Lance Lee

Poet, Playwright, Novelist

Book covers
Book covers
Transformations cover


Pub. 2012
Birch Brook Press (13 Mar. 2013) ISBN-10: 0984200355

Over the years a good many of my poems have been fortunate to be illustrated by a group of gifted artists in the distinguished British quarterly, Ambit: Laura Knight, Anne Howeson, Mike Foreman, and Charles Shearer, to whom my thanks are given for their permission to reproduce their work here with the poems for which each was done.

Included also are two portraits by Ron Sandford and John Robertson. Ron’s is based on an afternoon’s sitting on a warm day in London in the sitting room at Martin Bax’s home, the editor of Ambit, John’s from a sitting resulting in a striking window-sized portrait for a reading in my home town of Pacific Palisades, part of Los Angeles. They, too, have been kind enough to allow me to use these in books in the past, and I thought it fitting to include them in a book of interpretations of myself and my work by others. I shifted once while Ron was at work, which he incorporated into the portrait...

For this present publication, which includes new as well as previously published work, additional art has been created by Charles Shearer for the other Roman Poems besides River of Flesh. Since the poems are part of a sequence, I have included that in its entirety. Ron Sandford created the splendid work for No One Comes For Penelope — . I thank both for their generosity.

At other times, in other poems, I have from time to time interpreted others’ art, often paintings, and those poems and paintings are included also, including poems first published in Wrestling With The Angel, and also for Jesse’s Dream among the new poems. The latter was sparked by my viewing the Jesse Window in St. Mary’s, in Shrewsbury, on the Welsh border, from where some of my ancestors come, and is accompanied by a photo of that window.

Artists frequently react to one another’s work, often with striking results, and the present volume allows interested readers to see that interaction in contemporary guise. Sometimes the collision between sensibilities here has resulted in something amusing, sometimes straightforward, and sometimes leaves one hard put to tell whether I or the artist was more inspired. The variety of response is to be expected in such a wide range of artists, and that variety makes immediate and graphic the realization that not just different artists but every reader takes a poem to heart in some ways that are private and unique.

Lance Lee

Michael Foreman is one of the outstanding creators of children’s books today, including writing and illustrating his own. Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish (1972) is acknowledged as being ground-breaking in its environmental theme; many of his books reflect the stupidity of war. He has won numerous awards, including twice winning the Kate Greenaway Medal. Exhibitions of his work have been held in London, Paris, Japan and North and South America. Despite his role as Art Editor of the literary magazine Ambit for over 40 years, he is uneasy about illustrating poems: good poems are pared to perfection – and illustrating them is perhaps ‘gilding the lily’.

Anne Howeson won the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2000; she was a selected artist of Time Out critic Ossian Ward in November 2011. Currently she lectures at the Royal College of Art: her projects include a solo exhibition of drawings, ‘Remember Me’, on the regeneration of Kings Cross, and a commission about ‘The Bull’ for an exhibition curated by New York Art Director Robert Priest.

Laura Knight studied Graphic Design and illustration at St Martins and the Royal College of Art, then spent many years teaching and freelancing. During this period she enjoyed a relationship with Ambit magazine of 20 years. At present she publishes self initiated design projects with forays into textile printing and design.

John Robertson tries to “pare the image down to a simple idea of the person and may distort their perception of the subject with the understanding that identity is something more than a visual representation. I'm more interested in the idea or concept of the person. I want to challenge people to think and to react - but not necessarily see an exact representation of themselves: most appreciate my strong point of view and like to see themselves and others interpreted in this manner."

Ron Sandford presently makes his home on the Isle of Yell, Shetland Islands. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art and the Royal College of Art, London. He has illustrated many books, as well as taught the discipline. Many of his drawings were made for eminent graphic designers, architects and corporate giants, although his practice is more idealistic than practical... Hokusai described himself as an 'Old man mad about drawing', a sentiment Ron understands, as he in turn “rather suspects that for some unspecified original sin the Gods dished out at least a billion lines” to draw for himself... His drawings for No One Comes for Penelope — , are decorations rather than illustrations, drawn from remembered fragments of the poem, grafted to remembered fragments of Greek pottery.

