01 October 2012

Phyla of Joy by Karen An-Hwei Lee

Phyla of Joy
by Karen An-Hwei Lee
Tupelo Press, 2012
Paperback, 63 pp.
ISBN 978-1-932195-14-9
To Purchase: Phyla of Joy

Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Ann E. Michael

The poems in Karen An-Hwei Lee’s collection Phyla of Joy cross several boundaries, yet what stays in this reader’s mind is the consistency of her tone. Often, an unwavering tone leads to monotony. Lee’s eclectic vocabulary and stylistic variations demand attention, however, a demand that does not unbalance the steadiness of the whole. Reading Phyla of Joy is akin to listening to the reverberations of a singing bowl: first, one is attracted to the struck note, but the diminishing vibrations last a long time, compelling a continuing reflection.

I want to call these poems lyrical, though seems somehow incorrect. The “I” behind the work is frequently diffused by images that command more notice. Readers who prefer a strong sense of character-as-speaker in poetry will not find one immediately. These poems seem to be spoken by a less personal voice, one that acts as guide yet does not completely abandon a sense of intimacy with the reader. Lee’s poetry has been called “meditative,” an appropriate modifier. One can imagine these poems being read by a calm voice softly urging the listener to relax into awareness:

A woman sees a poem grow like a melon.
How does a melon grow? After soft rains,
on a vine, it bows under a knife.
A poem says its flesh sweetens sun…

A consistent tone is not the same as a consistent mood, and Lee’s work is riskier than the contemplative tone suggests. She breaks linguistic, syntactical, and cultural rules and writes of famine, war, and other disasters. While she often uses fairly traditional free-verse stanzaic structures, she is not afraid to experiment. A few of her prose poems are fragmented blocks punctuated with periods, resulting in a fusion of images that build a mood rather than a narrative (from “Feminaries”):

wings . I recite . names of moths . phyla of happiness . she
remembers . alpha . imperial . pale green luna . or mourning
cloak . not Lepidoptera . feminaries . hand-bound . string . what

Lee also employs a reverse poem form (which she calls “cycle poem”)[i] most effectively in “Sunday Is,” where the reversed lines come to a pleasing closure.

Another risk Lee takes involves vocabulary. While she intersperses some of her poems with Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and other languages, her use of terms from biology, geology, and physics is risky because readers who are not interested in science may feel frustrated with epeiric seas, indehiscence, seed carpels, or words like hydrophanous, Lee’s inventive use of scientific and marginally obsolete vocabulary generally works well. This is partly because the poems can be read for sound, flow, and tone; and they are beautiful. If the reader has to re-read, think, work a little with the poem—isn’t that part of the enjoyment of reading? The marvelous pitch of the work is worth listening for even if lyrical meaning does not yield itself easily.

In a review this brief, there is no room to analyze Lee’s themes and recurring images, which include biblical and Asian allusions, blindness and sightedness, womanhood, extinction, flowers and flesh. It is noteworthy that even when Lee’s language startles, there is a sustaining, calm reflectiveness in the fluid surfaces of these poems that invites contemplation. Contemplation, and re-reading: two things we readers should make more time for in our busy lives.

 Note: An interview with Karen An-Hwei Lee appears at Small Press Spotlight.

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