Phyla of Joy
by Karen An-hwei Lee
Tupelo Press, 2011
Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom
Karen An-hwei Lee's third collection, Phyla of Joy, shines with poems of refined craft and subtle linguistic play. Love of language, love of the divine and reverence for the embodied human feminine each together and in turn animate the delicate interior and closely magnified exterior landscapes of these poems.
Many of the poems include in their titles the words "Prayer," "Dream," "Meditation" or "Psalm." In Lee's work, a dream, a prayer and a mediation are cut from the same cloth. To wander the world with eyes and heart open to nature and to the divine is to meditate, to dream and to pray.
Sometimes, as in "Meditation on a Cenote," an observation leads to a small but profound self-discovery: "Memory is a cenote or limestone pool/ where the moon's underground eye// confesses fawn-colored vapor/ or sublimates violet irises in a jar —/ the self's watery other, shyly adrift// as the body: a cenotaph, water monument/ for the self who is missing elsewhere,/ empirical matter in a field of spirit."
"Preservation of Rare Languages" is a lamentation on the inevitable loss of once vibrant and dynamic tongues around the the world, which women strive to keep alive by intergenerational transmission.
In "Faith By Hearing," she writes of "studying books by the light of fireflies,/ by ch'uang, the ideogram for window,/ source of fires paired and housed/ passed from woman to woman,/ inherited only from mothers,/ phosphorescent hum."
In Horses of Famine, Horses of War," a blind woman acts as a sort of oracle for a language that is as incomprehensible as the nature of life itself:
A blind woman considered the inverted thinness of cigarette paper, almost
fish skin or petal. A man is passing on and no one knows his name. Paper
with a name on it floats out of her hand. A book is a closed green circle. Or
a woman whose first name sounds like sycamore-fig whispered. Or a book
is a shore. It encircles hungry fish consuming these words.
As with the lyric entreaties of the old poet-mystics, language for Lee is an imperfect but necessary means of approaching the divine. The answer to such entreaties is sometimes silence, at other times grace, as in "Psalm I": ".... Young stars are only/ hundreds of millions of years old. God turns on the light in her body,/ a soft lamp with a paper shade a mother uses while nursing her infant."
Later, "Psalm III" references the double helix of DNA in a stream-of-consciousness mediation on human nature: ".... Open/ your eyes. Double strands of inheritence. Chirality. Our nucleotides/ are right-handed optical isomers. What is the probability of this in/ nature. Why carry this urn of ash, yesterday's blindness. An orphan in/ exile sketches a rose under a full moon...."
In the series of poems entitled "Selenographia," a woman's aging body is compared to the moon's surface. In "Selenographia III," the narrator asks, "Is this the body observed without conjecture/ dripping on the smooth rim of her personal sea/ with whispering clocks of lunar craters/ formed long ago when the world was// a thread of light in the beginning?"
However, earlier, in "Invocation," a young girl's mother affirms the speaker in rejecting the objectification of her body in language, insisting on the girl's own fluid self-definition of her embodiment:
Your body is neither flora, fauna, nor brass.
You are not a mountain range. Our voices,
ringing as one, are not the boat-laden rivers.
We are neither rain nor sorrow. Speak. I am
my mother's daughter, four summers old.
I am a strong girl, fourteen summers.
Lee's sense of the feminine is one of self-aware presence, as she hints in the opening poem, "Yingri": "Inside me is a bridge, or the beams of a house" — maybe a bridge to the ineffable divine.
The "garden boat" she goes on to mention, atop "an old ground swell," could refer to language, the vehicle of transport between the two.