JOHN ROBERT LEE’S “City Remembrances”
Reviewed by Kennedy “Boots” Samuel
Ilove many things about Saint Lucian poet John Robert Lee’s latest publication, “City Remembrances”, which has been published under his own Mahanaim Publishing, Saint Lucia. The apparently modest forty-two paged book of poems turns out to be so much more than just excellent Saint Lucian poetry in English. Yes, it is undeniably a pleasing literary gem that twists all over with unique Saint Lucian-ness. But additionally it should be appreciated as an informative document on Saint Lucia that spirals with creativity of the word, sociological content, honest emotions and spiritual meanings.
A most intriguing spiral image anchors structure and meaning in the book from the very first poem entitled “Spiral”. We feel a twirling of history, culture and community as “. . . serious roots thrusting
us around today, tomorrow to come here again yesterday,
another furrow another spiral turning up the past.” (Page 2) The poet takes his readers on a swirling personal journey that does not forget the past, but deliberately churns it up within today’s reality towards an affirmation of the defining spiritual realm beyond it all.
We spin through space and time in the city of Castries, immortalizing with intense metaphoric and spiritual beauty some local cultural icons who pop up along the spiral. We encounter the poet Robert Lee, of course, and Gaboo the maestro musician of Broglie Street, the Nobel Laureate Hon. Derek Walcott, the writer McDonald Dixon, a stranded shoemaker near Victoria and Chisel Streets, and many other personifying portraits of historical Castries. My favourite encounter is one that spins into celestial realms in the poem “Canticles for Dunstan St. Omer 1927-2015”, where we meet the revolutionary Catholic religious artist from the Castries CDC housing:
“Before He was Madonna’s, He was the Father’s Son” (page 17).
The late Sir Dunstan St. Omer is literally beatified as a true Saint Lucian saint: “Saint Omer”: “Down to earth, He lived like you, paint on His hands, among farmers and fishermen raising them to Himself –
Wonderful, Immanuel.” (Page 18)
There is no particular historical time focus on this journey but more on existential fact. We move around in the past, and the present, as we tour Castries city, spaces such as Pigeon Island, Broglie Street, Jeremie Street, Waterfront, or the perimeter hills from “Mount Pleasant to Morne Dudon to Morne Fortune.”
We encounter the tangible such as “childhood sidewalks” of the past, as well as the intangible such as disappearing faith and art around the seventy-year-old poet McDonald Dixon on Jeremie Street:
“I must imagine you now walking away towards the waterfront and vendors’ arcade turning, out of my sight, down Jeremie Street.” (Page 11) We then pedal backwards on our journey, “past yesterday’s yesterday” and “tattered manuscripts”; but we are steadied with a faith that’s “beyond talent, beyond award, beyond tomorrow’s tomorrow.” (Page 12).
Robert Lee, the experienced word crafter, has in his book documented aspects of the history, culture and arts of Castries using symbolically loaded “currents of the turning image”. His overriding objective however, as a foremost Saint Lucian Christian poet, is one of “crafting canticles of what I see” (page 33).
Unhappy with the dizzying “downtown frenzy”, “frenetic sirens”, “hustlers” and “repetitious livings” that now overrun “the long-time jalousies, and collapsing fretwork of old Castries”, the poet proposes an innovative Christian solution of “Sabbathing Wednesday”. He wants a midweek platform of rest within the spiraling madness in modern day Castries: “Yes, Wednesday for Sabbath, resting centre of the week” (page 13).
The poet himself marvels at the spiritual potency of his word crafting and leads, in beautiful praise, song to the creator from the artist and evangelist: “Ah, Holy Spirit, how could I have scrolled such
mighty things if You, Cantor of Heaven had not breathed your sweet
psalms upon my stubborn head;” (page 25).
He testifies on his ultimate personal triumph in building his life “about a well-planted corner-stone of certain faith” (page 37).
But the complex beauty and meaning of “City Remembrances” spirals even beyond the poet’s crafting of words. The poems are integrated with copies of iconic Saint Lucian paintings and photographs that add aesthetic and further symbolic depth to the reader’s experience. For example, one cannot miss the dramatic and photographic irony achieved from the vintage cover photograph of the Folk Research Centre building, perched on top of Mount Pleasant overlooking a prominent three storey wooden building that has now disappeared from the city of Castries. This and other relevant visual artworks included in the book enhance it as a Saint Lucian document of artistic and historical significance. There are also added bonuses such as every book owner having on page 17 his/her own personal copy of the iconic red Madonna and Child painting by Sir Dunstan St. Omer, among other works.
The very structure of the book’s contents is its ultimate spiral. The work moves from love in the second poem, “will love hold” (page 3), and swirls through doubt, folk memories, “merciful tides of amnesia”, and the steadying “faith that would hold my faith” (page 12), returning to love in the last canticle number xii in the final poem “from Intimations”. But the return experience in this spiral of memories, realities, and faith is never to exactly the same thing. “we return, never the same point, that’s gone, that’s passed” (page 1).
Love that was doubted in the journey’s beginning is now assured. For the Christian poet from Castries love is what endures the spiral by faith and with the gift of God’s grace: “for you, my love, my faith
companion, my gift of His incomprehensible grace.” (Page 39) In “City Remembrances” the poet John Robert Lee has masterfully twisted literary and visual art forms with touches of music and folk dancing to create an eclectic testimony about his Saint Lucian city that is transcendental in its reach. “this one book I have been
writing . . . in canticles kwéyòl dancing lines of lakonmèt and
weedova their violons and chak-chak in
my ear, an epistle of a testament to your Wonderful King, the Maker
of the spheres” (page 38-39).