Lance Lee


Poet, Playwright, Novelist

Book covers
Book covers
Becoming Human cover

Elemental Natures

Pub. 2020

Review: Booklife

Lee (Homecomings) unites a selection of work from “old favorites” and poems he feels he has “neglected” in this cohesive and lyrical collection. Classic themes—such as love, pain and suffering, and religion—unfold amid vivid word imagery and profound symbolism, enveloping readers in a mix of “self and other, just as the present mixes with the past and any number of hoped-for futures.” Lee provides glimpses of a writer at work through the filter of time in this massive tome, packing a multitude of meaning into dramatic inflection and phrasing while challenging readers to open the wounds caused by being human.

Lee’s collected work shares elements of intensity and raw human experiences, from the powerful imagery of fixating on breast cancer scars during lovemaking in “Backrub,” to the merciless hard labor sentences of immigrants in “The Way Home.” He divulges his discovery of “how blood waters the earth/ how flesh is food and death” and reveals penetrating feelings of isolation and loneliness, making the selected writings read like a fragmented biography told through scenes of the author’s life. “Homecoming” presents as an homage to finding purpose through love - “I am caught in the hall of mirrors husband and wife become/ bound to the urban streetweb where only earthquakes/ remind us the world is real... here is my ocean, fog, light; my stone, my earth, my self/ my flight.”

Though the sheer amount of work presented causes feelings of repetition, Lee’s stunning writing about the natural world and bold descriptions of collective and fundamental experiences is enough to keep readers returning for more. Occasional black-and-white illustrations contextualize the works. Both returning and new readers will savor Lee’s compilation of work in various formats. This compendium will appeal to those who enjoy classic literature as well as poetry about archetypal themes.

Takeaway: This impressive collection organically mixes poetry, prose, and nonfiction and will appeal to thoughtful readers of classic literature and 20th-century verse.

Great for fans of Walt Whitman, Robert Lowell.

Production grades
Cover: B-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B

Booklife

Kirkus Review, US

An unsettling and necessary read for environmentalists and fans of naturalist poetry.

Lee’s latest poetry collection explores the strained relationship between humankind and the natural world.

The author’s strongest poems discuss humans’ destruction of nature in general, and the animal kingdom in particular. In “Geese,” for instance, the speaker tells of “acid rain that burns the feather, / and stinging air from great cities / that makes them fly blind,” and then asks, “Are they so dumb or so forgetful / they come and come again each year / never changing their way?” In “Dandelion,” the speaker suggests that the titular weed is “more beautiful than the storied rose” because of its resilience and ability to survive the winter. The speaker begins to value other forms of life as much as his own, concluding, “I wish you stood here, and I / flowered there.” “The World is Dying” states it plainly: “We recoil / at nature’s tooth and claw, / yet no animal kills and kills / and kills even without knowing / he kills like we kill.” In “A New Season,” Lee grapples with the consequences of such unprecedented killing in climate change, noting that we all will become “strangers on our own ground.” Near the end of the collection, “The Oranges of Guimaraes” suggests that perhaps humans are not as special and central to the ecosystem as we once believed. With hundreds of poems to shuffle through, in ekphrastic and naturalistic styles, readers are bound to find several that resonate, and at least one or two that truly linger. Overall, Lee manages to make this collection of old and new poems feel urgent and up-to-the-minute as it rushes toward a vital point. It’s an interdisciplinary set of works that effectively considers the havoc that people have wreaked on living things—including themselves.

An unsettling and necessary read for environmentalists and fans of naturalist poetry.

Kirkus Review, US

Blueink Review, US

Lance Lee has only one poem dedicated to Henry David Thoreau in his prodigious poetry collection, Elemental Natures, but his literary sensibilities are much akin to Thoreau’s.

The book is comprised of mostly free verse and uses nature as a metaphor or backdrop for man’s actions, or simply describes nature itself. Like Thoreau, Lee could have been a “self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms.” This makes for some beautiful poetry. Take, for instance, these lines in “Autumn”: “Austerities of bright space flood the East/ metallic sunsets burn the West—/ one noon the sea wears the thin, brief glitter/ of a mayfly’s wing.”

In Lee’s poetry, nature can stand not only for man, but one man can exemplify all men. “We are so wound in nature,” Lee asserts in “Blood Rhythm,” that “I find no boundary between inner and outer,/ us and others, me and you...” Resting on this universality, Lee’s pieces explore topics ranging from Greek mythology to coyotes and wolves to Walt Whitman and Robinson Jeffers, Armageddon and Dachau.

Most of the poems are deeply layered with imagery, as in: “Light wheels across the shore-hugging sea:/ rain falls with a thousand years’ despair/ and the downs hood their heads with dark mists.” Some of the poems like “Opossum’s Death and What Happens After” and “Dachau” force a steady look at what the mind would rather turn from. Others present themes poetry often returns to (“Who sees me for what I am?” and “…this repetition/ of what we have known is all there is/ of bulwark and meaning and measure…”).

Occasionally, Lee’s imagery falters (i.e. “a patina for muscular stars,” and “until bats of light strike my shoulders”), and some passages are opaque. Most often, though, his poems move with the clarity he discusses in his The American Voice essay at the back of his book.

In all, Elemental Natures should be a welcome addition to any poetry reader’s shelf. Also available in:
hardcover and ebook.

Blueink Review, US

Clarion Review, US

Inviting meditation, the poems of Elemental Natures are disturbing and enlightening as they address contemporary American cacophonies.

Lance Lee’s retrospective collection of poems, art, and an essay, Elemental Natures, addresses volatile situations with clarity.

