Paul Lee didn’t shy away from tough subjects and tackled them with a sensitivity and fitting gravitas, allowing details to speak for themselves and giving space for readers to draw their own conclusions. For example in “The Incident Room, 3) Afterwards”
“Spilled chemicals will seep into the earth,
callers cease to visit with toys, cards and flowers
wind will scatter, rain turn to a mulch
the Council will pile into a skip and take away.
For the time being, a bedroom will stay at ten years old.
Scrapbooks will fill with cuttings, cupboards memorabilia.
A packed memorial service will follow a private burial.
Next year, they’ll be bouquets from friends and family:
thereafter, a single wreath laid on the same date
at a place the future will remember as somehow significant.”
It was inspired by the aftermath of a child’s murder and explores the way that, once the story fades from the news, most return to normal lives whilst parents still carry their child’s memories and slowly adjust to an absence they will never recover from and others will go through the ritualistic motions of laying an annual wreath even after forgetting exactly what the wreath is for. The alliterative use of “s” sounds in the final couplet creating a gentle, fading away sound to echo the sense. Other poems
tackle the treatment given to the mentally ill and how they focus on the diagnosis, not the person with the diagnosis, with the tongue-in-cheek cynicism such treatments deserve. Paul Lee can deftly handle satire.
“Rosa” is a pre-war Latvian seduced by the ideals of Hitler’s youth,
“She chose, like others, to retreat from the Red Army
into an ebbing Reich that had convinced her it could still win:
heartsick, she walked, unraped, the thousand miles back home.
Yes, Rosa, this is your farm. It’s dusk. There are lights in the windows.
Your people knew you were coming. Just listen to that dog.”
The stronger, more emphatic ending here echoes the small welcome offered by the dog and sounds a note of hope that Rosa will, in time, re-emerge, re-invented in her family home.
It’s not all doom and gloom, there’s a lighter touch in some poems, e.g. in “her green lap”:
“on the tarmac slab where hung the box on chains
dropped into which and launched
I laughed and strained to clutch the wary birds
and offer them the joy of my first knowing
of the first time of the world.”
It captures that early childhood memory with joy and without labouring the point or loading it with a significance that wasn’t there at the time. Or in a playful villanelle, that plays on the word Brummschädel (or Brummer) from the German for a type of lorry, which ends,
“he smears on his windscreen to a greyish slurry,
Brum brum he rumbles, regaining his poise.
Herr Brummell guns his Brummer – sorry, lorry,
no fly buzzing round his cab like worry.”
The title poem resulted from a typo from a weather programme and starts, “Patchy light in the West,/ more general in the South and East;/ some of it prolonged and heavy…” and ends
“We expect darkness at noon
in Northeast England andEast Scotland,
with comets, shooting starts, radiant angels
and fiery visitations to relieve the gloom.
Here ends the light forecast.”
It broadens out from being merely a play with a typo to something more wide ranging. This was Paul Lee’s main strength, his ability to take an idea for walk and put it through its intellectual paces, drawing on a wide reading and broad knowledge base.
Paul Lee died on 19 October 2011. His funeral was held on 4 November in Leicester. It would impossible to celebrate his life without including at least one of his own poems and below is the one that was read (not included in “The Light Forecast”):
The Book Fair
smelt of mould, foxed paper, wet Barbours,
a melange of musts that kept me near sneezing,
threatening to shatter the reverent susurrus
of shuffling browsers, the mutters and whispers,
the rustle of pages being caressed apart.
I dithered over Decline and Fall, a Life of Yeats,
Five Centuries of Ballads and Broadsheets,
avoiding the sellers’ eyes, but decided no,
remembering your shelves of the second-,
third- and fourth-hand, my nose wrinkling in reflex.
What was best was walking there and back,
how you turned to smile up at me
from under your fake fur hat,
the Cossack calpac, sugared by the sleet
so that it seemed like a black pastille.
You made me feel like some illiterate uhlan, in love
with the daughter of the town academy’s librarian.
You were taking me to see your father’s tower,
its stock of thesauri, Psalters and incunabula
as vast and disciplined as the Emperor’s Horse.
Paul Lee (1952 – 2011).