstand? Or understand too well?
And see through the old man’s fumbling contradictions?
“What does he want?”

Affection settles warily
like a pup unsure of the hand’s intention. (125)

One major Caribbean poet remarked that “we all know that Robert’s poems are often brilliant, remarkable and illuminating, and we know that we are faced here with one of our big poets who has built his career in relative silence.” But in silence, he has worked —“beyond talent/ beyond award,/ beyond tomorrow’s tomorrow”— chronicled his times, from within the limits of geography, of having to live in a single body, in a particular time and circumstances, but with, as Walcott said of Chamoiseau, “an amplitude of heart”. Even amid his certainty of the “promised parousia” and his visions of apocalypse, there is no shortage of tenderness, empathy, a complex humanity and indeed a love and feeling of privilege of having lived among remarkable and ordinary men, within his “beautifully insignificant” island and city.

(A side note: One wonders whether the hailing of Robert as the foremost Christian poet and the constant qualifying of the work by this label does not do it an injustice. Is this for instance insistently said of Danté? Geoffrey Hill? And if Robert is the foremost Christian poet in the Caribbean then who are the other contenders? And how many of them have the word Christian wedged between the words terrific and poet? It is as if one is saying that poetry by default exists within an epistemology or reality that is divorced from that which exists for the man of faith, when any poet worth his/her salt knows that nothing could be further from the truth! )

Through his poetry we can mark the deaths of several significant Caribbean poets whom he elegises: Tim Daisy, Bob Marley, Victor Questel; we remember the major disasters of the second half of the 20th and the still incipient 21st century; the trajectory of his small modern society, blown up in significance through its simultaneity with the Old World of Robert’s faith, the bible and the local visions of Apocalypse. “Rain”, a modern day envisioning of the biblical Flood is a poem that, ironically, shows Robert to be quite simply a fine poet as Derek Walcott calls him. Full stop. What is good in the poem, what it leans on for its devastating beauty, is not its Christianity, but the depths of the writer’s —God-given gifts! :

We’ll never see the sky again.

The sun is dead under that slate shroud roped to buried horizons
And the water tearing off the roofs is not funny anymore.

The merchants’ curses chase their bazaars down pouring thoroughfares.
Already, already, fretworked gables are clinging to their astounded citizens…(115)

In the book, like one should want in the Collected Poems of a “big poet” as was said of Robert earlier, one looks for a sense of the fullness of life, for a world or trajectory we can share with the poet. Robert writes about himself and his Times, himself in his Times, and the Times in himself. We meet friends from his childhood, with him parading news of his family’s “Grundig radio”, to “Gabriel Mondesir and my mates at school”(69) to Gabriel’s death fifty years or so later, still calling or referring to him, in the primary school way, by his full, teacher’s-register name:

Why does news of your death surprise me, music man,
surprise me with my love for you
my first star, my-mate,
Gabriel Mondesir? (154)

There are tender reflections, “public announcements”, celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries, dedications, obituaries— all the neglected life-valuing, life-affirming rituals left in the modern world in the spirit of these poems; in the desiccated era we meet towards the end of the book, where there is still room for praise:

last night, intimations of death clogged
faith, chills and panic attacked prayer,
every gavel drop of the loud clock

paced the anxious heart peering
away from sleep at corner shadows;
would I lurch against the snorer

swear an incoherent groan
of a farewell, and then, and then…?
Against indignant protests of the grackles,

gnashing chorus of the barkers, my neighbour turns
up his system on this holy day
shuffling Marley, Patrick

St. Eloi, passed-on chantwelles and their violons, they
I love, gone beyond terrible intimacies of the dark—
So hear me chantin’ loud, see me skank and zouk,

on this green-foliating, bird-bazaaring, Rose-of-Sharon-bloomingday. (169)

A photo of the author Vladimir Lucien.
Photo Credit to Nikita Lucien.
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