A Gorgeous Sort of Peril: Richard Lemm’s ‘Jeopardy’

Canada is rich with poets. Along our Starboard side, I can think of none finer than UPEI’s Richard Lemm. His latest offering, ‘Jeopardy’ (Acorn Press), reveals a poet philosopher in full command of his voice, drawing upon the evidence of the living world in order to inspire the reader, and make the most compelling of arguments, about love, continuance, and how the sacred infuses the profane.

I admit, the title and the cover art (O Polar Bears, O Climate Change Panic*) gave me a twinge of apprehension, but only a twinge. I dived right past them, into the poetry, expecting greatness. It is my great good fortune to call Richard Lemm friend, and thus to know, he is not one for pandering to panic, not one for shallow plucking upon the trope of the moment, but rather a soul in love with life, who, like his island home, knows what it is to ride out storms, and to yet abide in graciousness.

This graciousness is straightforward about our human insignificance, as in The Beauty of It, a meditation on the nature of atoms:

‘Atoms are durable
transmigrating souls…

…exhaled, they reassemble shamelessly as bards
and bawds, leopards and lice, swimmers and sharks.’

Nevertheless, the poet embraces humanity’s need to sing, and the puzzling beauty of our songs throughout time.

The wry reverence of Miracles, by which Christ is both humanized and glorified, no less an avatar for standing stripped of false mysticism, shows Lemm’s powerful insight, firmly rooted in clear-eyed continuous confrontation with life. His Epiphany while Watching The Tudors on BBC, on the other hand, demonstrates that no vehicle is too mundane for the alert poet to use it to transport deep thoughts.

Throughout, this collection of poems goes deep, and remains buoyant. The poet’s power thus carries us around the world and through time, examining the present moment in the light of history, and pondering what it might mean to be here, now, in a world confronting massive changes.

Like all worthy poets, Richard Lemm achieves this bold scope through dedication to examining the particular, the human, and matters of the heart. Jeopardy refers to personal loss as well as societal perils, and reveals our means of surviving the one, as it might have to be applied to the other.

Thus, Lemm’s Elegy for a Shakespeare-loving friend rings with rhythms that evoke the Bard of Avon, both in their masterly craft and their heart:

‘… the mountain stream inside his eyes
run dry, air empty of his evergreen breath.

Nothing fills the void and everything

One entire section of the book, Skeletal, lays out a stunning portrait of the realities of walking with a loved one through the downward spiral of eating disorder. Unflinching but not pitiless, self-aware without self-centredness, Lemm, in writing his way through his own journey, has left a map of great value, to a most perilous territory.  He examines not only what he can parse of his beloved’s struggles, but also questions his own roles – witness? support? enabler? co-dependent? – and the result is searing, honest and honourable.

‘…graphing the path
from self-loathing, from incandescent
delusion, through recognition, resolve,
to affirmation. And suddenly
the You are here is me, no longer
thwarted with heartsick frustration,
at this spot where you, one intersection
on the graph beyond despair,
slowly stop dying.’

Elegant, by turns plainspoken and lyrical, Jeopardy could well be subtitled ‘How to go on Beyond Despair,’ for such is its gift – Richard Lemm has given us poems that remind the reader: yes, life is perilous, but dignity, grace and humour will suffice to let us find our proper place within the great mystery, and face with grace whatever comes.

*And those polar bears on the cover are growing on me, as commentary and tribute, as agents provocateurs…


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