Lee’s work is unerringly visceral, singularly invested on a deep personal level, and always offering a stark, unflinching display for both the speaker-self as well as the reader-observer. Place and memory are often of the most delineated actors in Lee’s books but perhaps never as much so as in this newest collection. Lee seems unafraid of embracing not only the yearning and regret cultivated by the past but the rich, nostalgic confusion that occurs when it’s mirrored and overlapped by the present. Life whirls around Lee’s standing-still speaker as places and people empty out and refill — this is really all that time is as it cruelly steps on. While textually many of these poems appear spare this is another of the brilliant gestures Lee knows so well, and just as a smell can trigger an entire season full of memories Lee’s poems explode and engulf, shrink down to pinpoints with the weight of dark matter. His lines are full of characteristic leaps of association that can comfort or drunkenly go dizzy. There’s always a deft, natural touch to the mechanical bits, the syntax and vocabulary, but Lee’s unique flavor is in a matured, raw patina of breathlessness, anger, lust; artistry without guise, a performance that’s never just putting you on. These poems are as comfortable throwing you against the wall as letting you quietly sink to the bottom of a pond.
There’s good reason why David Dodd Lee remains a staple in the small group of poets I find I can reliably return to when hitting depressingly long dry spells between books that feel like knockouts. One of my flaws as a reader is my susceptibility to taking such spells in dramatic stride, despairing for no good reason that either there just aren’t any books coming out that will genuinely unsettle me or that for some reason poetry has lost some of its destructive and surprising powers to me. Fortunately enough, these things are never true and Lee is a poet that invariably clarifies to me through absurd bouts of self-obfuscation what I personally value in a collection, or put another way, what gets inside of my head and refuses to leave. This kind of reliability is increasingly remarkable to me when over long careers many poets only oscillate in and out of this startlingly complex kind of efficacy.
For lack of a better term, Lee’s ‘staying power’ when included on any shelf has been almost unparalleled in my experience as a reader of poetry over the years. ‘Coldest Winter on Earth’ not only manages not to be an exception to this rule but an admirably achieved high note.