Rattle E-Reviews, August 25, 2011
A Review of Karen An-hwei Lee's Ardor
Karen An-hwei Lee’s second collection of poems, Ardor (Tupelo Press,
2008), is a book-length sequence of fragments connected by ellipses and interwoven with brief, surreal blocks of prose in
sections titled “dreams,” “letters,” and “prayers.”
Each fragment is double-spaced with oft-excised periods. Many of the fragments repeat themselves
in inverse order: the first line also being the last and the second line also being the second to last, and so on. Nearly
each and every line of Ardor contains an image, concrete or abstract, and the book is suffused with rich word choices,
internalized dilemma, and metaphor. And while there’s certainly a sense that these sections are in conversation with
each other-- each fragment, dream, letter, and prayer sharing a common obsession or genesis (algebra, blindness, and pomegranates,
to name a few)-- if you’ve come to Ardor desiring story , you’ve come to the wrong place-- Lee’s
intricately and austerely organized stream-of-conciousness taking the place of a more typical narrative:
beneath the literal
underneath a bushel. Tabled love. Astringency is the
beauty of pomegranates…quotidian grace such as rain and
leaf and the gradual strengthening of bone.
Vessel of wood or raiment or skin or sack, whatsoever it
any work is done, it must be put into water, and it shall
be unclean…and ye shall break it.
Unclean not only from my race but due to blindness.
from life. Silence except for the leper’s cry of unclean…Say
jin is wellspring jin is gold.
Poetry has a long and important history
of poems and books unanchored by story. And Lee’s first collection, In Medias Res: a primer of experience in approximate
alphabetical order (winner of Sarabande Books’ 2004 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the 2005 Norma Farber First Book
Award given by the Poetry Society of America), is also a book-length poem, this time organized via letters of the alphabet--
the first section is titled “A,” the second “B,” etc. So it’s no surprise her second collection
revisits this approach that has been so well received. This becomes a problem for Ardor because its form implies
an arc, some sort of central axis or conflict around which the collection's obsession turns, and, thus, some sort of resolution.
While any reader will be immediately entranced by Lee’s word choices, images, and use of metaphor (Ardor opens
with “Calque alphabet / Modulation with avian equivalence of hands / Translation perched around a white rose / Photographic
grapheme of cardoid delight”) Ardor does very little to keep a reader actually reading.
Does this mean that the only reason readers read poetry is for story? Of course not.
This is poetry not prose. It’s not narrative that Ardor lacks but clarity, and it’s hard to see why
such an overtly elliptical approach is necessary here. A consistent narrative would in no way take away from this collection
and would certainly make for a much more engaging experience. Books like Carolyn Forche’s Angel of History,
Charle’s Wright’s Zone Journals, and Judy Jordan’s Fifty-cent Coffee and a Quarter to Dance
do exactly this to great effect.
Occasionally, the fragments do
open with echoes of narrative: “What marriage is, she says…A man who desired to make love / Desired to hear
the sound of tearing silk” and “A woman, her mother, said / If you dare fall in love with the wrong man / I’ll
cut the heart out of your body.” But these brief moments of clarity are immediately broken by the lines that follow
and even if readers are drawn in by this surreal approach, it’s repeated so many times that it becomes old-hat just
pages into the book.
The result: Ardor tires itself out.
It’s the sort of book one can open to any page and have the same experience. While this may be ingenious in a number
of ways, it doesn’t make for a book of poems one is compelled to actually read. This is a problem poetry often has.
Even the best readers often find themselves unengaged with the books they encounter. Sometimes this is because they have
other things to do like change a crying baby or paying the water bill. Sometimes this is because while the first few poems
in a collection are singular, the poems that follow read more like filler than works of art. Sometimes readers leave a
book because it’s too hard. But readers won’t leave Ardor for any of these reasons; readers will leave
Ardor because they won’t be compelled not to.
it’s asking too much to point to seminal works by Carolyn Forche, Charles Wright, and Judy Jordan and expect a poet
to write equally accomplished texts. But it’s bothersome to come across a book that has so much at stake and so quickly
alienates its readers with choices that require a justification that never comes.