Issue Five

Autumn 2012


Paul Lee, Us: who made History, 106pp, £8.00
original plus, 17 High Street, Maryport, Cumbria, CA15 6BQ

This is a posthumous collection, the final publication of Paul Lee, offering sixty nine poems and so offering clear economic value. But it offers values of other kinds, too: of variety, craft, dexterity and of emotional range.

I’d never read Lee before, so the first poems came as something of a surprise – their deftness, their craft, his desire to experiment with form on one page or build a solidly conventional sonnet on the next. I was surprised I’d not come across him before. You would think a poet of this ability would be widely published. However, the Acknowledgements only list Orbis, Smiths Knoll and Terror Tales as previous publishers of his work, so he appears to be one of those capable poets who has hidden his light under a bushel.

Lee’s work is varied in many different dimensions. Some of the poems are solidly descriptive, others witty narrative, others work by sustaining an unexplained metaphor. Some are cynical satire, such as the sequence ‘The Inquiry: Child Protection’ which lambasts almost everyone involved in the failures to protect a child. (We’re told in the afterword in which Lee’s wife, Emma, eulogises him that Paul was a Senior HR Consultant at Leicester City Council).

Some of the poems are witty imaginings, such as ‘Coming of Age’, dedicated to the poet’s daughter, Miranda (perhaps her name also tells you something about the poet), which advises her on how to live in an imagined future where:

everything south of the Cairngorms
maybe Sahel, Iceland, and Greenland swarm

with settlers, the Baltic be the new Mediterranean
and successive waves of Arctic immigration

be throwing up far right demagogues

Here, he threads a very personal message for Miranda in a witty, slightly dismayed dystopia, creating amusement interleaved with tenderness, and a sci-fi critique of contemporary trends as a result.

Probably the strongest pieces are those where Lee allows the constraints of formal considerations to squeeze his intellect into producing sophisticated solutions. His wit emerges in crafty half-rhymes, their subtlety almost unnoticeable in some cases, and in many experiments in using the vocabulary of particular registers, showing both a sensitive ear and a sophisticated linguistic capacity.

Here’s an interesting example:

This guy was hot
as Alnitak, and soon smoked out Lambda.
No weak sister, Lambda though, but a tough nut.
Boy, those first two nanos were one helluva
rough-house. Fritzed light and space for keeps,
spooked the primal chunk into herds of galaxies
and lamed young Ticks double-clutchin’ with deep
space. Hell, little G was too hunky-tricksy.

(The Big Crunch)

This is poem combines the language of physics with that of 30s gangsters, and in doing so debates the relationship between theories of creation. There’s so much going on here, it would take 1000 words to unpick it all, but I’ll content myself with noting the rhymes (Lambda/helluva, galaxies/tricksy), the echoes created across the two vocabularies (Lambda/lammed) and the sustained way the style carries the story. This is a whole world away from, say:

We made love once, I recall, without desire,
on the first, wettest, day, then circled
round our own reducing axis.
                                                          A log fire,
well made, invites reverie, the rapt eye led
to the dervish flames, slowly subsiding to embers,
to white ash. And then, it is the chill one remembers.

(A Weathered Affair)

This poem could be written by a complete different poet, with its restrained romanticism echoing the fading of the affair. And this, again, is radically different from the witty examination of adolescent fascination with Emma Peel in ‘Bowler Hat and Leather Boots’ or the moral commentary on media exploitation of serial killer victims in ‘Five Green Bottles’ (the discarded bottle in the ditch being the discarded victim).

When the formal considerations are relaxed, and Lee writes from strong feeling or with a message of some kind, the poems can become looser, almost histrionic outbursts at times, allowing the poetry to suffer as a result:


Stupendous, appalling, climactic, the havoc,
the steady concussion of dynamite and shell,
democratic dynamite and shell,
for hours louder than the roar of flame

(How the Great Fire was halted at Van Ness Avenue)

This, I think, is less successful. There is no doubting the seriousness of the intent, to convey the drama and scale of the event, but the poetry stretches to melodrama and is not as convincing as the more carefully worked poems in this collection.

So the offering overall is perhaps a little uneven. Nevertheless, it offers a remarkable range and a textbook of techniques. It’s a collection well worth reading.