Timing is everything: I’m convinced my just-got-back trip from Korea gave me an especially empathetic appreciation for poetry slam artist/writer/playwright Ed Bok Lee‘s latest collection. I just wandered some of those same streets! And I definitely had to read it at 38,000-feet cruising altitude between there and here to feel that intensely oxymoronic sense of being both forever connected and always disconnected living with an identity marked by somewhere in-between. Lee’s exceptional Whorled is exactly that: a jolting gaze focused on today’s 21st-century global citizen, uprooted and unleashed.
Fluid borders define Lee’s peripatetic existence: he was raised in Korea, North Dakota, and Minnesota. He’s studied in the U.S., and also in Korea, Kazakhstan, and Russia. All those destinations (and more) appear in Whorled, as if Lee is somehow solidifying those experiences, establishing a permanence on the page that perhaps might not last longer than an elusive memory.
Personal standouts in the collection explore relationships with Lee’s family, especially with his late father. His prose poem, “Mourning in Altaic,” weaves various histories – country, cultural, family (including ancestors who date back almost 1700 years) – in an attempt to understand his dying father in the last month before his passing. Lee’s through a brave new Seoul in “Chosun 5.0″ seems to be almost a companion piece to “Mourning” as Lee returns to a Korea his father will never experience: “What is culture or history anymore, in an age when every year brings that / which is twice as fast & ten times as cheap?”
Closer to Lee’s current St. Paul, Minnesota address (where he teaches part-time) is his shocking long piece, both elegiac and angry: “If in America / Hmong Hunter Charged With 6 Murders /Is Said to Be a Shaman—NEW YORK TIMES” lends voice to a man pushed to violence by both his past and threatening present; Lee’s purposeful, repeated use of ‘if’ demands we question our own possible reactions in such tense, threatening situations.
Like his 2005 debut Real Karaoke People, Lee again provides searing ‘oh-my-gawd’-moments that will rip through your soul. And no, you don’t need to go to Korea to participate and you never need to leave the ground … you just need to open to the first page to get caught up in Whorled.