Mischief: why is a raven like a writing desk
The gilded bronze lions standing guard outside the Gate of Supreme Harmony at the entrance to the Forbidden City do not resemble the lion they are meant to represent.
Since 1989 I have seen fit to place what I call a mischief somewhere in every book I write. It’s a little secret between myself and myself. Something inserted that remains hermetic, sealed against reader comprehension. Something only I know. Something that inclines me to say to the perceptive reader ‘riddle me this.’ And like the Zen Koan, it is meant to engage. Like a prayer it is meant to invite a deepening. Like a light it is meant to shine, and like darkness, to conceal. It is a filter through which you might look, a catalyst that transforms, a probe, a lamp, a torch flickering on a cave wall where I’ve left my ochre handprint as a mystery for the ages, a lifeline that never fades.
The idea for this mischief first came to me when I was having a conversation at Harbourfront Celebration of Black Moss Press’s 25th anniversary. Each author in attendance was asked to read one poem. My book The Bad Philosophy of Good Cows was hot off the press. In fact I received my first copy of the book at the aforementioned event. After the reading a person working at the printers came up to me, and after congratulating me on the publication of my book, he revealed that he had inserted a blade of grass in the cover stock of one copy of the book. And only he knew which copy that was. I was so struck by his revelation that I decided that from then on I would place something in each manuscript, something only I would know.
One of the first mischiefs on my part involves the use of my middle initial. The B in my moniker is something of a Rumpelstiltskin of a name. Few people have asked me what the B stands for, and when the odd reader inquires I refuse to tell them. Let them guess, though no one ever has guessed correctly. If I see a poem of mine credited to John Lee my name seems naked. Only once in my entire writing career did I allow a poem of mine to be credited to that person John Lee. And he’s a stranger to me.
One of my books The Hockey Player Sonnets has been used as a literary text in university courses across Canada. I once had the privilege of teaching Sport Literature at Western, where the book was on the syllabus. There were sixty students in the class, all of whom wrote essays and many of whom chose to write an essay based on my book. Never once in class, nor ever in a single line of an essay did anyone ever make reference to the fact that although the book was called The Hockey Player Sonnets, it contained no sonnets. Indeed, the eponymous poem in the book, though called a sonnet bore no resemblance whatsoever to a sonnet. No one every asked. No one ever mentioned.
In my book The Widow’s Land, both the subtitle “a madness of daughters” and the opening prose piece have no obvious connection to anything in the book. I once attended a book club meeting where my book was under discussion. When a lull came at the end of the meeting, one of the attendees inquired of me if I had any questions or concerns. I drew her attention to the opening paragraph and asked her if she noticed it and if, having done so she had given it any thought. She confirmed that she had noticed it, but that since in her mind she could not understand why it was there, she had simply dismissed it. Why did you put it there? I told her “I put it there to catch the attention of the ideal reader, to make that reader pause, and to be just a little confused. Confusion is such a good teacher. And deliberate confusion, that agitation of a non sequitur, something that doesn’t make sense at first, the thing that requires a second glance, a deeper engagement, yielding new meaning, an understanding that comes from not quite knowing, seeking to gain a clear view into a competent and deliberate obscurity. It’s like placing a glass to the surface of the ocean, like the lines of my poem “The Mind is a Glass-Touched Ocean”
“with the mind become
a glass-touched ocean
where the wonders can be seen
beneath the beautiful
light-wet surface of the waves
though there’s bountiful colour below
the here and now
in the now and then
if you touch your face with open eyes to the blue.”
I suppose it’s partly about not wanting to give up the game. It’s wanting to say to the reader, “look again.” Ask the question that has no answer. Leave something for yourself alone. Stop making sense, just long enough for clear thinking.
John B. Lee
Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity
Poet Laureate of Norfolk County for life
Poet Laureate of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance (2020-2021)