Lance Lee

Poet, Playwright, Novelist

Book covers
Book covers
Seasons of Defiance cover

Seasons of Defiance

Pub. 2009, US; 2010, UK

Ambit 205
Review of Seasons of Defiance, Peter Target

At first, Seasons of Defiance reads as a book of nature poems. On every page of Lance Lee’s latest collection the reader encounters the purity of ‘nature’ in some form, whether located in a classic pastoral setting or an urban one, and direct quotes from and allusions to Keats and other nature poets pepper the text. But if there is, as all the signs point and reviews follow, a prevailing idea that Lee’s fate is to take a place in the pastoral canon it seems to me misplaced; this is a writer whose moments of revelation come in the city. ‘If real earth/ sinks underfoot when I turn/ to nature to find a truth sane / as stone’, then what are we to conclude when we meet lines as rock hard as this:

While success brings only a
power and sex that prey
on each other in hope
a moment’s violence will
break the heart and make it

We find Lee most at home, and most blistering, when commenting on urban society. In contrast, when he turns to nature for solace he finds only incoherence:

I want to cry out,
to rage, but I am unable as you
to escape to the unknown
world love would plant
in this stony nature we plow…

It is a dynamic between ‘natural’ and ‘human ‘ worlds with plays out time and again in this collection, and the reader could be left wondering at the end whether it is the human condition that Lee is wrestling with, or his choice of subject. Either way, there is a compelling tussle between an intellect and its surroundings in this work, one which maintained my interest throughout.

Lee certainly doesn’t duck the difficult questions. Indeed his poems swell in their description until they have the strength to confront them head-on with the defiance of the title.

Why live by these opposites,
their naming so easy, so misleading,
love hate life death
when instead one force rules [:
that lifedeath, that strangeness

from which we are sprung.

Although many will applaud not only the sentiment of this passage but also the attempt to bring light to murky places through poetry, what does it actually add to the conversation? Love, hate, life, and death certainly are inadequate terms to describe these most profound and subjectively experienced elements of living, but is bagging everything up as one thing and calling it ‘strangeness’ or ‘lifedeath’ any better? The arsenal available to language is greater than this. Nevertheless, to say that Lee’s ambitious philosophizing never quite masters the subtlety of his subjects is not to write off Seasons of Defiance; the reader of this book will meet a thoughtful, generous and humourous writer.

Hudson View Poetry Digest, Autumn 2010
Review of Seasons of Defiance, by Jacob Erin-Cilberto

Walt Whitman is whispering his assent while humming a Beethoven tune as he reads “Seasons of Defiance”, a new book of poetry by Lance Lee. And we may be doing just the same.

“Those silences are God holding his breath so we flash out existence and when He breathes out we know each life makes the world new each breath renews the chase and in that moment the heart’s hope embraces us, eternal, beloved, lips murmuring/‘Darling be still/I am here/all is whole/all is well…’”

Those beautiful words remind us that in between each new season God does hold his breath, but then he exhales and spring turns to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter and yet again winter to spring and a new beginning. Life’s cycle continues as does our cycle of loving and letting go…we embrace life and love for as long as we can…but we know existence is ephemeral.

Lance Lee captures this concept brilliantly in the personifications within these sharp poems: “This plodding between birth and death/wears us down half measure by measure/while our sense there is a larger, stranger life/that haunts our hearts…” as if something bigger lies out there waiting for us. We are but leaves on a tree meant to experience our spring, summer and fall, then die in winter to allow others to come after us. We can only hope to leave an imprint on the earth where we land… “I want to cry out, to rage, (like “Do not go gentle into that good night”) but I am unable as you/to escape to the unknown…” And what is out there after this? What is the unknown?

In “Reverend John Thomas” Lee writes “if only for ourselves/in love with love’s ideal/which has no unlit places to be uncaring/second-rate, hurried…” Maybe love helps us pace ourselves to keep life on an even keel? “Even if the faith is a dream” perhaps life is a dream of seasons and one which we might wake into?

In “Annunciation” he says “The angel’s eyes are the slow cooling/of suns/as he grows confused by/the world’s weight and thick…” but the angel will not let us be confused by the sun, won’t let us burn up in its heat…he will protect us as we take our journey through life.

