An Imagination of Reassembly

October 2022

John Robert Lee, Pierrot (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2020); 72 pages; ISBN: 978-1845234782 (paperback)

For John Robert Lee poetry is sacred sport, offering “some seminal truth about why we are here” (62), and thus proves essential for the serious task of wrestling with one’s being and time with the world. “He is a Christian poet, obviously,” said Derek Walcott of Lee, his friend and colleague whom he clearly held in high regard.1 And once Walcott set that needed categorization, he praised the absence of the preacher in Lee’s poetry. One can land here and make a thin reading concerning roundabout gatekeeping, and one can observe the lightness of affection that existed between two poets of a vanguard tradition. Walcott and Lee, two of St. Lucia’s first literary poets, would help establish St. Lucia’s near-mythic reputation for being a place of poets, of poetries. Throughout Pierrot, we see Lee’s preoccupation with mortality and the loss of several of his friends, artists, writers, singers, and poets—Walcott among them.

Perhaps Lee has come here, to his folio altar Pierrot, to offer his many-masked jester as a vision for his life in poetry. In an interview with Acalabash, Lee describes his journeys from a religious childhood to academia in the Caribbean, to Rastafarianism, and back to the Christianity he had rejected. With the command typical of someone who has lived through many formative sociocultural unrests, Lee reveals what he learns through risky lessons of (re)invention.2 This kind of invention marks places like the Caribbean, which Kamau Brathwaite described as the modern world’s own formative ground of catastrophe, after colonialism and transatlantic slavery. In Pierrot, the poet mourns. Yet the poet is also often high-spirited, to the point of erotic mirth. Take this from the opening poem, “Pigeon Island”:

Me, I love the ascending leaf-strewn way to the curving spine
that leads to musing about angels. (9)

The expert line break doubles the meaning onto itself before we meet the end of the poem, “at the promiscuous surf collapsing forever / all over the wet, unyielding stones” (9). This sort of line play is typical of Lee’s collection, and expresses, as its main technique, sensual action, recollection, and a key intimacy with place, an embattled Caribbean idyl—all of which are important signposts for the complex composition of the book’s prismatic psyche. Pierrot, this same lover, met first at Pigeon Island, reemerges throughout the book’s twenty-seven poems as social critic (speaking out against anti-Black injustice and the corrupt “politricks” of modern elected demagogues); as death (“masks in the mirror” [“After Francis Thompson,” 20]); as the “Jab-Jab invader, a mako jumbie” (“The photos in obituary pages still surprise us,” 72) come to claim and bury (mostly lovingly); as artist (friends, creatives, revolutionaries); as Jesus Christ (concerned, as in “Song & Symphony,” for those who “limp with crippling pride in the dark” [18]); as the poet himself, composing letters to, for example, Dionne Brand—another of Lee’s contemporaries—whose work was new to Lee (“I must tell you how moved I was,” he writes to the poet, after having read her “so-unexpected, full-veined / lines” in which he “found faith waiting” [“Letter: After Dionne Brand,” 12]); and, among other portraits, the love-struck fool, the masquerader.

In Lee’s poems, the traditionally alt-quixotic narrative figure Pierrot is disassembled and reassembled with many masks—sometimes with pieces from multiple masks at once—and returned to us in collectively managed forms. This makes Lee’s choice of the glosa (and what he terms “glosa variations”), with its roots in sampling (like the cento and golden shovel), particularly poignant. Lee’s outstanding achievement with this late-vocation work is how he gathers voices, mostly from Western poetry and art, into the disarming colloquiality of his own lyric voice, which rivers into a Caribbeanist dirge. Pierrot’s main mode is an elegy of equal parts grief and ecstasy, in which nearly every encounter with Pierrot is marked with poetry’s hallmark quality of wonderment.

Pierrot is carefully deconstructed by Lee, as through a kind of erotics of happenstance with the world, with other beings, but always with transformative descriptions: “Some would say all poetry is ekphrastic,” he begins, before proposing, “how about erotic?” (“Ars Poetica,” 68).

One gets the sense that Lee wants us to remember that he is the figure’s originator. Pierrot lightens our encounter with the heavy things of “the God and Man scenario” (“And then came those caped crusaders,” 62). The voice is restless and direct in places, and in others, strained by the prophetic; the future opens in semicircular wisdoms that are recycled from the gnostic script governing the poet’s life. As in Lee’s previous volumes, the poet here is concerned for and with the world. He creates a wide-ranging conversation, with philosophical and artistic clarity, through the jester (who is no stranger to literature’s ceaseless appetite for figuration, for portraiture). And of the many forms that the jester takes—in history, literature, and more—the most popular encounter with the poet is the self-portrait. Lee casts an elegiac shadow over his speaker(s) in keeping with the true work of the self-portrait. But his Pierrot overturns the familiar tropes of the self without obscuring who is changed by what is present(ed). The effect is the absence of the abject self-pitying we are used to seeing when some poets point at their wound(s). Lee accomplishes this disappearance by collapsing the distance between himself and the world through an assemblage of the fecund and sacred.