Charles Shearer studied at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen, and at the Royal College of Art, London, specializing in illustration. Since graduating in 1983 he has balanced teaching at numerous art schools with working on personal projects. In 1987 he visited the Middle East, Pakistan and India with an extended stay on a kibbutz in northern Israel. More recently an interest in castles and ruins in general has taken him to Ireland. The experiences from these annual visits have inspired most of his recent drawings and prints. He is a regular contributor of images to the literary magazine, Ambit, and has produced cover designs and illustrations for several books by the late Orcadian poet and writer George MacKay Brown, published by John Murray.

Review — Transforming Poetry and Art, by Shanta Acharya

Transformations is a strikingly successful collaboration between the poet Lance Lee and a group of artists as diverse as Michael Foreman, Anne Howeson, Laura Knight, John Robertson, Charles Shearer and Ron Sandford, associated with Ambit Magazine (until recently edited by Martin Bax). The cover art was created especially for this publication by Ron Sandford. The book includes two distinctive portraits of Lee - one by Sandford, the other by John Robertson. Lee shifted once while Sandford was at work, this was in Highgate at the Bax residence. Sandford has incorporated that shift into his portrait reminding me how deftly art teases out a deeper truth.

Thirty two works of art, including classic oil paintings by Cezanne and Monet, all skilfully crafted and reproduced (some in colour) in Transformations reinforce Lee's statement: "... the collision between sensibilities here has resulted in something amusing, sometimes straightforward, and sometimes may leave one hard to tell whether I or the artist was more inspired." The juxtaposition of the poems and the artworks takes on a life of its own - inspired and inspiring - creating a multi-layered experience where the world is a story "waiting to have its meaning laid bare."

The author of twelve books, Transformations is Lee's fifth collection of poems. Over half the poems in the book are new. Lee has included poems from each of his four previous collections, beginning with "Monet" from his 1990 collection, Wrestling with the Angel, where the transformative power of art comes across powerfully. "While the dead pile up at Lille/ like burst tubes of paint," Monet "goes on measuring/ the light across the lilies." He also knows how "we go on in our lovers' dreams/ after we have gone..." Like art, the redemptive power of love bears us to an alternative life. The poet acknowledges that "to want nothing is freedom" ("The Indian Potter"), but as an artist one cannot walk away. "He's in the fire now, one of us." The notion of the poet/ artist as witness runs seamlessly through the collection.

The three long New Poems deserve special mention. Among the "Roman Poems," in "River of Flesh", Lee adopts something of the procedure and spirit of Auden's moving and wonderful "The Shield of Achilles." The homage to Auden gives us a clue. Auden contrasts the heroic world of Achilles with the brutal and debased world he encountered in mid-20th century Europe. What all three ages - and Time - have in common is mortality. For Lee, the Tiber is the "river of flesh" where "all times meet, where striving follows striving,/ thirst thirst, dream dream/ we never waken from, or slake, or gain."

In the preface to "No One Comes For Penelope" Bax writes: "Lance Lee and Ron Sandford find Penelope again. Or do they? Or does she find them? What does Lee do first? Call a world into being and - what world is it? ... The world of the long journey home, or a world of dreams, collisions and shadows, a world where you and I want to go? Are we in the past or the present or an untame future? Delve in and find out yourself- if you insist Penelope could join. But you may have ideas of your own.... " Readers will indeed explore their own ideas and discover unknown identities as the poems take them to 'undiscovered' lands. Lee reminds us how "every reader takes a poem to heart in some ways that are private and unique." For this reader, it is more than a poem. Having made me a witness to the darker aspects of life, Lee also reveals its richness, beauty and warmth.

In "Jesse's Dream," the poet informs us "the imagery springs from a passage in Isaiah about how `a rod (would grow) out of the stem of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots: and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him." Jesse windows were popular in the middle ages, showing a vine or tree or some leafy variation rising from Jesse's body revealing his descendants through the kings of Israel... down to Mary and Joseph, with Jesus at the top crucified." The poet weaves in such imagery in exploring the power of love. In fact, the titles of the sections of the poem are revealing - Power, His dream, Rebellion, Love, and The wife.

