Monday, August 8, 2022

Karen An-hwei Lee*

Karen An-hwei Lee is an American poet whose fifth collection has just appeared from Poiema/Cascade. What makes Duress unique is how throughout the collection Lee makes subtle references to what we all experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic. As you read you’ll encounter cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing an impromptu concert for those lined up to get their vaccine (“Songs of Comfort”), and passing mentions of mask wearing, video conferencing, and pandemic isolation. Duress is, however, not so much about the pandemic as it is of human experience during our season of pandemic.

Her care-filled yet prolific writing of these poems has produced this timely follow-up to Rose is a Verb: Neo-Georgics (Slant, 2021). Scott Cairns has written, “With formal elegance and visionary comprehension, the poems of Duress prove witness to the immensity occasioned in the small, and the particularity made manifest in the endless expanse before us.”

When I return to this collection years from now, I expect to find I will not only be saying, “Yes, that’s what it was like,” but the poems will continue to speak to me of what life is like. Duress will transcend the pandemic, as most good poetry transcends the times in which it is written. Karen An-hwei Lee is Provost and Professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois.

I am honoured to have served as the editor for Duress from which the following poem is taken.

On Quarantine Dreams

I wake in the morning, facing the risk
of viral air wafting in open spaces
such as the market, gas station, or dog park,
daring to linger at the rows of fat peaches,
in no haste to choose one with a gloved
finger, a paper mask filtering the aroma
of ripening fruit palmed in my right hand.
The daily hours slow to the rate of dough
rising in an oiled bowl, the floured wood
petitioning silently for another round
of dimpling and kneading, for dinner rolls
instead of sourdough. Praying for beloveds
while making bread, I shape, proof, and sugar
kindred spirits with pleasure. In my dreams,
the loaves of bread fly all over the globe
like satellites radioing the old solace of toast,
the fierce reassurance of butterflies winging
south for winter in the mountains, their wings
fiery and crisp as buttered rye, oblivious
to the violence inflicted by an invisible
coronavirus wreaking havoc on civilization,
a virus so small, it is barely even a living thing.

Posted with permission of the poet.

*This is the second Kingdom Poets post about Karen An-hwei Lee: first post.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the author of five poetry collections including Angelicus (2021, Cascade) ― a book of poems written from the point-of-view of angels. His books are available through Wipf & Stock.