HENRY W. LEUNG Reviews
Phyla of Joy by Karen An-hwei Lee
(Tupelo Press, Massachussetts, 2012)
Karen An-hwei Lee’s Phyla of Joy is unlike her previous books in that this is less of a project book and more of a collection, a “gathering” of discrete poems, as Lee puts it. They are poems of light, prayer, and meditation, and in the process of their “accidental lightness,” a striking consistency emerges. These poems all stimulate an irrational delight, a distorted math-logic, and a large part of their craft is in destabilizing the ground beneath the reader.
For instance: “to be” in these poems is often not “to be.” The book is divided into three sections; each begins with a poem declaring and subverting the “to be” verb. “Yingri” opens: “Inside me is a bridge, or the beams of a house . . .” The endnotes describe yingri as meaning either shadows from the sun, or mirrors of the sun. From the beginning, then, we’re launched into inversions: a shadow can be a reflection, a bridge can be the beams of a house. Similarly, in “Love and Solvency,” we are guided to an understanding of things which mean their opposite: “This is not poverty . . . You have what you surrender.” And in “Invocation” is a rhythmic series of negations:
My body isn’t a pomegranate or bell, said the girl.
I am not studded with crimson seeds or a clapper.
Your body is neither flora, fauna, nor brass.
You are not a mountain range. Our voices . . .
The voices of the girl and her mother converge, and what comes out of this is an affirmation dependent on their relation to one another: “I am // my mother’s daughter, four summer’s old.” The poem then moves into questions, suggesting a missing father in the phrase, “absent figures of speech.”
These are modes of identity constructions in which a subject is defined by circling around it, by gesturing at what it is not, by relating to the presence or absence of an other. It’s the dream-like logic of poetic equations.
Lee’s “forwards-backwards” poems are arranged symmetrically so that when we reach the middle of the poem, the same lines unravel backward. The middle hinging line in “Dream of Ink-Brush Calligraphy” reads: “chaogao or grass calligraphy.” It’s that or which is, for me, key to Lee’s poetics. A term arrives in two languages, read forward or backward. The or serves as more than disjunction and as more than conjunction. These poems don’t merely show one side as equal to the other. The symmetry is synthesis; layers unfold and unfold. Chaogao doesn’t even mean just the one thing; the endnotes tell us it can also mean “grass drafts,” or “rough drafts.” I am reminded of Gertrude Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose,” which on the surface is a reflexive identity, but in fact is a series of distinct utterances—different roses.
Synchronicity, too, is part of Lee’s poetic wonder. In these lines from “Questions and Canticles,”
I can’t remember the name of a woman, azalea.
Hundreds perish in a market fire on the outskirts of Asuncion.
Paraguay River flows from Mato Gross plateau into Paraguay.
Late-blooming internal routes rarely confess love.
A young woman learns a new word, ocotillo.
time loses its linearity and becomes discrete flashes or frequencies—the rarity of an action, the forgetting or learning of a word, the reflexiveness of a river constantly flowing into its eponymous place. Lee has a way of layering images and juxtapositions so that metaphor, the temporary collapsing of A into B, becomes a cumulative and immersive mode of vision. All things are suspended to exist in infinite relation.
Consider another example from “Ounce of Camphor,” which has almost the quality of a distorted syllogism:
Invisible blue lines embrace the world, sightless meridians. If they’re invisible, how do you know they’re blue, asks a blind woman. A plane flies over pacific, mountain, central. Meridians over oceans, land mass, ice sheets. Sum of zero.
The blind woman is a recurring figure in the poems; she speaks to themes of blindness, vision, and momentary disillusion. Here, she interrupts to interrogate the preceding statement and the answer given her is a strange math. The plane crossing time zones puts it in a zone outside of time—where does time rest? The striking answer is zero, which echoes an earlier line suggesting infinity: “Hour on hour, a series of sightless noons.”
Collectively, this book is full of prayers, psalms, explorations of nature in its greens and glazes. We encounter themes of fire, ash, and rain, each in turn an experience of beauty, transformation, ephemeral vitality, rarity. The poems are meditations in which the wonder of the closed eye is as brilliant as the vision of the open. Lee looks as closely at bamboo seed-pods, as at craters in the moon, as at invisible measurements of the earth. She takes blindness not to be darkness, but an overabundance of light, a process of endless search and re-creation. Vision converges with memory or imagination: “One difference between the blind / and the sighted is this: Whether what is / already was. You choose which.”
And light in these poems, which can be blinding, can also be lightness: an absence of weight, an elation. The title poem is a “a tribute to the vision of community surprised by joy.” It is a celebration across geographies, combining spaces, elements, and times: “writing / a river boat in the field . . . / Our new lava / serves the fellowship / of today and century.” This boat in a field, this ship of fellows, echoes the garden boat inside the speaker of the first poem. The lava is an ink and pathmaker suggesting a poetic and kinetic logic: a water voyage on land, a language floating toward unseen destinations.
Henry W. Leung is a Kundiman Fellow and Soros Fellow completing his MFA at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Paradise Hunger, which won the 2012 Swan Scythe Press Poetry Chapbook Contest. He is a columnist for the Lantern Review.