Due to my own mortification, I attended Ed Bok Lee's reading in disguise. And, at one point, his eyes looked directly to the third row, directly to the fourth chair from the aisle, directly through my newly straightened hair and found me. Despite my effort to avoid connection, he still made one.
I've been reading Lee's work since he came to Monkey See, Monkey Read last spring. Even off the page, his poems carry a contemplative grace, yet distinctive rhythm and rage. In an interview for the Asian American Press, Lee said, "Language is a forest of truth. In poetry there's not enough time to leave behind breadcrumbs ... Something so damn ugly it's a new kind of beauty."
Lee's poetry and prose explore the expansive and pointed immigrant experience and the clash of race in American society. His energetic examination of this subject matter led him to the Asian American Literacy Award and the Many Voices Prize from New Rivers Press.
At the reading, a majority of Lee's poems addressed racial tensions. Lee definitely displayed the ability to place the familiar discussion in fresh contexts. He set "Riot in Heaven" in the point of view of a young Korean man killed in the Los Angeles race riots.
In the poem, Edward Song Lee (1974-1992) finds a young black woman murdered by an acquaintance. He approaches her, tries to tell her that the woman who murdered her was insane, tries to give her closure, but out of the woman's own fear of him, she shoots him. But, "even in heaven you can't die twice." And he is left to process the pain of misunderstanding.
In another poem, "The Secret to Life in America," Lee sets racial confrontations to a hip-hop beat. And while his fury flies with the rhythm of segregated streets, he still manipulates the tempo to find a rousing silence. He does so by using the voice of an older brother, but staying in the point of view of the younger brother. This construction allows Lee to scream with the frustration of marginalized: "Are you listening to any of this?" and to exercise silence in younger brother's tentative "yes."
Besides bringing racial tensions to a tangible level, Lee made another connection to our particular audience. Lee was born in Korea, but raised in the Midwest. Some poems he reads only to Midwest audiences. He said, "Midwesterners respond to character-based humor. Humor founded in a character's experience of a situation, and this humor is lost to the crass manner of the East and laid-back nature of the West."
The image I found most striking in the entire reading spanned farther than national niches or racial classifications. One of his poems considered the different terms for "love" in Korean. Korean has a specific denotation for unattainable love. Lee said it is beyond the love for a woman that can't love you back. It is found as the child of a dead friend crawls out of your arms.