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poet, poet reviewer, Australia
Review of two chapbooks of poetry by Anthony A. Lee
"Art emerges from an intense valuation of the ordinary," writes Ashton Nichols in his The Poetics of Epiphany, a study of the poetry of William Wordsworth. It transmits "the bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life," the quotation concludes. Two chapbooks, This is Going to be Short and Asia: The Lost Poems by Tony Lee transmit many slices of his experience: some radiant, some dark, some humorous, most quite simply told.
"Poetry arrived in search of me," as Pablo Neruda put it in his lifelong statement of the function and purpose of poetry. That is partly how I would convey my recent reading of Lee's words. Lee's poetry found me at the age of 55. I had just retired from teaching. I found myself reading about his time in China and Japan in the summer of 1999. This is the core of his chapbook Asia: The Lost Poems.
I found myself reading, too about his experience long before the summer of '99. He took me back to the late 1960s. He gave me a graphic taste of the hell that was, at least part of, his life in those years. I had had my hell during those years. Lee's poetry struck a chord with me, with my life. That is what good poetry does. It moves in a liquid field across minds and hearts. Lee's poetry picked me up and look me on a trip.
I admired Lee's honesty, his autobiographically sharp edge. He probes the mystery of his own experience and strives for a sense of its meaning. I am reminded of Eugene Ionesco's words: "the poet does not invent, he imagines.....in the imagination he carries along all sorts of symbols which are the profound truths of his soul."
(Eugene Ionesco in "A Concert of Tenses: Essays on Poetry," Tess Gallagher, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1986, p.86.)
Sometimes the truths, the events, are quite simple as in the poem
I chased her behind the house
and then behind the garage,
the little black girl with
short hair and pigtails all over.
I robbed a kiss while she squealed
and laughed at the game,
and then ran to my mother
to brag/confess my sin or victory.
Washing dishes, her hands
in the kitchen sink,
prim 50s curtains yellow over the windows
just before her face,
she looked up and stared ahead
not at me-
as if transported to a world of pain,
now long ago, now far away-
with a frown
that I might find someone prettier.
...Living out of season, out of time
in a place so strange and colourful
just for a week. That's all.
No time to talk, really.
Just to pretend, and wish
it could go on a little longer.
Like a stolen moment in bed
in the morning, frantic and rushed.
Or a secret meeting with a lover
soon to be dismissed.
We found a place to gather
and touch each other just
enough to say that
long ago we were
together in paradise.
The words, the phrases and even the silences seem to fall onto the page with little effort. That is the way it seems. Lee gives us his life or at least pieces of it. His poetry fits well into the tradition, now some forty years in the making, in its twentieth century dress, of confessional poetry. Lee hits you with his experience; it's straight from the shoulder. He's a good story-teller. You don't ask: is this true, correct, right? You bring to his poems what you bring to life: as sane a mixture of judgement and dispassionate acceptance, as much as you can, as you possess.
Lee's poetry creates a telescopic lens which magnifies his experience and brings it as close as he can emotionally to his readers. In the process he avoids complexity, poetic archaisms and a whole panoply and pagaentry of poetic techniques. He gives you the everyday, the quotidian, the colloquial. There is a tendency to glamorize the self, but that is part of the game, the process, the exercise, that is confessional poetry. Going over the top is what readers experience in confessional poetry. It is what you get with the genre. That's part of the basis of its popularity the last forty years.
Poets try to move beyond the imprisoning ordinariness of the day-to-day. They try to move to higher purposes, to general principles. They try to get at their emotions and thoughts so often buried in life's hum-drum breathings, so often trapped under the weight of what existence throws up in their face, their lives. Let's look at the beginning and the final stanzas of Lee's eight stanza poem The Road Not Taken from his chapbook This is Going to be Short.
I hitchhiked home from the Temple that night
some thirty years ago now
and this old, fat guy
who picked me up
told me I could have a job
that would take me around the world
if we could sleep together the whole time.
I stayed hip through the proposition, though,
I said it would be something new for me
(which was actually true at the time),
and I made him let me off at the corner
in Glencoe, Illinois.
If he had been any younger,
or even had average looks,
I would have said yes,
Because I remember that night,
I was so tired of being alone
that suicide felt like a good thing,
even if it was the slow kind.
Anyway, I took another road
and ended up married, with children.
And there was no pool of blood
in the morning papers.
I learned to bleed slowly little by little,
without making a mess.
One senses that Lee, like all of us, has been trying, sometimes desperately, often obsessively, to reconcile the problems that life has dealth him. This poem takes the reader back, with Lee, to the sixties, to a night when he was hitchhiking from the Temple in Chicago. It was a period of personal hell, one of those dark nights of the soul. What attracts me is the similarity with my own experience. We both belong to the sixties generation Lee and I; we both had our hells. Who hasn't? Bridges to the souls of others are built on common experience.
This is confessional poetry at its best, at least for me. It's graphic, blatant, subtle, with a touch of wisdom and sophistication. Roger White used to say, quoting Tagore, "the poem not the poet." In confessional poetry, poetry that focuses on the poet's experience, this aphorism could be reversed: "the poet not the poem." Perhaps the truth comes somewhere in between, differently for each of us according to our particular preferences, tastes and the kind of poem we are writing.
Lee's poems deal in contradictions and conflicts. Doubts, difficulties and dilemmas are part of his life--and ours. The next poem which I quote from caught my eye because I feel as if I might be ‘a real poet’ who ‘would never have to leave his garden.’ It is a psychological dilemma for me: the solitude-sociability continuum. Lee taps into this problem I've got. I prick up my ears and read with a keener edge read from: his poem
In the Garden
Someone told me that
a real poet
would never have to leave his garden
to find inspiration
for a lifetime of work.
My garden seems ordinary enough,
and I don't think it would be good for
more than two or three poems.
Everything is planted pretty much in place
Except over there
under the lemon tree...
The selection which follows comes from the same chapbook "This Is Going To Be Short." Of the two chapbooks Lee has published by High-Born Lady Press in Los Angeles in 1999 this is my favorite. It resonates with my experience; that's probably why. There are eight poems in this small booklet. Four of the poems, are written in three sections each, the rest of varying length each in one section. This is the last poem in the chapbook:
Yes, I remember the first time I saw her,
invited just for that
to that tiny beach house
in a crowd of thirty people of more.
She was smiles and laughter,
all gaiety and light--
the kind she switches on and off for strangers.
But I imagined the light switch on
and took the next step, calling and calling.
Calling again, until I was not longer strange.
Poetry resonates in each of us differently. In some ways the poem does not belong to the poet after it is written. It is sent out on the air-waves to become part of the universe and its billions of suns. 'First glimpse' is a wonderful theme to pick up on. The reader has no idea who this person is. More importantly, it could be someone in my life. His voice may help others find their voice, or develop the voice they already have found. Voices, selves and poetry are sometimes found in the works of others.
Arts Dialogue, June 2001, pages 3 - 4
Arts Dialogue, Dintel 20, NL 7333 MC, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands