In the poem The Secret to Life in America, from Ed Bok Lee’s award-winning first book of poetry, Real Karaoke People (2005), the speaker’s older brother attempts to impart a fact of life upon him:
He sits me down and tells me
the secret to life in America.
I’m twelve years old when this happens.
He grabs my shoulders and says:
No one likes an immigrant.
It reminds them of when they fell down
and no one was around to help them.
When they couldn’t talk.
As children when they got lost in public.
Cold and wet, everyone hates an immigrant.
In Lee’s award-winning second collection, Whorled, his speaker has grown older and introspective, and in a dreamy intonation to his lover, in the poem Night Work, breathes, “All love is immigrant.” It’s a proclamation that comes more as an after-thought, a dreamy insight that seems to want to say something else to someone else, the much-pondered retort to the long gone older brother.
In Real Karaoke People, Lee heaps falling (and sometimes failing) piles of metaphors onto the function of poetry in Ars Poeticana. In Whorled, he entertains no such attempts:
You want to write about the universe,
how the stars are really palpitating ancestor hearts
watching over us
And instead what you get on the page
is that car crash on fourth and Broadway—
the wails of the girlfriend or widow,
her long lamentation so sensuous
in terrible harmony with sirens in the distance
Poetry is a sickness.
And it shows, to wondrous effect, in this collection. For as sparkling a collection that is Real Karaoke People, by comparison the impressive, at moments superlative, craftsmanship of Whorled, among other things, illuminates the innocence and blush of Lee’s earlier work.
There is wizened insight and well-wrought precision of form in the movement from the exhortative in Real Karaoke People to the meditative in Whorled. Lee’s deftness pulls structure and measure from that recursive, inwardly spiraling, compulsive-obsessive poetic desire, that poetic sickness, “to find each flaw that made us/Exquisite.” Real Karaoke People was written while Lee was squarely ensconced in the spoken word scene of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and you’ll find yourself nodding in time with its groove. Whorled showcases more of Lee’s contemplative background as a playwright sounding the depths of character and mind. For example, Lee draws on the Greek lyric poet Simonides of Ceos, who appears in the poem Mnemonikos: A Foreigner’s Figment, and who is considered a revolutionary to his more popular rival, Pindar, for writing lyric poetry more resonant with silent reading than with an accompanying lyre. For Lee, at least in this collection, it’s not the music, but the words that will hopefully lead us to a better place than we inhabit, that reveals to us within others, “a hundred holy/mangled/states of grace.” Lee is deft in speeding and halting a poem’s flow through canny use of enjambment and spondaic meter, creating a subconscious tap with internal as well as irregular, sporadic, and linked rhyme.
In the Notes section of Whorled, Lee contextualizes the book’s title as elegiac. “Whorled” is meant to convey a sense of loss and the bereavement process that follows. For Lee, what’s lost in Whorled is language and “their speakers’ knowledges of cosmology, history, nature, health, psyche, myth, science, music, artistry, and ways of perceiving, thinking about, and assigning values within the world” that die right along with a lost language. “Every two weeks,” according to Lee, “the final living speaker of a world language passes away.”
In the book’s epigraph, Lee prepares us for what else is lost with language and what his poems will touch on: “Language is truly homeland,” he quotes the poet Czeslaw Milosz. Lee also cites from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s seminal work Empire: “[W]e continually find the First World in the Third, the Third in the First, and the Second almost nowhere at all.” The epistemologies, if you will, of that “second” world resonate through the poems in Real Karaoke People. In Whorled, Lee still anchors us to that world and its street ethos and ethnic existentialist panic, perhaps most urgently and pleadingly in the brilliantly conceived poem If in America, which reads like a long suspended conditional sentence. It leads with the headline from the New York Times: Hmong Hunter Charged With 6 Murders/Is Said to Be a Shaman, but the philosophies that inform Whorled take a decided turn toward the ontological, as Lee intones in the last epigraph to his book, from Park Chan-wook’s film Old Boy: “What I am isn’t important. Why is important.” And that is what charges Lee’s imagination. Through these poems of loss, bereavement, wonder, and ultimately survival, Lee pushes himself further along the continuum of artistic development. If in Real Karaoke People, Lee observes and marks the divine in the detritus of an urban landscape, in Whorled, he has become the interpreter of that divine, attending to the rise and fall of kingdoms, and language, in the everyday.
In 2006, Ed Bok Lee won the Poetry award from the Association for Asian American Studies for Real Karaoke People. Whorled, his second book, recently won the Minnesota Book Award for poetry.