Review of Phyla of Joy by Karen An-hwei Lee

Lee cover

Karen An-hwei Lee. Phyla of Joy. Tupelo Press, 2012. 63 pgs. $16.95

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

Phyla of Joy, Karen An-hwei Lee’s third collection, is filled with things—bamboo flowers, oolong tea, honeybees, salt. The poems are exceedingly visual, and much of the music in the poems corresponds to the tightly concrete—yet also seductively puzzling—images. Many of the poems are contemplative in tone, but they develop their meaning (if meaning is what they’re aiming for) through juxtaposition of imagery rather than explanation. I found myself rereading several of the poems, sometimes because I found the language so attractive, sometimes because I didn’t quite understand; most often, I experienced both responses simultaneously. I realized, eventually, that these are poems to sit with, to absorb, to pick up and put down and pick up again. Sometimes the lines don’t make literal sense, but they are nevertheless interesting—“Monday is where camphor comes from,”—until, usually, as we read from one line to the next, the poem’s logic rises up in us as dawn rises up, tentatively, from earth.

Many of the poems engage our curiosity immediately. “Prayer of Resistance” begins with this question: “How do we fly to heaven / with the resistance of weather?” “Dream of Metasequoia” claims that “Two o’clock is the weight of empathy.” “Sunday Is” completes its title with “A kind of raiment.” I find myself measuring the “weight of empathy”—it is softer than the glare of high noon, more hopeful than that oppressive dark night, but it is not nothing either. Cupping empathy, our hands sink slightly. And I find myself considering Sunday’s “raiment,” a garment to wrap ourselves in to signal intention, attention to our internal lives. I anticipate an answer to the opening question in “Prayer of Resistance,” but read this couplet instead: “Wedding gases, says a child. / No, they’re noble gases.” These lines, too, I find curious, though I’m uncertain how they relate to either heaven or “the resistance of weather.” Like many of the poems in the collection, “Prayer of Resistance” establishes its sense via detour and deflection; it meanders toward meaning, teasing the reader perhaps, as the poem resists easy penetration and the reader resists meaninglessness. The speaker suggests that “the resistance we meet in life / winks at the universe,” and I find myself winked at too in my determination to understand, to resist the poem’s ultimate conclusion, “before black holes swallow all / we remember since birth.”

Some of the poems are more immediately accessible. “Invocation,” for example, opens with a straightforward statement, “My body isn’t shaped like a violin, said the girl.” Although we don’t yet know who this girl is—or if it matters who she is—the relationships among the lines are more direct than they are in many of the poems. The poem continues, “Curve in my hip isn’t deep enough, profundo. // One blue world, my curve vanishes. / You aren’t a violin, said the mother.” The girl offers several negative evaluations of her body, each time the mother suggesting that the girl can’t be reduced to figurative language, as desirable as that language might be. The language in this poem is beautiful, but the girl is after more than beautiful language, as is the mother. The poem ends ironically, “without the pressure of metaphors / / invoking paternal shadows, absent figures of speech, veritas.” At some level, of course, all language is metaphorical. And declaring something absent brings it into presence. The truth of the poem lies both in its metaphors and in their denial.

Perhaps the most playful poem in the collection is “Theories of the Soul,” which references ideas of Kant, Aquinas, Heraclitus, and others. It helps to know that Thomas Aquinas was taunted by his companions as a “dumb ox,” for in the poem, Aquinas “feels his soul / sailing out of his head // floating near the roof / where a blue ox wings by.” Perhaps in attempting to describe the soul, each thinker is correct. By its end, however, the poem becomes a love poem, to Aquinas and other theologians, yes, but also to another unidentified “you,” the “true friend” referred to in the poem’s epigraph. “If you / are a soul in two bodies,” the speaker speculates and then continues, “life is more complex / and we must labor // twice in the field of sorrow / after sleep, bath, and a glass // as Aquinas whispers, the things / we love tell us who we are.” The speaker has named this you whom she loves, and has, now, revealed who she is.

Phyla of Joy is unusually unified—through form, style, repeated reference. The writing is spare and satisfying and suggestive. Although I occasionally wished for more guidance from the speaker, I much more often appreciated the quiet patience the poems encourage.


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