Islands are worlds

By Robert Edison Sandiford

Elemental: New and Selected Poems 1975–2005, by John Robert Lee
Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845230623, 120 pp

John Robert Lee

John Robert Lee. Photo by Stephen Paul, courtesy the author

Great cities can inspire great books: London Fields, by Martin Amis; Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy; St Urbain’s Horseman, by Mordecai Richler; the short stories of Guy de Maupassant. Caribbean cities fit into this theory, too. Bridgetown, Georgetown, Kingston, Port of Spain — all must have their poet laureates.

In his blurb to John Robert Lee’s Elemental, Derek Walcott calls his fellow St Lucian “a scrupulous poet.” If by this he means Lee is the kind of poet who has tried to make the world outside his window count for something more than what others see, then he’s right. Castries, the capital of St Lucia, has often seemed to me constricted, covered on foot in a matter of minutes, and pale in the sunlight. After reading Lee’s Elemental, it’s time I took another trip.

The poems in this collection are slow-burning: they require re-reading in order to appreciate their full intensity. Lee is not a poet you rush. Not surprisingly, the longer poems are Elemental’s strength, and the most rewarding.

There are a number of threads to follow. One is introduced by the poem “Line”, written on the occasion of Walcott’s seventy-fifth birthday. Lee plays on the multiple meanings of the word, linking his lines of poetry with those of his country’s most celebrated poet, conjuring lines of succession as other St Lucian poets are discussed, and so on down the line. Whether talking about “the turning line” or “the ordering lines,” the younger poet tells the older poet: “It’s what’s left at the end of the line (I imagine you insisting) that / scans our lives, / marks our season’s faith, and amortises all indentured loans.”

Elemental’s most obvious theme is religious. “Creole Canticles”, “The Passion Canticles,” the “Canticles of the Risen Life”, and many others appeared earlier in 2008 in Canticles, albeit in slightly different form. These praise songs, untitled in that earlier collection, don’t particularly benefit from further qualifying. Nor does their entry provide fresh context in abstraction; as individual psalms, they lack bite. For all their refreshing Creole music, contemporary wit, varied shape, and sly bawdiness, the Saviour Lee has grappled with as man, poet, and preacher over the last three decades is often no more (or less) astonishing than the one encountered in the Bible. Lee is an engaging interpreter of the Christ story (“See, Holy Fool, You and Your Jews, I wash my hands of You!”), not a trailblazing re-interpreter.

All roads, however, notably the winding ones, lead to Castries. In “Line”, the poet asks:

When have I not walked, Walcott,
by your fire-scorched love,
through uptown lanes

of old Castries . . . ?

In this and other narratives, such as “Lusca”, the speaker grows bold with each additional line, despite self-doubt and denial, despite the limitations of his words and insight. “And so dear Lusca I have loss to claim: / my friends must know that town bred as I am, / my hands are soft, my feet cling poorly to the land . . .” But “Lusca” is also an erotic poem: the speaker is attempting to make love to the land, his land, and apologise for not paying her more mind:

And this is why, dear Lusca, I must remain a lover,
and have but safe acquaintance with your past.
Or every image in your album
will fill me with a morbid lust
when each deserves my gratitude.

Castries is a mercurial character in Elemental. Lee casts her as a “shabeen whore” in “Dread”. “To promise of the magic words of art, / I set off,” only to return to the source, his old lover (or mistress). “Still too young for failure, not old enough to know success, / I found myself a metaphor: the homeless prodigal.”

She is not to blame, though. Lamming, Mittelholzer, Walcott, Naipaul — feeling their power, only to discover how powerless they were to exercise it fully in their own homelands, the source of their passions, all left. Dread, indeed. Yet Lee — and they, if they could — returned.

Did he not find more in the world than what he left home to seek? At sixty, fully repatriated after a tour in Boston during the early 1990s (about which Lee writes in “Translations”), what does a Caribbean writer return to? There is disillusionment in “Papa Bois”: “Go ask the world why broken hearts / never mend the way men say they do . . .” At the same time, “Prodigal” highlights Lee’s sense of awe at his island of birth, suggesting he finds succour in the privilege of considering from within the elements that make up an art, a culture, a people. He writes in “Vocation”: “nothing dims that vision waiting gently: / of calm clean pools below the waterfall.” It’s about “daring faith and hope, changing them / into some clarity.” It’s about knowing that what you see and feel and experience of “the true country, the rich fertile earth / of this Saint Lucian human ground” is real, with all the potential that implies for a man and an artist.

“Artefacts”, Elemental’s lyrical centrepiece, is personal narrative as an act of retrieval and redemption. The experiences it describes are valid in and of themselves, neither limited to the “exotic” or the “universal”: they are simply real, tangible — beautiful and true, in other words. We begin to understand in “4. city” what’s truly elemental (another word of many meanings): trying to pinpoint home and its significance to us. Lee lives, loves, leaves, reviles, admires, and forgives Castries. “Why do we return there? No reason // is good enough.” Until you get beyond the artefacts to the particular energy they contain, their unique essence. Old-time memories are fine, but it is not in the past or past things that we locate ourselves; it is in what we, along with our kinsfolk, have made of the materials given to us.

Why do we return? Is any reason necessary? The late Andrew Salkey — quoted, like Walcott, on the book’s back cover — said Lee’s poems show “that our islands are worlds.” My reading of that: what Elemental demonstrates is that a people’s poetry, at its best, can contain everything of humanity, so much more than the “pretty postcard” images of any city.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008

Robert Edison Sandiford is the author of The Tree of Youth and Other Stories and co-editor of Shouts from the Outfield: The ArtsEtc Cricket Anthology. He divides his time between Barbados and Canada.