I am especially impressed with the exciting personifications that appears within these pages. The Bees, the Crows, the Pelicans all signify the journey we take, the good and bad we experience and ultimately our death, “as their black calls die.” When we no longer hear them, when we no longer exist…when we have become that dried up leaf that becomes mulch in an earth that for a short time we only rent until we move on to that next season…still wondering in the end where we will land, “where he slid away deftly as a thought” but hopefully the thought of us will not slip away so “deftly” and someone will remember, someone will remember…if we could defy the seasons, “if I could so abandon myself to love” — perhaps someone will.

Jacob Erin-Cilberto Hudson View Poetry Digest, Autumn 2010

Review by Reza Tokaloo, April 2010
Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene, review blog

In his second book published by Birch Brook Press, Seasons of Defiance, Lance Lee offers another collection of nature based poetry. Vivid images of nature exchange metaphors with memories of his travels, family life, and his youth. The chaotic beauty of nature repeats throughout the collection in: lightning, thunder, from tumultuous seasons to calm scenes; dunes, beach sands, bending trees, and rivers. Animals play an essential role in creating imagery as well: ravens (“Les Corbeaux des Bonnieux”), horseshoe crabs (such as the one pictured on the books cover; rendered nicely in pen and ink), cardinals, and swooping and soaring sea birds. Mr. Lee carefully and eloquently uses this geography (flora and fauna) and documents their value in his examinations and travels through life.

There are signs within some of the poetry of familiar disruptions crackling and booming like the storms in nature we all have to endure. Nature’s storms and the storms of our personal lives as necessary evils which have to face: dissolving of a family, hardships, and loss.

In the poem “William James to a Friend in Trinity Church, Boston,” we get a decidedly New England feel from Mr. Lee as he attests to the Boston summer with the line, it is “better to fan myself in Boston’s humid air.” A clever metaphor is also (potentially?) slipped in to his poem “Mining Cornwall” as an ode to British literary history through “lanes that twist and leap” (a reference to Tristan’s Leap and the Cornish legend of Tristan?). I found this to be very clever if so.

In summation I found this recent collection by Lance Lee to be a very easy read. The poetry is written in a consistently steady form using great visual language. My only issue with this book is in its title. After reading the collection carefully, I was wondering where the Defiance was? Save for a poem about war and another entitled “Killer Bees” (a morbid piece and hardly a glowing review for these buggers by the author), much of the book is dedicated to his travels through various landscapes and memories. The passage of seasons mirrors the passage of time with reminders of life and death.

Reza Tokaloo Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene, review blog

Review: Midwest Book Review
5 out of 5 Stars, Highly Recommended, March 2010

At its best, poetry is meant to be read aloud with all the cadence, inflection, and oratorical skills that can be mustered by the performer. When in print these same functions are the province of punctuation and word positioning framed out on the linear structures of the paper. But even these fundamental requirements necessitate that the substance of the poetry be present in its linguistically conjured imagery and meter. As so it is with the poetry of Lance Lee in "Seasons Of Defiance", his latest collection of memorable verse, all of which is highly recommended for personal reading lists, as well as both academic and community library collections. 'Timebends': The real melts -- even these streets, / time speeded, squirm like eels. / New walls rise modern, curving / through the old even as those fall. / Imagine my surprise at this oak leaf / pressed between poems long autumns / ago, unbroken as though diamond. / Why did I keep it? puzzles memory / melts the leaf in my mind. / One day I will be dust then something / strange, another day come with no oaks / to source the leaf's root and limb, / resolve the mystery of what blood flowed / in such brown veins. Even now / the streets eel, my door falls inward / and a new hall shapes to my feet / where faces pause to smile at me / whom I have never seen before.

Midwest Book Review

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.”

Review by Tim Liardet, author, The Blood Choir

Unashamedly post-Keatsian in tone, transatlantic in bias, Lee’s strongest strain of originality lies in his marrying of lyric celebration with precise imagistic clarity; there’s the Hughsian fascination with animal forms, both real and metaphorical; there’s the packed line, the lush diction, the muted experimentation and the force of a restlessness that sustains the tempo.

Tim Liardet