David Lee captures the tone and tenor of human foibles and vulnerabilities. Through metered beats and by-passed through his classically trained eye, David Lee gives us sonnets about pig-rearing, narrative poems with a Will Rogers bent about “true” happenings, if truth be known, of locals at the Dew Drop Inn. From bawdy tales to high school revelry, Lee segues into lyricism in lines so tightly drawn the juice of our language runs free. With Lee, we watch spring arrive and the tilt of the sun on a canyon morning. RUSTY BARBED WIRE has a beautiful flow. Poetically rendered Americana; David Lee is a national treasure.
Mary Elizabeth Gillian
editor and publisher of Clover, A Literary Rag (2011-2018)
At last, a collection that gathers the best of David Lee’s poems and allows us to read how, through his evolution as a poet, every poem has been an invitation to meet our humanity, to lean into the essential work of grief and love. In his narrative poems, through hyperbole and humility, he pulls us in—makes me laugh at navel fungus, attack geese and bottled quarts of tornado—and then bam, we find ourselves weeping, sighing, drawn in to the passion and pathos of his characters. In his lyric works, we fall in in love with language itself and with the spare and intimate beauty of the West.
There are several things I love the most about David Lee’s work. One, that he has one foot solidly steeping in the English canon—Donne, Dante, Pope—and the other foot solidly stepping in pig shit. His poems are metaphorical, metaphysical bridges with an emphasis on the spoken word. Another is how clearly his voice comes through: soft drawl, percussive syntax and all. I love that in one poem, Praise. is its own stanza. I love how his poems are the sunrise that help me meet the huddled ache that can never be soothed. I love his flamboyant curses. And Godamitey, I love how, like his literary heroes, David Lee dares to sing his bright poem again and again and again.
Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
author of Hush, Naked for Tea and Even Now
Treading not so much in but companionably, often chattily, alongside the footprints of Hesiod and Milton; of Christopher Smart, Robert Creeley, William Stafford, and the Prophets; and later of John Ashbery and Elinor Wilner, David Lee’s poems range from narratives exploring rural life and hard work in muddy, bloody, often profane detail to crystalline lyrics and passionate, brainy musical meditations. In them, Lee carves a poetic path entirely his own, one unique in American poetry in how it joins true erudition with the deep forms of understanding laid down in the callouses and sinews of a hard-working body. As his inimitable voice and vision develop through this book, which selects from poems published across forty years, it brings the reader finally to what has been coming all along: an encounter with the expansive, exhilarating zone of eternity.
Of course, when a poet becomes known and beloved for doing so specific a thing, he might find it hard to keep moving beyond himself – or to take readers along. But Lee does keep moving, sometimes treading not so much in but companionably, often chattily, alongside the footprints of Hesiod and Milton; of Christopher Smart, Robert Creeley, William Stafford, and the Prophets; and later of John Ashbery and Elinor Wilner. As he moves, he keeps reaching, surprising us here with crystalline lyrics and there with brainy musical meditations, expanding the range of characters and locales in his narratives, and finally, as he comes to the poems from So Quietly the Earth, engaging an entirely new set of discourses and formal and philosophical concerns, focused in landscape and time. With so many poems gathered together like this, from across Lee’s entire career in poetry, we can see what we should have known was coming all along, still in Lee’s inimitable voice: an encounter with the expansive, exhilarating zone of eternity.
author of Wayward and The Earth Is Not Flat
I first experienced David Lee’s work as a college freshman over forty years ago when I was his student and he was working on poems for Porcine Legacy and Drinking and Driving. His work has been a part of my life ever since. The only thing better than reading his poems is to hear him read, then his voice is forever in your head as you revisit each poem. I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks at numerous readings, followed by many other emotions just below the humor. His poems are layered–witty, insightful, and full of interesting characters on the surface, but you can spend years going deeper and deeper into his reflections on religion, history, and life. Ten years after my time with Dave at college, he read “Tuesday Morning Driving to the Auction in Salina” at my mother’s funeral, (his colleague) with a new beautiful ending in her honor. For the past ten years we have worked together at the Cliff Notes Writing Conference where Dave shares new work and once again I have the pleasure of hearing new poems in their beginnings. Two years ago, he allowed 5 Sisters Press, the opportunity to publish his book, Mine Tailings. It was a gift on many levels but those poems helped get us all through four difficult years and even got us kicked out of a place or two where we didn’t belong. Rusty Barbed Wire: Selected Poems is the best of all of these times and books. This will become the one book to reach for instead of the stack of books that are included. These poems belong together in a new way, for a new time and for an old and new audience.
