Judy Gahagan - Ambit 189
In Becoming Human, Lance Lee’s previous collection, was a poem ‘Dante in Los Angeles’ so extraordinary it alerted me to his work in general. Many of the poems in this recent collection mirror the grandeur of that piece. For us this side of the Atlantic, a bit cramped, a bit timid in the observance of prevailing canons, he offers a vaulting scope of freedom and unafraid splendour. This new collection continues with the fine canvases from which it’s difficult to choose an exemplary quote.
You won’t find here the still small voice, restraint, objectivity, the acceptance of any part of life as ordinary. Lance Lee is privileged of course; he has access to vast nature, to the classical world, to evocative places everywhere. His stance in a world he finds marvelous is that of full participation, the outer world in intimate connection with the inner, and the classical cultural past an organic one.
Threaded through the collection but explored fully in the first part there is too his fraught relationship with his father, his mourning for his father. Yet like other experiences brought into poetry here it is supra-personal as well as biographical. Every observation and memory is highly charged and whatever his existential musings his vision remains ecstatic. For many contemporary readers and commentators it may be that his feast is too opulent. Not for me! My only reservation is that the subjectivity (and there’s a clear distinction here between the subjective and autobiographical) that bathes his every theme can lose sight of the particular qualities of things in themselves — for example in his poem ‘Stonehenge.’ In the poem ‘Winter Solstice’ too, the fragile narcissus becomes “dizzying as death and renewal.” And again his Rembrandt is so fused into so much of the self he has displayed elsewhere, Rembrandt seems to get lost. In short the danger deriving from his qualities of intensity and opulence can become indiscriminate. A simple narrative sometimes gets flooded in ornate language.
However these side effects, so rarely encountered, are a small price to pay for this voice of pure poetry. Who else these days will write a poem on the splendour of a sunset — indeed about a sunset at all — and do so as if for the first time in the history of poetry:
Strange, this sky— a fin of fire cruises westward
naptha beams— flame throwers in an
boil the clouds and choke the light:
Vs of geese, and lower, a cloud of crows,
fly swiftly through the murk.
Another moment and the sky transforms
to gold tissues, some lame, and darkens
by stages to navy, glittering strands
as though a dancer shedding veils.
…the hero in the dark.
Who sees me for what I am?
Am I anyone at all?
Lance Lee’s resources belong to the privileged but his genius is in creating poetry for anyone with the slightest lingering wish for the beauty that can still infuse life. How he liberates us!