Published 16th November 2023. Available for pre-order.
John Robert Lee's Christian faith is always present in his perceptions of experience and in the shaping of his art, and even those who don't share his faith should be grateful for this because he gives us a poetry of an empathetic sensitivity to human frailty, celebrations of the beauty of enduring love, prophetic anger in calling out injustices and a sense of the sacredness of the natural world and the terrible insults we offer it. It's a magnificent and varied collection in which different kinds of voices -- all JRL -- mesh together: the observational, the sacramental, the elegiac, the prophetic and the personal. It's a collection in which four major suites of poems give the whole an organic unity, which is not to say that the individual poems that fall outside the suites don't make their fine contribution.
The 'Belmont Portfolio', dedicated to Earl Lovelace, records a time spent on his own in the unfamiliar streets of Belmont in Trinidad in poems that catch the sense of being on the edge of adventure, that see the numinous behind the ordinary. The 'Office Hours' suite, with its gracious nods to W.H. Auden, is both an engagement with the hours of divine office and the Bible readings that go with it, and a very human series of reflections on that most universal of experiences - how we live through our diurnal cycles.
There is the rousing, prophetic, Old Testament righteous anger of the 'Watchman' sequence, which reflects on the hell of living in Babylon and the gap between the deceits of 'liberal democracies' and the ghastly realities of their global crimes. In the last sequence, 'What Remains to be Said' the poet emerges to the front of the stage and speaks directly and confidentially to the reader. It is a sequence that gathers together what must be treasured as sustenance through 'this Purgatorio' of our times, reflections on how one can speak in an era where you are "collared in faith in agnostic seasons", where the frequency of the deaths of those with whom you have shared the struggle is a "haunting against my faith in the Tree of Life" - and a wondering, slightly tongue-in-cheek: "approaching mid-seventies, what do I know?"