author of Travels Across The Palm Of Her Hand
In the opening pages of this far-reaching, exuberant, and sometimes hilarious collection, the poet David Lee introduces us to a sow that is racing full speed while being chased through a garden. The thousand-word tour de force that follows mirrors the Jubilate Agno, by the 18th century poet Christopher Smart. In Lee’s hands, the new Jubilate portrays the central themes of existence. Life is grand and it is tragic, he avers. It is sacred and it is absurd.
For five decades David Lee has been writing of the wonders and splendors of the world; and, equally, of the ordeals and foolishness of its inhabitants. Rusty Barbed Wire is a tribute to those notions––to the paradox that life is beautiful and it is grim. Lee finds splendor and dignity in the rugged lives of poor, untutored men and women, in the town undertaker readying his wife for her funeral, in the pig farmer who, late for an auction, is arrested for a faulty muffler. He writes of real life, which is not always beautiful, in beautiful and arresting words.
…and John drove in silence / thinking me asleep / as I stared out toward the shrouded river / a thousand miles distant / listened to the sliding brown water….
Rusty Barbed Wire is a collection to be savored, and to be celebrated.
Robert Leonard Reid
author of Because It Is So Beautiful
It’s quite enough to have mastered the West Texas slang and the renegade rough of what can never be found in those same badlands, but the scripture he regales with every wailing tongue is prescient, biting, and hysterical. I have not laughed like this in a long while. Dave Lee has opened a vein into the cool aquifer running below what we do, think, and hold close. He has chosen to celebrate those who get left behind but whose dark and enduring portraits we belong too as well. And last, but not my least, are the gorgeous, striated renditions of those same lowlands. From southern Utah to the panhandle, he scrapes us into that mythic place—a West you can believe in. These poems will not leave me, nor you I’m guessing, and that’s just about right.
author of Because the Light Will Not Forgive Me
Here’s a job I’m glad I didn’t have—trying to choose which poems to include in this substantial collection. How did the editors select from the rich and weighty body of work that David Lee has bestowed upon us over the past several decades? Lee’s work is unlike anything being rendered by other prominent voices—he takes us on a journey that begins with heart and faith, troubles the waters considerably with acute irony and humor, introduces us to unforgettable characters in all their sublime vulnerabilities, and somehow gets us back to where we started—a place where love and hope abide. If it’s the job of the poet to transport us to where we need to be, Lee does this and more; he takes us to places we couldn’t have ever imagined, offers us both mirrors and windows into the glorious nuances of simply being alive in an absurd world, and he does this with diction both conversational and celestial. Hard to imagine? You bet. And that’s another reason you need to read this collection—its sanctuary of language is so resplendent that you’ll be hard pressed not to feel saved. If this is your first encounter with Lee’s work, buckle up. If you’re already a devotee, you’ll be delighted to find some of your favorite poems here, in voices you have known and adored (Modean, E.U. Washburn, Clovis Ledbitter…). As I write this, my favorite poem is “While Walking,” but yesterday it was something other, tomorrow it will be yet another. “While Walking” ends with these lines: “Are you ready to go home?/I thought that’s where we are.” Thanks be to David Lee for bringing us to home, safely, but forever changed. And many thanks to Samara Press for bringing forth this most sacred gift. Praise Be.
author of Of Bone, Of Ash, Of Ordinary Saints
In a life spent mining for poetry gold I made my luckiest strike on a Saturday night in 1977 while reading a special issue of the little magazine Pebble titled “Seven Poets.” I’d perused, as one does, the poems of a half-dozen fine poets, nodding now and again in recognition of their craft and insight, when I turned the page to the first poem of last poet in the collection, some English professor from Utah, of all places, called David Lee. Its title, “For Jan, with Love,” suggested something at least heartfelt. The opening lines promised much more:
John he comes to my house
pulls his beat up truck in my drive
Dave John sez Dave my red sow
she got pigs stuck. . ..
