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A Review of Karen An-hwei Lee's "Ardor"

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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:

                         Prayer is seamless

                         It is water

                         Goes beneath the literal

                         Surface of things

                         Underneath is

                         Love and order



dream           Light underneath a bushel. Tabled love. Astringency is                          the beauty of pomegranates…quotidian grace such as rain                          and leaf and the gradual strengthening of bone.

prayer           Vessel of wood or raiment or skin or sack, whatsoever it be,                          wherein any work is done, it must be put into water, and it                          shall be unclean…and ye shall break it.

letter           Unclean not only from my race but due to blindness.
                         Quarantined from life. Silence except for the leper’s cry of                          unclean…Say jin is wellspring jin is gold.


                         Gier eagle? Osprey?

                         Bone-breaking birds…

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.

Maybe 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.

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