Pierrot. John Robert Lee. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2020. 72 pages. £9.99
Famously described once by Stewart Brown and Mark McWatt as a “general man of letters” in their Oxford
Book of Caribbean Verse, John Robert Lee is a well-known poet, drama critic, teacher, cultural activist from Saint Lucia. He has been involved in the promotion of Saint Lucian and Caribbean cultures for many years now, and his books are published by Peepal Tree Press, Leeds, and include his Collected Poems 1975-2015 (2017). His latest collection, Pierrot, came out in 2020.
The Pierrot in the title is the well-known clown of literary tradition, but also the “Pierrot Grenade” of Caribbean carnival more specifically. In the Trinidadian Carnival, Pierrot Grenade is a masquerader who is dressed up as a clown, carries a whip and engages other revellers in verbal battles or duels. He can also be seen as a figure through which the poet looks at the world around him. For Lee, Pierrot is also a Christ figure, the biblical Man of sorrows.
Lee turned 70 recently and “intimations of mortality” can be found in many poems in this collection. Death, the loss of dear friends like Garth St Omer, Gandolph St Clar, and Derek Walcott are constant themes, but seem to act as prisms through which the poet looks at a changing world. The year 2018 was the year when the Jamaican artist Buju Banton came out of prison, when Aretha Franklin and the Trinidadian Calypsonian Shadow died and these events form the backbone of Lee’s piece “In The Year That Shadow” died. The Calypsonian Shadow, well-known for his keening and wailing vocal style as well as for his idiosyncratic approach to Calypso, is a recurring presence in the collection, perhaps an archetypal Pierrot figure too. He is especially remembered for his 1974 smash hit “Bass Man”. In a way, this poem also works as a tribute to Shadow as a Caribbean icon :
“In the year that Shadow died, that griot from Tobago
wailing down the tracks
of his desperate notes
elemental and existential
excavating despairing desires
in the hungering, keening scales
he rode like a prancing Pierrot,
watching for something, something
in the naked eyes of revellers” (p.55)
The Saint Lucian poet and Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott looms large in this collection, as he was a father figure and a friend to many Saint Lucian poets and the poem “White Cedar” is a moving tribute to that great poet. Walcott was well-known towards the end of his life for his constant attacks against Caribbean politicians who, in his view, were responsible for the defacement and desecration of Caribbean landscapes in search of tourist revenue, and this is a constant undercurrent in this collection too. Time and time again, the reader comes across images of desecration of the beauty of Caribbean nature. Mammon seems to win many battles.
Nevertheless, this collection is not a quiet, nostalgic and backward-looking reflection on a lost Eden, and Lee’s voice is very powerful in its denunciation of the many problems plaguing the Caribbean (and the wider world) today : the commodification of everything in Sint Maarten, the recurrent attacks on the Caribbean environment in search of profit, the political corruption. The tour-de-force in this collection must be the poem entitled “Who made me a stranger in my world ?”, a virulent denunciation of the influence of Saint Lucia’s powerful neighbour to the north, as well as colonial Europe :
“Who made me a stranger in my world ?
Who determined I was a minority ?
Who made my skin a boundary and barrier
to negotiate at immigration counters ?” (p.64)
Another engaging feature of this collection is its pan-Caribbean nature. Indeed, Lee brings together a great Caribbean fraternity to help him make his point, from Derek Walcott to Dionne Brand, from Aimé Césaire to Garth St Omer, and manages to tackle Caribbean-wide themes and subjects. Popular culture is also called upon, with Shadow, the Carnival tradition, Bob Marley, and Steel Pulse all being present. Lee actually quotes Steel Pulse’s “Bodyguard” (from their Earth Crisis album) to make a forceful point about political corruption:
“David Hinds, roots-man of Steel Pulse,
‘snakes in the grass, they know not God,
politricksters… is dey are the same man'” (p.66)
The nature of poetic creation and the importance of building bridges are also important themes in this new collection. This is not a blast from the past, but a look at the future of Caribbean poetry.