Four poems by Karen An-hwei Lee
THIS DETOUR WAS A SEA OF DYNAMITE
I dreamed a young widow could not eat
out of sadness, a fractured coccyx,
and a broken marriage,
not even a blood orange sliced by her son
who called it good. She confided in exile,
before I married war I was a teacher.
Fire out of the debris field of a crash,
I raised two children myself —
son and daughter
and a mynah bird
who flew to my pulse
where lines spelled loneliness.
My daughter was a girl who wore a shawl
of raging nightmares
dying of malnutrition
three years in a war camp,
This detour was a sea of dynamite
so I never returned
in flowering gathers or drapery,
lace or taffeta asymmetry
where I mend this unfixed light,
where war, all the wars to come
are never post-
ON THE EXTINCTION OF DESIRE AS SHIZI
In the railroad dust by a persimmon tree,
a lacquered angel rises, shizi or fuyu kaki
by the Japanese fruit market in winter.
Hachiya persimmon, heart-curved
pulse of a female blood-organ —
aunt who will survive typhus seven times,
angels with celadon wings on yard lamps
shyly capping the solstice
with lichen-hued verdigris, marine layer
as if this name alone would assuage thirst
or nourish a girlhood hungry as rice famine,
thousands of love-apple blossoms
only if crows never raid the tree this year.
Asked why, the uncle who fixes bicycles says,
crows were repelled by unknown causes
which we take to mean a debt of love,
a rosebush in disrepair, a blown-out gas range,
or a pear-shaped mandolin scarred
by overseas dreams,
not desire of a man for a woman,
a luxury. For instance, a man whose wife was shot
when the government fled
dug a hole to plant a fuyu tree
when he crossed the threshold,
an extinction not of memory
but extravagance. What we harvest in the new world
we grow on our own.
A girlhood tree never existed.
Fruit was not stolen by birds. Historical amnesia
never witnessed vermilion shizi rolling in dust
by train tracks —
our private modes of inner witness,
pre-colonial songs of desire,
uncoded love for the motherland.
KONG EMPTY XIN HEART
In girlhood, I was told a joke that angered me —
A man gives cash to his wife. Wife returns with leafy greens
from the Taipei market. After a brisk sauté, the greens shrivel.
Where did the money go?
Old-world greens are called
Everyone laughed except me.
Now, as a woman, I say —
kong-xin cai sizzles.
Red swiss chard, dou-miao pea sprouts, and kale. Rafts of bitter dollars
in the raw, kong-xin cai translates literally as empty-heart-vegetable.
POST-AILANTHUS IN TAIPEI
I ate flying toast for breakfast. Springs
flung tangzhong milk-toast in a double arc
to the ceiling.
Ah-mah dusted every slice,
inspected toast as though reading
or inspecting mosquitoes
in our bed-netting.
This shoji-house with a gate
garnished with broken glass to deter thieves —
a sloping roof,
hundreds of fired ceramic tiles,
no longer exists.
Neither do loved ones,
on a mountainside —
winged seeds of the Ailanthus,
tree of heaven.
Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award. Lee also wrote two chapbooks, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe 2002) and What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press 2014). Her book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations (Cambria, 2013), was selected for the Cambria Sinophone World Series. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a small liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles, where she is also a novice harpist. Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.