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Once again, Lee returns to the land of his youth in order to turn the fertile earth so it yields a harvest with an almost extra-sensory connection to the soil. However, in this relatively eclectic collection the subject matter of the poems range from Lee’s signature concern with the land, to poems inspired by the holocaust, the first world war, the War of 1812, to bull fighting. And Lee never takes the easy path to the telling of a story. His heartbreaking poem “… if this is a poem, then it’s a miserable failure,” tells a story of a concentration camp where the ashes must be washed from the strawberries before they can be eaten. In “The Lonesome Postmaster of Antarctica,” he achieves a comparison between his own young self, and the selfishness of his youth when he failed to respond to his father’s serious illness, and that melancholia felt by an imaginary postmaster in the remote sub arctic winter in Antarctica.
And as it is in every book he writes, he has woven a single mischief into the fabric. Something which like the koan of Zen teaching, teases the reader to take the journey, not towards the answer, but rather by simply participating in the delight that comes from not knowing, never quite arriving, simply engaging and thereby participating in the miracle of being.
As he writes in his riddle at the end … ‘Without Within’
the thing without
the thing within
the thing without
Something Else is John B. Lee at his best! Rarely have I read a poetry collection as compelling as Something Else. In these poems, John B. Lee is witness to moments and realities few ever notice or imagine. With all the horrors of Auschwitz, who would envision the commandant’s garden with strawberries covered in ashes? In “The Lonesome Postmaster of Antarctica”, the reader is witness to deep regret, “his father’s death, when he did not visit or write or call”. Indeed there may be readers who suffer similar feelings with regard to the death of someone close, especially now, in these strange and scary times. The poem “Widowhood”, expresses an almost haunting sense of loneliness: “and there is no one left to listen to me, she says, no one left who has to listen to me”. If there is an essence to being human, John B. Lee not only searches, but finds phrases and words the reader can hold close, can feel, and embrace. John B. Lee truly “takes the heart’s measure” for all of us.
John B. Lee returns to the fertile soil of his earlier years for many of the splendid poems of his newest book, Something Else, but he returns to it with the gathered wisdom of a poet who has published over 50 books and chapbooks of poems over a forty-five year period. Lee captures moments and events of his past with confidence, with poetic grace and with the intense musicality of his poetic language, a long-standing trademark of his work. Something Else amply demonstrates that Lee is one of Canada’s most accomplished poetic voices.