Karen An-Hwei Lee: Poet of the Intelligent Soul

Finding a balanced approach to matters of the soul, or spirituality, is no easy task, but one of vital importance for poets so inclined, and certainly Karen An-Hwei Lee is such a poet. Cole Swensen referred to Lee’s collection In Media Res as her “dictionary of faith,” noting

It slowly pieces together the life of a woman moving toward God, a god that accrues, just as language does, by adding bits meaningful in themselves into ever larger, though unprecedented, structures.

And she describes Lee’s language as “always a bit out of place, in the way that a grand piano would be out of place in parking lot—it’s a sheer delight, and it enriches everything for miles around.“

So we’ll let the poems speak for themselves.

Dream of Ink Brush Calligraphy

In prayer:
quiet opening,
my artery is a thin
shadow on paper—
margin of long grass,
ruderal hair, sister to this
not yet part of our bodies
your lyric corpus of seed
in rough drafts of pine ash,
chaogao or grass calligraphy
in rough drafts of pine ash—
your lyric corpus of seed
not yet part of our bodies:
ruderal hair, sister to this
margin of long grass,
shadow on paper,
my artery is a thin
quiet opening
in prayer.

The poem above reminded me of when I wanted to learn calligraphy — inkbrush calligraphy no less — and took two years of Chinese in college, bought special brushes and read all about it, in the search of something like the moment, the ideal of a t’ai chi of meditation so powerful and encapsulating that I could memorize a mountain or a flower and encrypt their images on paper in a few fluid strokes. Or write Chinese characters of ineffable beauty. She sums what was behind this desire with “your lyric corpus of seed/ not yet part of our bodies…”

And this prayer, one of many she’s penned:

Prayer for a Bamboo-Flowering Famine

Every half century, the synchronous flowering of bamboo causes famine in parts of India.

May we blossom every fifty years
without afflicting the people.

May our seedpods nourish rodents
who roam our groves

without rebuking lands with famine.
May sweet potatoes and rice save us.

May ginger and turmeric flourish
to the bitter distaste of rats

while tresses of bamboo flowers
changeling white wasps

load the groves with seed
in rare perennial synchrony.

May our sisters flower en masse
hundreds of square miles apart

in the pale night. May our shoots
pray a silent vision of healing,

our rhizome-laden memories:
Yes, we share our hunger

only once on this earth, my love.
Let us bless our fruit and multiply.