Review by Jim Feast
In A Man of Letters in the Modern Age, Allen Tate makes the compelling argument that great poetry emerges at the edge of a belief system or way of living that has fallen short. The beliefs explained things adequately (or at least plausibly) and the mode of living operated functionally at one time, but now they have been outdistanced by events. We can look at Lester Afflick’s new book in this light, as one that branches out in extraordinary ways from a fundamental impasse, an impossibility at the heart of, I Dream About You Baby, which turns on national displacement.
His family moved to New York City from Jamaica when he was 16 and, like many immigrants, he looks back with some regret at the land from which he was transposed. The extraordinary gambit of Afflick is that he instead of writing poems hymning island life, as nostalgia distorts it, he seeks traces of Kingston in Manhattan, and not in obvious sources, such as music or retained folkways, but in frayed, but precise, contours of everyday life.
This makes for a verse of special flexibility where each filament of recall includes the present peeping through, while every observation on the narrow rounds of quotidian existence is suffused with displaced recollection.
This is not easy, no, it’s impossible to convey without quoting his heavily counter-pointed works in full where the antimony works itself out. At best, I can point to some of the powerful figuration in passages like these. Afflick reflects, “as this way the poem // comes, in tatters; // a foggy disrepair” or a stormy night, “Closer, stronger // in rhythm with the clouds // the moon, roseate dragon, rises, rose, is risen … Wind too, comes // a mauling reciprocity // off key, inundating, unwinding”
What cuts Afflick out for immortality – and I say this sadly in that Afflick died young, still full of promise — is that he had immediate access to a trove of striking, flashing sensual metaphors that tumble out with echoing poignancy.
His approach is touched by an awkward erotic energy, often flung backwards, in that the poet (as he self portrays) can be humorously fumbling in his approach to women. In the expertly crafted “House Without,” for example, he surveys the space he shared with his ex-girlfriend, and the regret and celebration engendered by every nook, furnishing, and even the weather passing through the window.
Curtains fuming a slow
tango, snarl. Vases.
Empty vases plot
their forever upcoming
reunion with the long ago
way overdue flowers which
are not coming now. Or ever
As I said, the book commemorates a poet who didn’t finish his span of years. Now, eight years after his passing, friends and family with the support of Steve Cannon, have edited this surpassing collection, so his verse will live on.
Afflick appears best in full regalia, that is, in the modulation of a complete poem. He gives us a book that is, for all the failings he sees around us, affirmation of a world about which he could say, as he does about a woman he loves, that “she misunderstood perfectly.”