Thursday, July 31, 2014

Book Review: Jon D. Lee These Around Us

These Around Us
Jon D. Lee
96 pp., Aldrich Press
ISBN 13: 978-0692233566

Eight years is a long time to wait for a second book of poem from a poet you admire, but most times you can take comfort knowing that the wait will be worth it.   Jon Lee's second collection of poems, These Around Us, certainly delivers on that promise.  It is a well written book of poems dedicated to the domestic life of a young writer and teacher.  The poems are biographical enough to spark the reader's curiosity and honest enough to leave no doubt of their essential truth.

Before I continue, I want to disclose I know Jon in person (outside of the internets).  We were in a summer course (Shakespeare's Histories & Comedies) at the same college a long time ago, and I have on occasion published and even solicited poems from him for Hobble Creek Review.  None-the-less, this review is written because I genuinely love this book of poems on several levels.

The first thing I noticed when reading this new book is Lee's subtle humor.  I mean this book opens with a brilliant landscape meditation, which I will always love, but that's not want I was most looking forward to when I picked up this book.  Lee's poems about fatherhood and the professional life of a teacher and poet are sharp as they come; the undercurrent of humor is spot on every time.  Lee's humor is not broad, nor does it seek out the lowest common denominator.  The humor in this book, and that of his first book, are precise and observational.  Lee doesn't make you labor too much for the joke, but he demands you pay attention.  Take for example "The Parent's Credo" here in its glorious audio, read by Lee himself:

With a structure adapted from Christopher Smart, we are treated to the unique perspective from which Lee sees the world.  This poem works because it takes the sentimentality of parenthood and mashes it with the absurd reality every parent knows to be true.  Lee applies this humor to every facet of his life: His marriage, his work, and his familial relationships. By pointing out the absurd to us, he draws us and lets us know everything will be okay, because we all go through the same things and we all have a much larger common ground than we believed before reading these poems.

The poems here do something else which is of vital importance.  They dispel the idea that family must (or usually does) take a backseat to a poet and his art.  Lee is a poet, but these poems are about his marriage, his family, and his career.  The poems, as they get more personal, become layered and more powerful.  With many other male poets I read, I get the sense they speak of the domestic aspects of their life as merely one facet of their lives, and the information they give us is merely incidental.  In Lee's poems, you do not get that sense.  His poems center around his domestic life because his domesticity is the center core of his being.  That, to me, is the mark of a real poet.  Not that all poets should write about their family, but that a poet should take what is essential, critical, most relevant and make art from that, not feeling it necessary to seek out some artifice or foreign structure to create poetry.  Lee is at home with his daily life, and there is no sideshow to distract you.  Everything you see is everything he is.  Interspersed throughout the book are small, fragmentary poems, dedicated to his wife.  Here is one of my favorites:

For Lynette, With Love (VI)

in the white heart of winter
when even the sugarblood
of tree and bush
cease its languid
spill and thump
I ask only
for the fever of your breath 

One of my favorite poems from the collection, "Newtown," is particularly powerful.  It is powerful because it claims its status as an elegy without once taking a political stance.  It merely (such a misleading term for this poem) focuses on the relationship between father and son.  In fact, it is the lack of politics which forces the reader to interact with the poem and refuses dismissal.  It is a poem I at once love and envy, too. When I first read the poem I immediately read the poem again.

To be honest, I have no idea how to effectively end this mini-review.  I will try to end it with a list of things I know.

1.  I know These Around Us is a fine follow up to Lee's first book, Ode To Brian: the long season---you should get both books to know what I am talking about.

2.  I know more than a few poems in this book are poems I wish I could have written.

3.  The poems in this book offer depth, humor, wonderful insight, and voice.

4.  In Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner's words, these poems are 'disarmingly intimate,' and that is something I both agree with and know we could all use more of in our lives.

5.  I know this is a book I will return to often.

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