Beginning by arguing that there’s an increasing need for a “lyrical I,” or a signature American voice that is audible beyond general violence and media saturation, this book concentrates on issuing a beautiful sound without dwelling on social ills. Most of its poems are called lyrics, and many aim to affect rich, layered tones.

Some entries focus on how nature’s wildness is reflected in human souls, their foci visceral: “We are the blood pumped through the great heart of things,” one declares. These help to develop the book’s singular voice—one that is close both to the environment and to other beings, asserting that “we are all in nature, a city no less than a beaver’s dam or an anthill but built the way each of us can.”

The book first introduces major personal themes, focusing on relationships with grandparents, parents, a wife, a daughter, and heroes of literature and history. It covers homes on both coasts and the animals and nature around them. The sections that follow the book’s opening expand on such themes, projecting their contemporary milieus onto historical contexts. Among these is a take on The Odyssey, which is paired with stark-lined, jagged-edged pen and ink drawings of ancient Greek pottery that are decorated with modern images. The combination is attentive to the feelings behind the words. The book’s most recent poems distill its ultimate message into pithy, tender entries that are as direct as its drawings.

The book concludes with an essay, “The American Voice,” that suggests criteria by which to judge the book as a whole. It argues that Walt Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, and Robert Lowell are the best examples of the American voice because they departed from academic models of poetry to write in rapture. A question about who is the current American voice arises, suggesting, but not pronouncing, Lee as an answer.

In their organizations and forms, the poems are sensual and pleasing. They are bound by conceits that connect one to the next; these include birds, people, and seasons. The longest poems appear in the book’s middle; the book tapers off, and its most condensed poems come at its end. The arc is satisfying.

Lee’s punctuation and indentation choices play a role in shaping the poems’ visual meanings. Many reserve their periods for their ends; some are without end punctuation at all. Images and phrases string together to form jaunty, lasting impressions, while italicized lines result in a sense of depth and breadth, like distant dialogues with unseen others. Images of desertion, neglect, fighting, and predators eating prey combine with tender scenes between lovers to form a complete picture that is both dark and light.

Inviting meditation, the poems of Elemental Natures are disturbing and enlightening as they address contemporary American cacophonies.
Mari Carlson, Clarion Reviews, US

Kirkus Reviews, US

Lee’s latest poetry collection explores the strained relationship between humankind and the natural world.

The author’s strongest poems discuss humans’ destruction of nature in general, and the animal kingdom in particular. In “Geese,” for instance, the speaker tells of “acid rain that burns the feather, / and stinging air from great cities / that makes them fly blind,” and then asks, “Are they so dumb or so forgetful / they come and come again each year / never changing their way?” In “Dandelion,” the speaker suggests that the titular weed is “more beautiful than the storied rose” because of its resilience and ability to survive the winter. The speaker begins to value other forms of life as much as his own, concluding, “I wish you stood here, and I / flowered there.” “The World is Dying” states it plainly: “We recoil / at nature’s tooth and claw, / yet no animal kills and kills / and kills even without knowing / he kills like we kill.” In “A New Season,” Lee grapples with the consequences of such unprecedented killing in climate change, noting that we all will become “strangers on our own ground.” Near the end of the collection, “The Oranges of Guimaraes” suggests that perhaps humans are not as special and central to the ecosystem as we once believed. With hundreds of poems to shuffle through, in ekphrastic and naturalistic styles, readers are bound to find several that resonate, and at least one or two that truly linger. Overall, Lee manages to make this collection of old and new poems feel urgent and up-to-the-minute as it rushes toward a vital point. It’s an interdisciplinary set of works that effectively considers the havoc that people have wreaked on living things—including themselves.

An unsettling and necessary read for environmentalists and fans of naturalist poetry.

“Lance Lee’s Elemental Natures draws together in one inspiring new volume a powerful selection of works … These attest to the far-reaching intelligence and perceptive insights of a remarkable talent—from Lance Lee’s respect for the classical tradition to the vigor of all-consuming human love to the welfare of planet earth as well as our common awesome as well as awful experiences. In living with these works, I could not help coming away with a sense of poetic maturity and mastery.”

Kirkus Reviews, US

Tom Tolnay, editor and publisher, Birch Brook Press, US

“Lance Lee’s Elemental Natures draws together in one inspiring new volume a powerful selection of works … These attest to the far-reaching intelligence and perceptive insights of a remarkable talent—from Lance Lee’s respect for the classical tradition to the vigor of all-consuming human love to the welfare of planet earth as well as our common awesome as well as awful experiences. In living with these works, I could not help coming away with a sense of poetic maturity and mastery.”

Tom Tolnay, editor and publisher, Birch Brook Press, US

Myra Schneider, author of Lifting the Sky, UK

Elemental Natures draws from a career spread over thirty years … Our complexities and place in the world are central in his work, while ‘Late Spring’ brings his difficult father marvelously to life as Lee investigates himself, his family, and mixed gentile and Jewish background. Here is a poet writing with the richness of the Romantics who looks hard at reality and expresses himself with passion and honesty, pulling the reader in.”

Myra Schneider, author of Lifting the Sky, UK

Pamela Stewart, author of Infrequent Mysteries, US

Elemental Natures is a beautiful accomplishment, an expanse of poems born of one man’s ‘life-wish’—unsettling, full-blooded, tender—that shows life’s energy pressing up against the margins of mortality with a vibrant, sensuous intelligence … He offers a way to share and celebrate multiple aspects of being alive within the vitality of art itself as well as within our great archetypal myths, which he makes uniquely intimate and essential.”

Pamela Stewart, author of Infrequent Mysteries, US