Ardor by Karen An-Hwei Lee
(Tupelo Press, Dorset, VT, 2008)
Everything about Karen An-Hwei Lee’s Ardor is alluring: the shiny red cover, pomegranate, the cartoid, heart-shaped, graph and mathematical equations. The language seduces, too:
They took the pomegranate and burned it.
You mean they burst it open. Ripe
Tore it apart leaf by leaf and burned the seeds.
Every single word in there said love and love. (11)
It’s easy to get lost in this book, a 70-page poem, structured like a play, with characters named, dreams, letter, and prayers, on the left-hand margin. The body of the text—the lines these characters speak—is made up of multi-page poems, prose poems, one-line sentences and fragments. These structural centerpieces do not inhibit the piece; rather, they facilitate a flow of Lee’s sensual writing. To estimate what Ardor is about or what it does is difficult. I might say, it’s Lee’s dream self addressing her ideal self, telling her she’s entitled to passion and pain.
I grasped the rich red cover. I devoured Ardor in one intense sitting. Lee writes about personal identity and interactive passion, her dreams, ruminations, and wishes, each uniquely personal. She writes about herself intimately. She also includes nameless characters in the text, designated by He and She pronouns, implicating the readers in her dreams, letters and prayers. Lee is clearly unafraid to go deep inside herself, and she asks the same courage of her reader.
Particularly appealing is Lee’s imagery. Often by conflating the fruit and the human spirit, Lee insists the word itself is flesh. Lee recognizes the burning passion that exists both within the body and between bodies:
Flesh burning flesh
Vision joined to
Of possession (22)
Lee’s writing brims with love and anger, and of an open heart. As vulnerable readers, we cannot distance ourselves from the intimacy of this writing.
Lee’s writing employs not only a feminine and feminist consciousness, but also a racialized consciousness. She explores how bodies are both sexualized and racialized. Ardor tears apart human emotion, as well as the construction of race, and Whiteness in particular:
Never understood why
So often photographed
Used bleaching cream
White enough (34-35)
Ardor, however, does not render Lee a voiceless woman, subject to the (mis)readings and otherings of dominant culture. Lee maintains agentic power in both her racial consciousness and her deliberate writing. Her writing reflects her unique experience and position, as well as incorporating the sensuality that is present throughout the book. She insists on the intentionality on every word, every bit of punctuation, and every absence:
Don’t standardize my phrasing
My seasoned grammar
Of double roses
Dashed rhododendrons (19)
As an Asian-American woman poet, Lee is adamant in using her own voice and her own body as subject, while also criticizing systems of power that might place her there against her will. Throughout Ardor, Karen An-Hwei Lee is looking in a mirror, speaking directly to her body. The only way to enter the dialogue is to begin reading.
Emily Schorr Lesnick is a student at Macalester College.