The poem (and the book) ends with a particularly moving stanza: "A howl blows downward as she falls towards sleep imagining how she will rise again to his passion in the morning, / everything for him, whatever empires or churches rise and fall in his kiss: / how with each child the world is reborn: / how love dares everything, how everything is from love, how everything is, for love." Lee's passionate exploration of the world enriches our understanding of it.

Review of Lance Lee's Transformations, by Jacob Erin-Cilberto

Interesting that Lance Lee's latest book is called Transformations. The author makes a living in this collection transforming works of past authors into something metamorphosed into works of his own. He puts a wonderfully modern twist on old works and does it with such grace and style. Lee shows us his versions of the poems but at the same time gives us a strong view into what those old poems would look like had the authors been living and breathing today.

In his poem "Monet" Lance speaks of the painter as "old, the days of his years/flocks long numbered and folded/into twilight, and now this work/with paint and brush bows/him over— lilies,/always lilies that breathe." And yes, Lance Lee is showing us how Monet's works still breathe, and that allows the artist to still live and breathe among us, all these years after his passing: "he goes on/from love of the young men sown." The young can appreciate the old, the young can appreciate the artists who came before... Monet's paintings "by stroke/across across the endless canvas he/bears them to another life" another century, another era of those who appreciate the timelessness of art.

And next we find ourselves "Running with Thoreau" seeing the "strange hungers that drove him/through Walden's oaks and pines." Lee says "I know them well/in this land where I/listen to coyotes sing/on the near ridge at night/and imagine them hunting." And I, as a reader, can imagine Thoreau mingling with nature; I can imagine him searching the words to float on his paper pond, the ripples of syllables that move all of us so much.

As a change of pace we are drawn into a short piece called "Release." "Woman, I give you up but don't let go/waiting to see you treated/the same. Revenge? I am the image/of your neglect and live in winter,/old small bitter." As Plath used to "Eat men like air" in her poems, this poet uses poetry in order to exact revenge on those women who hurt him. Poetry is where we are allowed to let it all hang out. Yes, as Dickinson said, "words have the power to kill but also the power to heal"— well, poetry can do both, but as release it surely can help the poet heal, and reading Lance Lee's poetry, and the words of others he has transformed, we can find some healing. And as Lance says in his poem "Rembrandt Talks About His Women To Me, "Maybe I was careless to measure women/by warring waves of hate/or lust of life unending/I was full of myself, godlike and young."

So do we male poets judge ourselves by the women with whom we keep company? Or are we measured by our reactions to the relationships we have with them, and how we deal with pain, grief, anger, bitterness etc?

Whatever the answer, the poetry we write is forever etched in the minds and hearts of readers long after we are gone. And our transformations of mind and heart are forever given to us by the old poets, the new poets and those poets who reform the words of others who came before them.

The poetry may change slightly, but those emotions by which we write? Those seem to be endlessly the same, no matter how the poems are worded. This book by Lance Lee is a journey of words that could transform any reader into understanding the confusion, the illusion and ultimately the perplexity of love. But then what would we do without it?

Jacob Erin-Cilberto

Review — Dylan Ward The US Review of Books, July 2013

"These were my dreams.
I wove them there.
They are my life, all true.
My dreams always are."

Lance Lee's poetry is passionate and detailed, focusing a lens on the human world and our desperate attempts to understand the physical landscape in which we exist. Actaeon even says, "This world… is a story / waiting to have its meaning laid bare." Lee observes the interaction between man and the environment, our quest to conquer it, adapt to it, or succumb to it. He ponders what is real and what is not real. Fusing together a tapestry of poetry and artwork (including color works of Cezanne and Monet) he invokes a sense of the ethereal, exploring concepts of memories and dreams, of longing and desires and the "kaleidoscope twists" of the mind that can unravel a person.

