Review by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
by Karen An-hwei Lee
PO Box 1767
North Adams, MA 01247
2008, 72 pp., $16.95
Karen An-hwei Lee’s second collection of poems, Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008), is a book length sequence of fragments connected 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 being the last and the second line 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 narrative, 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
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?
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 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, but this approach becomes a problem for Ardor because its form implies an arc, some sort of central axis or conflict around which its obsession turns, and, thus, some sort of resolution. And 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. And 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 pay 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.
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum received his MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale and now conducts genetic research at the University of Southern California. He has recently published poems, interviews and reviews in the Missouri Review, Sou’wester, Rattle, Third Coast, the Southern Indiana Review, the Cortland Review, the Crab Orchard Review and others. He is also the founder and editor of PoemoftheWeek.org.