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|Island on the Wind-Breathed Edge of the Sea
by John B. Lee
“Island on the Wind-Breathed Edge of the Sea”, is a collection of poetry by, arguably, one of Canada’s finest living People’s Poets, John B. Lee. After numerous literary awards, over 50 books, over 500 anthologies and many trips to Cuba this is Lee’s first full collection of Cuba poems. They are the perceptions, perspectives and reflections on the Cuban landscape, its peoples, the sounds and sights, the sea and the wind and how they all fold into a poetic experience. These poems will bring you closer to the real Cuba than any guide or travel book could possibly do. This is one of John B. Lee’s finest books.
– From the Forward
– Notes on the poems
– Biographical Sketch of Author
– Books Published by John B. Lee
– Chapbooks Published by John B. Lee
– Burbs and Reviews
From the Forward
In the winter of 1992, my family and I flew to Santiago de Cuba and traveled from there by bus in the dark hours of a Caribbean night to our final destination at Marea del Portillo, a resort near the remote rural mountain community of Manzanillo. That year we woke to the sound of lean sows rooting the beaches, crossed paths with free-range roosters strutting the jungle trails and discovered tame horses grazing the hills. We feasted on fish and pork with the strong scent of guava wafting up from supper tables heavy laden with ripe fruit. We drank cold beer and sipped iced mango by the pool. Every morning we were greeted by pyramids of hard-boiled eggs and rashers of Cuban bacon. It wasn’t until many years later that we learned how hard things were for the Cuban people after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We were told that, during what became known as “the starving year”, every Cuban citizen lost on average twenty pounds due to a combination of galloping inflation and an overall shortage of essential resources.
Since that first visit, I have had the privilege and pleasure of returning to Cuba on three subsequent occasions. On each ensuing journey the conditions of the island have been much improved. In 2006 my wife and I journeyed to a resort near Guardalavaca, close to Cuba’s second-largest city, Holguin. Then in 2007 and again in 2008, we stayed at Hotel Tropicoco, a Russian-built resort located twenty minutes by bus from the capital city of Havana. On all three occasions we traveled as a small delegation of authors representing a Canadian contingent of the ‘Canada-Cuba Literary Alliance,’ an international organization founded by Richard (Tai) Grove and his Cuban friend, language-professor/ translator/ author Manuel Velázquez León.
Little wonder then that the muses of Cuba have inspired my work. On the occasion of the first visit, I wrote a series of poems included herein under the title ‘Cuban Journey.’ This set of poems, first published in Matrix magazine, and published again in my book, Never Hand Me Anything If I Am Walking or Standing, won Matrix Magazine’s ‘Travel Writing Award,’ in 1994.
Each return has resulted in writing. The year my wife and I lodged near Guardalavaca, we met professor Manuel Velazquez Leon, who translated several of my poems into Spanish. Bilingual versions were featured in an issue of CCLA’s journal, The Ambassador. On that visit I read poetry in English and Spanish in a courtyard in Holguin along with fellow-Canadians Tai Grove and Ken Mitchell and three Cuban poets. That magical late-afternoon reading followed by dinner at an authentic Cuban restaurant remains an apotheosis of sorts for me as a poet.
In 2007, and then again in 2008, we stayed near Havana and made excursions into the city to read poetry, tour, and break bread with Cuban authors. Our first visit to the Canadian embassy included an hour-long chat with the ambassador. We also participated as readers in the Latin-American Book Fair at the old fort across the bay from the city. In 2008 we returned to the book fair, read again at the university and the main library, where a highlight of our reading tour involved an audience of grade one students visiting the library as part of their literacy training.
I hope to return to Cuba again to visit my friends and fellow-writers, and to partake of the generous and open-hearted hospitality of a people whose love for poetry and music is an example to the world.
Notes on the poems
In the School Rooms of Cuba: we visited a classroom in a mountain hamlet walking distance from our resort Marea del Portillo. It is well known that Cuba values education and that it has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. However, the year we visited the students were without books and they wrote with chalk on slate rather than using paper which is at a premium on the island
There Are Twisters on the Northern Beaches: while staying at Marea Del Portillo we witnessed a twister touch down and lift several times in the mountains.
To Drink the Earth on the Far Shore with Thirsty Feet: we brought shoes to give away and were very saddened by one young lad who could not find a pair of shoes to fit him. He sat and wept beside us on a mountain trail. Even some of the construction workers in the local construction site went barefoot.
Sealing the Jar: in Holguin Museum of Man there is a display of the various stages in the development of the human fetus.
Remembering the October Missile Crisis: it was fascinating to hear this event as seen from the point of view of our Cuban friends who like us were children at the time.
Charo De Maita: is a pre-Columbian/post-contact excavation site where the graves of indigenous Cuban Indians are on display in glass covered sarcophagus.
The Drought: 2006 was a year of terrible drought for the island of Cuba.
