BOOK REVIEW: John B. Lee’s Burning My Father

Burning My Father
Review by: Ronnie R. Brown
John B. Lee
Black Moss Press, 2014, 87 pp
ISBN: 978-0-88753-532-1

How is a great poet created? Well, in the case of John B. Lee, the author of over 50 books; whose work has appeared internationally in over 500 publications; who is the poet laureate of Norfolk county and Brantford, ON; who is also the winner of more than 70 awards (and the only two time recipient of The People’s Poetry Award; and who is, unarguably, Canada’s greatest “people’s poet;” he was “made” on a farm near Highgate in Southwestern Ontario. Burning My Father, a collection gleaned (by an editorial team) from Lee’s Black Barns Trilogy, and including one new poem in which Lee reflects on his past and where it has lead him, is a stunning memoir in poetry. Including an enlightening “Preface,” it is hard to believe that the images contained in this work–taut and eloquent, each and every one–could come from a man who, before the age of ten, had been called upon to do such things as slaughter hogs, cull runts and castrate cattle. These are certainly not the skills one usually associates with someone who can produce lines like those in “Mending Gate,” in which escaped pigs are described as “flying along the squash rows/ jowling down puddles of chomped tomato pulp/ rasping beneath the greening trees/ for windfalls/.” Perhaps it is the fact that, as Lee states in “There is No Fourth Wall,” true poets have, by “…some accident of birth…” , been left open “like the pulsing soft spot of an infant’s cranium, to see things differently.” In the case of John B. Lee, it was growing up on a farm, and the memories of that time, that made him choose to be a writer (as is beautifully described in the poem, “On the Way home from the Meat Factory I Decided to Be a Poet.”) And, oh, what a writer he became! Despite his subject matter (or, perhaps, because of it), Lee transforms what he sees into a thing of beauty; for example, in “Translations of a Death,” Lee describes the slaughtering of hogs “while the sun slept like a dragon on its shifting gold/ and our slow wagon / swayed lazily above each tire rut/.” Anyone who loves language and the magic of a startling, but perfect image will, upon reading Burning My Father, know immediately that he made the right choice. However his gift was nurtured, John B. Lee was, is, and will continue to be one the finest poets Canada has produced.

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