t. 98, Books in Brief: Wes Lee, by the lapels

by the lapels
by Wes Lee
Petone: Steele Roberts Aotearoa (2019)
RRP: $25.00; Pb; 75pp
ISBN: 9781990007057
Reviewed by Patricia Prime


by the lapels is Wes Lee’s second full-length collection of poetry. These are poems that take the reader round and through a life, illuminated by sharp-eyed observation, personal insight and, most of all, a generous sense of our shared humanity. The poems have an openness and generosity of spirit with their precise use of language that brings the reader into the world of what it means to be human in today’s world.

In the first three-page poem, ‘The things she remembers’ (winner of the Poetry New Zealand prize 2019), Lee writes about ‘A homeless man in an orangutan costume’. Held out in front of him he carries an Emily Dickinson poem written on cardboard: ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.’ The poem continues, remarking on all the things she remembers: a heavy woman, a stranger, a girl, a collapsing man and many more. The poem ends:

At a terrible time, I believed.

At terrible times, I still believe.

There are still things left to sell.

On the bus a wasp and a homeless man. (9)


Wes Lee is a poet with an artist’s painterly sensibility, a musician’s fine ear an affinity for strangers and their plight. It is an intelligent, finely crafted poetry of curiosity and caring, of listening and loving, of humour and hope. In the poem ‘Burning Tyre’, for example, she writes about her mother witnessing a tyre being thrown over a woman and set alight. The horror of the image is mitigated somewhat by the words ‘my mother marvelled that woman will try to cover themselves in extremis.’ (17)

‘Body, did you know?’ is an expressive poem about a fall, in which the poet asks each part of her body were they aware, or witness to the accident. These are the final phrases of the poem:

tongue, did you get a taste then swallow

and jaw, did you drop then clamp

and neck, did you forget for a second

your graceful tilt? (27)


‘The players are dead’ is a poem in four parts about an horrific encounter at night and

In the morning we review

what the triggers could have been

the girl half-strangled on TV

we glimpsed before I shut my eyes.

But she insists: ‘It’s not a dream, stiffly I see everything, / pulled down from the cross and laid, / through the gauze of the mosquito net.’ (33)


‘Dream activity’ is a short but terrifying poem about dreams. Here is the poem in full:

I never nursed a baby. So here I nurse my suicide.

dreams of my death. Dreams of my demise. Dreams

of this full mind emptied. Dreams of this skull dissolved.

Grown too big for my neck. The more of me up there

above the vertebrae. Above the neckbones. I seem to have

travelled up like spoons in a magnetic game. (41)


‘Night reverie’ is a poem about a drunk woman falling from a balcony. The poem begins:

After the pub

she somehow managed

to get herself home

and on her balcony took out

the soft hot thing she had

stored by her heart (53)


‘Before the glittering sea of California’ begins:

Yes I was drunk / but suddenly wide awake / Yes

I was wearing a short / skirt / Yes

I was walking alone at 3 am / A shaky key

in the lock / Minutes between us

as he followed me home / Seconds

to test the power of oak / (59)


The final two-page poem, ‘The split’, is about remembering the past: ‘The narrative / derailed / For years the information / leaked’. The poem ends:

Recalling the bad dream

takes a lifetime

The desire to know the face

of the criminal

has gone


I had one story

I shine different coloured lights on it

like a disco. (75)


by the lapels is a diverse, edgy read grappling with contemporary issues, told in frank terms. At the heart of Lee’s poems is a committed voice that cares deeply for the world and its people.


Patricia Prime is the editor of Kokako, reviews/interviews editor of Contemporary Haibun Online, a reviewer for takahēMetverse Muse (India), Atlas Poetica and others. Patricia writes haiku, tanka, tanka sequences and haibun. She published, with Dr.Bruce Ross, a collection of worldwide haiku, and published with the French poet, Giselle Maya, a collection of tanka, tanka sequences and tanka prose called Shizuka. Patricia Has published, with New Zealand poet Catherine Mair, a collection of haibun called Morning Glory and they have self-published several small collections of their poetry. In 2019, Patricia published a collection of her poems called The Way of All Things.