The poem delivered on that promise, as did the others in that slim selection, not just with their great good humor but for how they expanded my heart while stretching American English against the cages of syntax.
From that moment and for the last four decades-plus I’ve followed David Lee’s poems into an ever-widening universe of language and character, community and isolation, narrative and lyric. For those who know Dave Lee’s poems Rusty Barbed Wire is cause for celebration. Just scanning the contents pages is like walking into a room of old friends. And for those who are reading his poems for the first time, I can only smile at the thought of the joy awaiting them.
author of All The Live-Long Day
To read Rusty Barbed Wire, Selected Poems of David Lee is to read David Lee in all his considerable power. The breadth and scope of these poems demonstrates his facility with language, dialect, form, and image. What’s more, this deep dive into Dave’s work reveals the comedy and tragedy of the everyday, of what it means to be human.
Dave’s loquacious rural characters are likeable precisely because he gives them to us whole, believable, and human, using the economical language of poetry. Dave’s poems are often hilarious, but they don’t mock. Though Dave’s poetry is unvaryingly honest, there’s something gentle here that reveals his love for humanity, a kind of divine grace. The lives his characters lead may be commonplace, but the characters themselves are not. We read these poems and we recognize ourselves.
David Lee is an artist. He paints the natural world brilliantly—David Lee is not a passive observer. David Lee’s world is as vital, bright, and textured as a VanGogh painting.
David Lee’s poems feel American in that the world they depict is so unique to its land and people. They are in the tradition of Frost, Anderson, Faulkner. Less obviously, they have something in common with Whitman: they remind us that the world is a beautiful place, full of hope, delight, and awe, and that all who dwell here, no matter how small, are connected.
Lori Baker Martin
editor of Midwest Poetry Quarterly
Years ago, I was at the iconic Powell’s Bookstore for a David Lee reading, the podium and rows of chairs arranged in an open space of a huge room of shelved books for sale. After David began reciting his first poem, I saw—one by one— strolling book-browsers pause, listen, and begin to slowly move toward his voice. First they filled the few empty seats. By his third poem, an SRO audience had assembled itself around the back rows of us seated listeners. These new arrivals were people who—most likely—had never gone to a poetry reading or bought a book of poetry. Rapt listeners. Spellbound. Lee’s poems held them—held all of us
—in their sway. When you open the first page of Rusty Barbed Wire and begin to read, you’ll understand why those shoppers were transformed into poetry fans that evening. This poet will have you in his thrall.
Taking their rightful place in poetry’s oral tradition, told in the idiom of working class rural Utah, David Lee’s story-poems are tall tales, wild-ass yarns, parables of laziness, of sanctimony, of one-upmanship, of attack-geese, of a professional mourner so compelling she’s spontaneously joined by wailing babies and yowling dogs. Devoid of end punctuation, each narrative ends by not ending, leaving us with a caesura. In this way, Lee promises us that his great tale of human foible and redemption is seamless, never-ending: a boisterous, down-home, reverent and irreverent “new interpretation / of the mystery of the Tower of Babble.” In Rusty Barbed Wire—selections chosen from thirteen previous books— Lee’s story- poems are joined by some of his more recent lyric work, paeans to the earth’s elements in which he lets his “hoarse song / twine with the night wind.” Utah’s first Poet Laureate, master story-teller, consummate bard, David Lee gives us enough “great lies // to shame the heavens.” All praise to this singer, to his ecstasy, to his compassion for what “walks the earth heavy.”
Oregon Poet Laureate Emerita