Flowers of Fire: near Holguin there is a statue commemorating the arrival of Columbus.
Bad Water: in 2007 I was stung by a jellyfish called a Portuguese man-of-war which in Spanish is known as ‘agua mala—bad water.’
The Lonesome Lovebird: in the lobby of Hotel Tropicoco there are birds in cages. One cage contains a single lovebird. Apparently, lovebirds, contrary to their name, are very aggressive and inclined to peck one another if they are kept in the same cage.
The Lost Girl: inspired by the skeleton of an indigenous teen found in a cave in Cuba
This is What I Know of God: one day while walking Kim Grove and I were talking about the fact that she has difficulty writing about God. That morning, I sat on the beach and watched a hermit crab watching me. I wrote this poem to demonstrate what I’d meant when in trying to help Kim, I quoted Emily Dickinson’s line, ‘say it slant.’
This Hand: Manuel Leon often closes his e mails by way of friendship with the phrase—this hand—which has come to represent our fellowship and the spirit of good feelings arising from our cultural exchanges as Canadian poets among Cuban friends.
Biographical Sketch of Author
In 2005 John B. Lee was inducted as Poet Laureate of Brantford in perpetuity. The same year he received the distinction of being named Honourary Life Member of The Canadian Poetry Association. In 2007 he was made a member of the Chancellor’s Circle of the President’s Club of McMaster University and named first recipient of the Souwesto Award for his contribution to literature in his home region of southwestern Ontario. A recipient of over sixty prestigious international awards for his writing he is winner of the $10,000 CBC Literary Award for Poetry, the only two-time recipient of the People’s Poetry Award, and 2006 winner of the inaugural Souwesto Orison Writing Award (University of Windsor).
In 2007 he was named winner of the Winston Collins Award for Best Canadian Poem. He has well-over fifty books published to date and is the editor of seven anthologies including two best-selling works: That Sign of Perfection: poems and stories on the game of hockey; and Smaller Than God: words of spiritual longing. His work has appeared internationally in over 500 publications, and has been translated into French, Spanish, Korean and Chinese. He has read his work in nations all over the world including South Africa, France, Korea, Cuba, Canada and the United States. He has received letters of praise from Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Australian Poet, Les Murray, and Senator Romeo Dallaire. Called “the greatest living poet in English,” by poet George Whipple, he lives in Port Dover, Ontario where he works as a full-time author.
Blurbs and Reviews
The object and leitmotiv of this selection is a profoundly poetic understanding of this country islanded and isolated by so much and for so long, Cuba, my homeland.
Many of the poems move and live normal lives in the open spaces, under the sun and the clouds, above the sea, between mountains and beaches, the country we know. There, the island is felt in its move in time through droughts and hurricanes and flashes of lives, all momently frozen and then thawed by a shrewd hand for the poetry feast. Consequently, there are salty breezes over waves, and rumors of palm fronds, and the reds redder and the greens greener of the Caribbean. Landscapes are peopled by humans of some common sort only revealed uncommon by a scrutiny that comes from the depths of a very personal poetic tradition, already with an old testament.
In selected moments, Cuba is in this book where it should always be conceived: where it cannot be easily seen, just sensed. Intensely sensed, like pain in the marrow, like guiding, unavoidable memories that keep one erect and walking towards life’s ever-changing horizons. But felt rather than watched. Consequently, that sense of pending tragedy, of life at the edge of life that permeates the book and that the inhabitants of this island know so well.
In all manners, this is an uncommon glance at Cuba’s landscapes and people. In no way an outsider’s slanted sight. As the poet concedes in a moving move, the poetic acquisition almost helps him to learn “to remember the meaning of life.” Quite a confession for a mind so mature, for these veteran eyes, for the crafty workings of a soul so intensely trained in living a life he chose to live dangerously consciously, as his readers know well.
John B. Lee did not come to this book as a witness; he veined, blooded and fleshed the poetic experience here offered.
Manuel de Jesús Velázquez León
“Island on the Wind-Breathed Edge of the Sea” – here is the Cuba not found in the travel brochures.
John B. Lee's profound skill of observation and mastery of language floods our senses. His poetry brings us the taste, smell, and sound of island ... the look and touch of its people.
From the conquistadors and slavery to the revolution, the madness of superpowers, and the solidarity found in the songs of The Beatles, these poems are connective; they suss out and sing us closer.
Love is to be found here. The love of unadorned beauty in the natural order of things and people and the comradeship that crosses cultures. There is also the love for the one, who if lost, “...my world would turn to stone.”
Come to these pages, to a Cuba, we might otherwise never know.
Publisher, Editor, Poet
Author of "Three Cities",
"A Pre-emptive Kindness"
and "Colours Found in Bruises.
