Poets Ed Bok Lee and Bao Phi have been tearing up the spoken-word scene for years. Their new collections of poetry are just as powerful as their performances.
One of the great urban legends of the poetry world is that Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island of the Mind" sold 1 million copies in its day. However inflated, the number makes a point. The times aren't what they once were. Since the 1970s, political poetry has been so roughly ousted from literary discussion in the United States that you can still feel the door swinging behind it. Reading our award-winning poets now, you'd never know we live in a country where the gap between the rich and poor yawns so colossally, where millions live without health care, where we have been in a state of perpetual war since World War II.
If that last sentence makes you reach for your gun, then it's best to stop reading here. Ed Bok Lee, the real topic of this review, is heartbroken about America. Reading him it feels like Woody Guthrie, Allen Ginsberg and every podium-grabbing, circular breathing, poetry-voice wielding, satchel-carrying slam poet has been rolled into one body, given an unlimited latte-drip, and let loose upon the page.
His poems are alternately devastating and grandstanding, word-drunk and built for speed. I have never heard him read, but I bet, in the word of poetry readers everywhere, he kills it when he gets up on stage.
But how do his poems read in the quiet of one's lap? Well, there are three kinds of poems in this book. The first works as a kind of gong Lee clangs, setting off resonances he later picks up at higher volume.
"There is another other/ in the other of every/ Another," goes the opening poem, "All Love Is Immigrant." It's a beautiful poem charged with a breathtaking idea. "Whorled" is a book that believes love is like a superior kind of capital: It's a force that flows into new markets, sensing absences, and fills them, whether it's a debased kind of space or an ennobling one.
A second kind of poem Lee writes is a documentary riff. It piles and captures, guiding our eye with prosy impatience. "Heaven" tells the tale of a Korean prostitute, murdered in Minneapolis. "Mourning in Altaic" recounts the poet's long, troubled relationship with his Korean father. These longer, shaggier poems are Lee's best and worst.
They burn with the refractory power of memory and regret. In other moments, the messier ones lose the tune of poetry's music. Many of them unfold in the night's sad spots -- emergency rooms, casinos. Like August Kleinzahler, one gets the impression Lee has spent a fair bit of time in such squalid places, because he renders the hard-luck figures he counters there with incantatory clarity.
One can feel Lee trying to reconcile this merciless America with the beautiful one of its dream.
The final kind of poem "Whorled" contains is the ambitious sort, one that asks the same question Wallace Stevens did so many years ago. How do you bridge the gap between America and its dream? "If in America," Lee's impassioned, deeply troubling poem, is the result. Inspired by a news story about a Hmong man charged with six murders, it moves the reader through a series of empathic locks -- how would you feel if this happened to you, it asks, and then this, and then this? -- dropping us, finally, into the pool of this man's hard-won bitterness. How do you bridge the gap between America and its dream? This man chose a gun. Lee wields a poem. If only we lived in Ferlinghetti's time.
John Freeman is editor of Granta magazine, and the author of "The Tyranny of E-mail."