Karen An-Hwei Lee’s third collection of poems, Phyla of Joy on Tupelo Press, is, at its heart, a celebration, a request for us to see the beauty around us, and a reminder that even the most minute thing can become miraculous and expansive if we take the time to consider it. In Lee’s poems, we find community, spirituality, and philosophy; we are given exploration of legacy and language. Lee’s first poetry collection, In media res, won the Kathryn A. Morton prize from Sarabande Books and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Faber First Book Award, and her second book, Ardor, was also published by Tupelo in 2008.
True to its title, the poems in Phyla of Joy are indeed subsets of joy, and so understandably light and reflection are integral imagery in poems. In the opening poem of the collection, Lee gives us a spare, lovely image of “a winter sun, blinding” reflected back to us in the snow. Light both large (the sun) and small (a firefly, in “Faith by Hearing”) floods the collection with a weightless illumination that is appreciative of the physical world around us in order to access the spiritual in us.
Set parallel to light and seeing is word—language and speaking. Again, Lee addresses the interconnectedness of the physical and the essence by writing of the physical representation of language—the word itself (through the invocation of Chinese calligraphy, Lee marks the word itself as poetry)—as well as the spiritual, the legacy, that relationship that is automatically assumed with the use of language. After all, to speak, to write, necessitates a speaker and a listener, a writer and a reader.
“Honeybees are vanishing./ Let us pray to save them” (“Prayer for Himalayan Bees”).
In Phyla of Joy, poetry is a form of spirituality. It is easy to recognize Biblical allusion in Lee's titles—many are “Psalms” or “Songs,” “Prayers” or “Invocation.” In “Preservation of Rare Languages,” Lee writes: “As we pray, languages/ are zephyrs, eddies of air” and “Women/ speak rare languages to children/ keeping tongues alive.” Language is legacy, and it is a privilege that comes along with being a woman that we can pass along language to our children. In this way, language is a way of building community, of forging and continuing relationships, of bridging.
The poem “Invocation” reads as a conversation between daughter and mother. “My body isn’t shaped like a violin, said the girl,” begins the poem, and later:
Your body is neither flora, fauna, nor brass.
You are not a mountain range. Our voices,
ringing as one, are not the boat-laden rivers.
We are neither rain nor snow. Speak. I am
my mother’s daughter, four summers old...
Moving from the “I” of the girl, through acknowledgment and validation by the mother into the “we” of a community, the poem shows how community is what the poems in Phyla of Joy aim towards.
Spirituality also exists through physicality: flora is in abundance in these poems, and so is the feminine, the female body. Phyla of Joy investigates the relationship and legacy of womanhood and the community that is created through gender. “Song of Feminaries” alternates between winged insect (representing a sort of brevity) and woman, reading like an associative list of words that could also be the narrative of a life:
exiled . a wire cage . penicillin-dusted insect . frail legs . nushu
. women’s writing . literally woman . book . written by women
… I recited . names of moths . phyla of happiness .
This form, which is something like a halting prose block, is visually arranged to interrupt the eye reading it. This form appears later as well, and while Lee’s poems manifest visually in differing forms, most are repeated or mirrored throughout the collection. This allows the collection another layer of its own connectedness, highlighted again by the grouping of poems, arranged in three sections. Often, poems featuring a repeated image or character are grouped close together within a section (similarly, many poems share titles, and are grouped together), lending a deliberately thematic pacing to the collection.
Some of the most delightful lines, though, come with smaller threads that are carried through the collection but not necessarily explained. Mesmerizingly, Lee places a line in several poems that defines the days of the week: “Thursday is cuttings of earth, cuttings of flesh as I walk past an open-air tattoo parlor” (“Psalm I”), “Monday is where camphor comes from” (“Ounce of Camphor”), “Wednesday is seeds of the flower, one million” (“Questions and Canticles”). Something wonderful happens in these lines, where Lee matches a somewhat indifferent proper noun with a very specific, sensory-laden equal, and these lines remain surprising each time we encounter them. These moments give the collection added flavor and personality, the mystery of why the writer feels the need to explore days of the week in this way.
But in the end, perhaps the best poem that encapsulates the feeling of exaltation emanating from the collection is the opening poem, “Yingri,” in which a short four lines brings together the celestial and the earthly, nature and (wo)man, the community and the individual:
Inside me is a bridge, or the beams of a house,
and an old ground swell beneath a garden boat.
Outside, on an acre of snow,
a winter sun, blinding.
These poems are indeed reflections of brightness. The feeling of being on the brink, about to burst apart with positive, radiating energy—that is the joy experienced in this collection.
Phyla of Joy
Karen An-Hwei Lee
Tupelo Press 2012