He hints at the fear of unknowns, the subconscious of men and women from various walks of life in both ancient and modern worlds. He examines homelessness and mental illness, at times drawing us unwillingly toward the depth of impending madness, such as in "Dreams." "The floor opens beneath him / he plunges downward in fear / he is locked in a room where / he fights someone else's shadows…" In "A Battered Man," Lee contemplates a man's reaction to violence and death and in "Graffiti in the Underworld" he follows an artist drifting "across Rome's cobblestoned streets," compelled to linger in the underworld away from the tourists of the day.

Dazed, I spray scenes of my own
in this two-thousand-year-old jumble
as crowds pour in from the tunnels
and sweep me up to ravish rob
strip choke stab shoot raw
pleasure all, and all pleasures one.
Lost, appalled, I become a heap of rags
stinking, homeless, abandoned

A playwright, poet, dramatist, and author, Lee has crafted something here that offers a rare glimpse of an accomplished living writer. Featuring previous poems and new works, alongside captivating artwork, there is a palpable energy threading through this collection of poetry that grabs your attention from beginning to end.


Dylan Ward

Review — Able Greenspan, Midwest Book Review, Vol. 12, No. 6

Transformations is a passionate pairing of Lance Lee's original, free-verse poetry and the black-and-white illustrations from half a dozen artists. Though the poems are brief, they often wax narrative, sometimes reflecting on the darker aspects of conflict and survival, in a few cases graphically detailed. Yet there is also love, warmth, and the intensity of treasuring the precious time shared with family, spouses, and friends. "A howl blows downward as she falls towards sleep imagining how she will rise again to his passion in the morning, / everything for him, whatever empires or churches rise and fall in his kiss: / how with each child the world is reborn: / how love dares everything, how everything is from love, how everything is, for love."

Review — Jody Stewart, US

Lance Lee writes of the inner blood with its confusions and richness: Cezanne “doesn’t rest until the mountain’s/sure flight is in his blood--/only then he paints….” Dante’s quest reappears in Los Angeles, and aspects of Ulysses’ homecoming are discovered within patients suffering delusions. The artwork’s punctuation of this poetry is wonderfully surprising, appropriate, and just plain fun. In Transformations the invisible and visible lives experienced are seamless, layered and complex, thrilling in their junctures, joys and disappointments.

Jody Stewart

Review — Myra Schneider, UK

Lee’s writing, passionate and with a strong sense of the physical, is outstanding for its investigation of the human and natural world and the connections he often makes between the two. Particularly moving in this book is his imaginative and thoughtful search into the human predicament. Work by different artists complements the selection which is very appropriate as the visual is important to this poet and many of the poems take inspiration from paintings or other art forms.

Myra Schneider

Review — Jackson Wheeler, US

Lee melds narrative stylings of the 19th & 20th centuries into work suitable for the 21st century, and like the modern Greek poet/novelist, Kazantzakis tackles a story as old as Homer, and, in "No One Comes For Penelope --" makes the story sing once again. The poem approaches Auden's "The Shield of Achilles" in its reach and grandeur.

Jackson Wheeler

Review — Ambit, Spring 2013, Donald Gardner

Transformations is a selection of poems by Lance Lee, half dating back to Wrestling With The Angel (1990) and the rest consisting of new work – three major sequences, As is fitting with so generously illustrated a collection, much of Lee’s work is a conversation with artists — Cezanne, Rembrandt and Bernini — and he also engages with the work of poets from the tradition. I was interested in an early sequence, ‘Dante in Los Angeles’. Dante’s rime petrose are exceptionally sombre and personal and Lee picks up on this pessimism in his very free modern versions with their west-coast references. The personal anger however is Lee’s own addition and is sometimes disturbing. The ending of the third poem, ‘Scenes from a Movie’ brings no closure but a dream of revenge:

Woman, I give you up but don’t
let go, waiting to see you treated
the same. Revenge? I am the image
of your neglect and live in winter,
old and small and bitter.

These are powerful and truthful takes on Dante’s poems, but I felt more at home with the Roman sequence (illustrated exquisitely by Charles Shearer), which opens up more to the world. From ‘Graffiti in the Underworld’ come these lines of affirmation:

…danger makes my blood beat
as strongly as any shared passion,
unable to tell pain from pleasure:
and danger gives my tenderness
its poignance and love its power
to hold the blood’s ravings within—
for my step regains its spring,
my eyes the light they lost
and love is renewed with her who
these many years keeps me warm
however I age or stray in the night.