Books Published by John B. Lee
– Poems Only A Dog Could Love, (poetry) Applegarth Follies, London, Ontario, 1976
– Love Among the Tombstones, (poetry) Dogwood Press, Simcoe, Ontario, 1980
– Fossils of the Twentieth Century, (poetry) Vesta Publications, Cornwall, Ontario, 1983
– Small Worlds, (poetry) Vesta Publications, Cornwall, Ontario, 1986
– Hired Hands, (poetry and prose) Brick Books, 1986
– Rediscovered Sheep, (poetry) Brick Books, 1987
– The Bad Philosophy of Good Cows, (poetry) Black Moss Press, Windsor, Ontario, 1989
– The Hockey Player Sonnets, (poetry) Penumbra Press, 1991
– The Pig Dance Dreams, (poetry) Black Moss Press, 1991
– When Shaving Seems Like Suicide, (poetry) Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton, NB, 1992
– The Art of Walking Backwards, (poetry) Black Moss Press, 1993
– Variations on Herb, (poetry and prose) Brick Books, London, Ontario, 1993
– All the Cats Are Gone, (poetry) Penumbra Press, 1993
– These Are the Days of Dogs and Horses, (poetry) Black Moss Press, 1994
– Head Heart Hands Health: A History of 4H in Ontario, (non fiction) Comrie Productions, Peterborough, Ontario, 1994
– The Beatles Landed Laughing in New York, (poetry) Black Moss Press, 1995
– Tongues of the Children, (documentary poetry and prose) Black Moss Press, 1996
– Never Hand Me Anything if I am Walking or Standing, (poetry) Black Moss Press, 1997
– Soldier’s Heart, (poetry) Black Moss Press, 1998
– Stella’s Journey, (poetry and prose) Black Moss Press, 1999
– Don’t Be So Persnickety, (children’s verse) Black Moss Press, 2000
– Building Bicycles in the Dark: a practical guide to writing, (non fiction) Black Moss Press, 2001
– The Half-Way Tree: selected poems of John B. Lee, (poetry) Black Moss Press, 2001
– In the Terrible Weather of Guns, (documentary poetry and prose) Mansfield Press, Toronto, 2002
– The Hockey Player Sonnets: overtime edition (poetry) Penumbra Press, Ottawa, Ontario, 2003
– Totally Unused Heart, (poetry) Black Moss Press, 2003
– The Farm on the Hill He Calls Home, (memoir) Black Moss Press, 2004
– Poems for the Pornographer’s Daughter, (poetry and prose) Black Moss Press, 2005
– Godspeed, (documentary poetry and prose) Black Moss Press, 2006
– Left Hand Horses: meditations on influence and the imagination, Black Moss Press, 2007
– The Place that We Keep After Leaving, Black Moss Press, 2008 (forthcoming)
Chapbooks Published by John B. Lee
– To Kill a White Dog, (documentary poem) Brick Books, 1982
– The Day Jane Fonda Came to Guelph, (poetry) The Ploughman Press, Whitby, Ontario, 1996
– What’s in a Name: the pursuit of George Peacock, Namesake of Peacock Point, (essay) Dogwood Press, Brantford, Ontario, 1996
– In a Language with No Word For Horses, (documentary poems) above/ground press, Ottawa, Ontario, 1997
– The Echo of Your Words Has Reached Me, (poetry) Mekler & Deahl, Hamilton, Ontario, 1998
– An Almost Silent Drumming: the South Africa poems, (poetry) Cranberry Tree Press, Windsor, Ontario, 2001
– Thirty-Three Thousand Shades of Green, (poetry) Leaf Press, Lantzville, BC, 2004
– Though Their Joined Hearts Drummed Like Larks, (documentary poetry) Passion Among the Cacti Press, Kitchener, Ontario, 2004
– Bright Red Apples of the Dead, (poetry) Pooka Press, BC, 2004
– How Beautiful We Are, (poetry) Souwesto Orion Prize, Black Moss Press, 2006
– But Where Were the Horses of Evening, Serengeti Press, 2007
– That Sign of Perfection: From Bandy Legs to Beer Legs (poems and stories on the game of hockey), (anthology) Black Moss Press, 1995
– Losers First: poems and stories on game and sport, (anthology) Black Moss Press, 1999
– I Want to Be the Poet of Your Kneecaps: poems of quirky romance, (anthology) Black Moss Press, 1999
– Following the Plough: poems and stories on the land, (anthology) Black Moss Press, 2000
– Henry’s Creature: poems and stories on the automobile, (anthology co-edited with Roger Bell) Black Moss Press, 2000
– Smaller Than God: words of spiritual longing, (anthology co-edited with Brother Paul Quenon) Black Moss Press, 2001
– Body Language: a head-to-toe anthology, (anthology) Black Moss Press, 2003
– Witness: anthology of war poetry, (anthology) Serengeti Press, Mississauga, Ontario, 2004
– Bonjour Burgundy: Writing from La Roche D’Hys, (anthology) Mosaic Press, 2008
– Under the Weight of Heaven—writing from Gethsemani, Black Moss Press, 2008
– Home Issue: Windsdor Review, fall 2008