While much has been made to demean the political work of poetry, or as Brand puts it in The Blue Clerk, to keep intact “the conservative line of poetry,” in Pierrot, as in his Collected Poems, Lee matures the political attitude of the choral.3 Pierrot is a shapeshifter of startling range, just as at home in St. Lucia as he is elsewhere in the world. Most of his descriptions, however, are distilled through St. Lucia. In “Mystery Sentence Himself to Dance in Solitary,” Pierrot’s social critique has a register of fierce, protective love:

the whip of my sharp tongue
is not for you
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
is for the wicked and worthless—
woe be unto them,
high-class and low-class pretenders
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
for you, only the searching eye of my compassion. (59)

Lee understands that refusing critique can often be a too-expensive naïveté. Because his gnostic commitments are such that he himself is judged a Pierrot (who, above all, believes in the power of words), he is not afraid to be challenged to see anew. The speaker in “Pigeon Island” asks, “Do angels congregate here, in this place?” (9). A response might well be seen in the later poem “Masquerade”: “Ah, but epiphanies surprise in Castries” (45). For it was so that he found Brand’s work; and this love for her work, he has said, has made him the target of much homophobic scorn or surprise.4

Readers of Caribbean poetry have likely come to expect, as stamp, a Caribbean poet’s attachments to geography. For Lee, the ecologic consciousness makes metaphysical gestures to those writers, poets, and artists with whom he finds intense kinship. Opening with “Pigeon Island,” Pierrot ends with “Desperate Notes,” a glosa that concludes the collection’s main commitment: the poet’s expression of the world, of life as a series of encounters with those who support the life of a poet. Walcott, one of Lee’s poetic guides, also wrote at Pigeon Island. This location offered much to the quiet sorrow that suffuses Walcott’s final, T. S. Eliot Prize–winning solo collection, White Egrets. Pierrot is in direct conversation with White Egrets; both collections deploy egrets as grieving symbols of hope and humor, and in “Desperate Notes” Lee goes so far as to work a brown heron into Pierrot’s final mask:

And yes, death go die one day
when Resurrection morning come, when the Trumpet sound,
when Lord Christ come down
from that beautiful crystal evening-sky over Martinique
where the brown heron and the white seabird just gone. (72)

In the Caribbean, in gathering a life from “the broken world,” the poet is not content to simply express ennui.5 Lee is a poet who, like W. H. Auden, shows many grief-stricken reasons to sound a poetry that “exists in the valley of its making.”6

Lee is one of those excellent poets who has worked with a steady pen over decades without much acclaim. And he marks this in the second part of his multi-part “Desperate Notes,” which begins, “Sometimes, I’m naked in streets” (51), and continues, “too few reviews / and fewer paid invitations to read” (56). What, in the end, is the poem for? One of book’s dedications is perhaps one answer: “For those who love me.” When we arrive at the book’s last line and read its final lamentation for Miss Bertha, this immense point lands softly. Who among us can say we will be remembered, and if so, exactly by whom? Is this, above all, the work of the poem surviving “in the valley of its making”?

In Pierrot, John Robert Lee / Poet-Pierrot, carrying the growth of more than seven decades on earth and more than fifty of those in a writing life, is at rest, restless, at play and work, altogether bathed with the curiosity of a debutante but with all the highly refined craft of the veteran that he is. The depth of his knowledge of poetic form and craft is made plain in every line. His is a gnostic art, but the hybridity, the calligraphic shape of his Caribbean imagination produces a poetry that is not absolutist, except in the quiet way that is important to the poet. The poems do not mean to convert, and I, an atheist, appreciate this; their concerns are close to the flesh: friendship, touch, justice, death, family, love, sex, loss and grief, faith. This is Lee’s imagination of reassembly.


Canisia Lubrin is a writer, an editor, a teacher, and a winner of the 2021 Windham-Campbell Prize in Poetry. She is the author of Voodoo Hypothesis: Poems (Buckrider, 2017) and The Dyzgraphxst: A Poem (McClelland and Stewart, 2020), which won the 2021 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (for poetry and overall) and the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize, among others. She coordinates the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph.

[1] See Walcott’s comments in the collection’s “About the Author” page.

[2] Andy Caul, “An Interview with John Robert Lee: A Caribbean Poet Who Lives in the Parish of St Lucia,” Acalabash, “Conversations,” 22 December 2020,

[3] Dionne Brand, “Verso 9,” in The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 verses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 53. John Robert Lee, Collected Poems, 1975–2015 (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2017).

[4] Lee notes this in Caul, “An Interview with John Robert Lee.”

[5] In an epigraph to the utterly moving “Song & Symphony,” Lee quotes from Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower.”

[6] W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B Yeats” (1939).


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