Review by Shanta Acharya, in Envoi 156, Summer-Fall, 2010
"Seasons of Defiance" is Lance Lee’s fourth collection of poems. A past Creative Writing Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts in the US, he lives in Los Angeles but is equally at home in the East Coast of America as much as in London (UK) where he has close family connections. His poems have been published in journals on both sides of the Atlantic. His various personal journeys come together in this fine collection of poems where he bears witness to the knowledge that “a man’s fate is to find and lose/ what must be found and held.” I quote from his poem “Autumn, Tourist, Fate.”
In some ways, the title of this poem sums up many of Lee’s preoccupations – the poems are indeed meditations about “life in death or death in life.” The persona in the poems represents a traveller, an explorer – in the autumn of his life. The poems convey an irrepressible sense of “that lifedeath, that strangeness/ from which we are sprung.” There is celebration of life, love, nature, raw energy, where “Old Man Ocean” throbs with “youthful strength, showy determined/ loved as only/ greater strength can love.” Questions relating to fate, destiny, character, human nature shape this exploration where “To be human means: vain.” (“Raven, As Philosopher”). In the same poem, the Raven tells the Poet: “I give you/ the truth. Live in yourself. Live in peace.” But the Poet’s reply is: “All you give me is dust” reminiscent of Genesis “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Much of his observation triggers from experiences linked to place/ nature revealing the “inexpressible hunger we never fulfil.” (“Being And Becoming”) It is no coincidence the epigraph of the very first poem, “Going To Ravenna,” is from Yeats: “Once out of nature I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing…” Like Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” acknowledging ‘that is no country for old men,’ and where ‘an aged man is but a paltry thing’ Lee rages against human limitations: “We cannot leave our mark./ Only our brevity lets us think so.” (“What Resists Us”) As Yeats aspired to sing ‘of what is past, or passing, or to come,’ Lee in his ‘seasons of defiance’, speaks of the nature of “hunger, blood, bone, desire: life.”
His language moves us with its precision and power. In “The Willet Soars” he describes the winter shore where “tall waves lift, their crests slurries/ of wind-whipped foam, hard/ winter sand trembling like a woman/ nearing ecstasy/ as white explosions roll down the bay.” He spots a willet that “leaps/ into the air with staccato thrusts/ of barred wings and skims the shoreward foam to fade, I think,/ into the gray, but instead banks sharply/ over a tall wave and soars in a curve/ that takes my breath away.” The predominance of monosyllabic words captures the intensity of the experience.
In “Homecoming” he is “caught in the hall of mirrors husband and wife become,/ bound to the urban streetweb where only earthquakes remind us the world is real/ and far beyond disliking does not care about us at all.” He then “goes down to the gray shore and plunge my hands in wet sand,/ … / crush an earth of seeds, bark, stone, leaves, soil in my hands,/ breathe in the sweet, acrid smell of chaparral fog pushes grudgingly uphill,/ but none of these return me to myself.” The poem turns when he sees the familiar Redtail that “whooshes by so close I meet his eye,” which is one of those moments when the self becomes the other, an experience that Keats referred to as ‘negative capability.’ The poem does not end there when he is “free of humanity./ My small figure stands rapt on the cliff,/ no more than a tree or stone or deer” when he is one with the universe. The poem reaches its climax when he is as it were returned to himself: “I let her touch make me a man,/ her love make me real./ Here is my ocean, fog, light; my stone, my earth, my self, my flight.”
Lee reminds us that “love isn’t enough, or moral anger/ to change the world:/ let me be wholly one with nature.” (“Pendant”). It is the here, now quality of all life that concerns Lee, when “a moist red sunset shows me/ to be a man without answers/ burning in place.” (“Harwich Port, Fires”). In “Dreaming The End of Going West” he affirms: “There is nothing left for me to do but go/ deeper, ever deeper, into my dreaming.”
He conveys a clear sense of man’s place in the universe – not ostentatious or strident, just simple, factual, reminding the reader of the inevitability of his position, not a “straining to understand His meaning.” For “No one comes from any heaven// we can name: no one speaks to us now. We are alone./ We are what we make.” (“Armageddon”). Lee makes evocative poetry along with his other creative outputs, not to mention his family.
He does not shy away from asking the big questions either. In “Going To Ravenna,” he refers to “the maker,/ who is not here, of course.” In “Birds Of A Feather” we hear “the hawk’s defining cry: Here is all I am there is nothing more.” This simple truth has the poignancy of Shakespeare’s “Is man no more than this?... thou art the thing itself,/ unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare,/ forked animal as thou art.” (King Lear, III. iv). Just as Shakespeare’s Lear and Yeats in his poem rage against the injustices of this world, Lee speaking through the persona of “William James To A Friend In Trinity Church, Boston” has this to say about God: “if He is as things are, we are better off alone.” For him “God, if anything, is the life and death we live.”