“Letter after Dionne Brand” – John Robert Lee

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Image: poetry in transit, Dionne Brand, posted at Flickr by Pearl Pirie under a Creative Commons License.

Revolutions of generosity will sustain us.

This is true of any community, and feels especially true of artists working across all media: those who trade daily in unknowable risk, who face down familial censure and public scorn, those who are never far from peril or vertigo, but who do the work because they must. In John Robert Lee‘s “Letter after Dionne Brand”, the poet uses the 15th century Spanish “glosa”, a form that begins by quoting a beloved quatrain of another poem. It then builds itself on that basis, incorporating each line of the quatrain as the last line of every new stanza. If it sounds complex, Lee’s use smooths it with love, polishes it with care. Many poems are salutary, seeking the approval of other writers. Few step into such an unabashed, glowing appreciation for their subject’s verse, and inextricably, their fellow poet’s life.

Lee meanders us with a dulcet-toned precision through the creative inroads Brand conjures for him, with her reading: “ossuaries, yes, of failed states and their politricks / babies broken on beaches, Mediterranean / drowned in overladen caravels / our islands’ doomed alleys mocking / my sodden eyelashes and the like —“. We see here how comfortably, with the careful efforts of devotion, the poet settles his lines against Brand’s, not cannibalizing her language nor curtailing it, but seeking — and finding — a companionship in verse.

Make no mistake: this is a poem of overjoy, of incantatory wonderment. It speaks, obviously, to Lee’s generosity, but eclipsing even this, his hewing of form and meaning to meet the glosa’s ebullient, reflective needs. How much we gain, when we openly chant each other up the pew-lines of our affinity, in this way, and in others. How much we multiply our hearts’ reserves, by throwing open the gates.

Read “Letter after Dionne Brand” here.
John Robert Lee’s Collected Poems 1975-2015 was published by Peepal Tree Press in 2017.

Puncheon and VetiverThis is the twenty-eighth installment of Puncheon and Vetiver, a Caribbean Poetry Codex created to address vacancies of attention, focus and close reading for/of work written by living Caribbean poets, resident in the region and diaspora. During April, which is recognized as ‘National’ Poetry Month, each installment will dialogue with a single Caribbean poem, available to read online. NaPoWriMo encourages the writing of a poem for each day of April. In answering, parallel discourse, Puncheon and Vetiver seeks to honour the verse we Caribbean people make, to herald its visibility, to read our poems, and read them, and say ‘more’.

One thought on ““Letter after Dionne Brand” – John Robert Lee

  1. John Robert Lee

    Thank you Shivanee. I had heard of Dionne Brand from the seventies, her name associated with Trinidadian poets like Roger and Judy McTair, Victor Questek, Anson Gonzalez and novelists like Merle Hodge. But while her name was familiar, I had not read Dionne’s work, and I confess, had not been aware of her strong achievements in Canada. Until Bocas in Trinidad in 2016. I was there as one of the poetry judges, was invited to read. And then I heard Dionne Brand read her work. I do not exaggerate when I say it was an epiphany. Her measured reading, her images, her intense but not overwhelming laying down of her lines moved me near to tears. I was hearing in the old Fire station a voice I had heard in my head. Later I asked Shivanee Ramlochan for recommendations of Dionne’s work. She pointed me to Inventory. I also bought Ossuaries. I have since read all her poetry, one non fiction work (A map to the door of no return), and have to get to her fiction. Dionne Brand has become a poetry model and mentor. My poem tries to capture all this in its homage.

    Liked by 1 person

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