JOHN ROBERT LEE’S “City Re­mem­brances”

Re­viewed by Kennedy “Boots” Sa­muel

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT -

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).

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