Lance Lee is claiming his place in the galaxy of world poetry, grafting his work not only onto Dante, but in ‘River of Flesh’, onto a more recent precursor, Wystan Auden. This darkly visionary poem bears comparison with its famous model, ‘The Shield of Achilles’. He is staking out the ground of his ambition — and what is exhilarating in this work is its ambition, not always its ‘rightness’. In another poem in this sequence, the sixteenth-century free-thinker Giordano Bruno steps down from his pedestal and converses with Lee after stallholders and tourists have fled. Lee’s Rome is characterized by the absence of all things Roman; the myth of the eternal city is let down like a deflated balloon.

There is plenty of discussion about the relations between men and women in the sequence, ‘No One Comes for Penelope’, which features three figures whose dreams rarely converge. These poems join the personal with the universal; the upsetting scenes in a mental hospital open out into the story of Ulysses’s quest and constancy of Penelope. There is breakdown and reconciliation:

“Teach me, Penelope—“
he sends her name at last:
“how to cry again.”

Disembodied she sees herself sit by him
and take a hand so unlike the one he slid
up her thigh their wedding night.

And yet Ulysses wouldn’t be Ulysses if he were to settle down in Ithaca and the final poem: ‘with no way to find/true north or south,//wholly uncertain/of his way home—//or if that is even/where he wants to go.’ Contrast this with the concluding lines of Lee’s final set, ‘Jesse’s Dream’:

A howl blows downwind as she falls towards sleep imaging how she
will rise again to his passion in the morning,
everything for him, whatever empires or churches rise and fall in his kiss:
how with each child the world is reborn:
how love dares everything, how everything is from love, how everything
is, for love.

Transformations oscillates between these two moods – the choice for aloneness and the surrender to love. Between these two poles is the agon, the struggle with artists, with other poets, with myths and above all with himself. There is anger and violence here, but also a search for the universal beyond every conflict. Finally, it is superbly illustrated by a number of artists, all but one of whom will be familiar to readers of Ambit. It is only proper to list them: Michael Foreman, Anne Howeson, Laura Knight, John Robertson, Ron Sandford and Charles Shearer. They add an extra dimension to this fine, densely layered collection.

Small Press Review, Kirby Congdon

Transformations presents an awareness of visual art in relation to poetry. We may be reminded of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The definition of the word indicates a change of one kind of life into another, as in biology. The first from, like tad poles, or larva, is dismissed by the adult frog, bee or butterfly. However, in creative fields like drawing or poetry, one medium can draw inspiration from the other. Ovid’s work has been described as “miraculous transformations linked together with such consummate skill that the whole is artistically harmonious.” Indeed, the term, “metaphor” suggests as much.

We have here in Lance Lee’s book a collection that relates one medium to another without competition. While a painter may be dead, like Monet or Cezanne, their work survives as a contemporary influence. More recent lives are represented by 27 visual works provoked by Mr. Lee’s poems. Another artist is represented by a quilt, each panel of which apparently is the portrait of a saint since the entire work is done in glass for a large church window.

Monet’s painting of lilies suggests the survival of creative interpretation of life in war time with “the richness of fields strewn with the dead….rooting beauty in decay.”

A similar contrast occurs between the reality of contemporary stress and the symbols of organized imagination in ancient sculptures of Rome:

“where Italy’s exiled kings lie in place of Jove or Mars,
or Venus who might have brought love’s fist
to this flash-filled loveless space.”

Charles Shearer illustrates this section with soft shadows and secret violence as in one filmy area where a couple under an umbrella stand in silence before a rushing, thick, compact waterfall pouring into a pond of restless sleep.

Another artist, however, used a technique involving vivid, unyielding lines that connect bizarre dimensions completely different from Shearer’s stance. This book is not afraid of risk and imagination and is a survey of feeling and thought that is both daring and demanding. It comes off as a project that penetrates the inquisitive mind without that kind of compromise that needs to please those who prefer ease and familiarity for their own growth.

Kirby Congdon Small Press Review