“Whorled,” Ed Bok Lee’s recently published collection of poems, is a far bigger book than its modest page count suggests. In it, the award-winning St. Paul-based poet addresses a broad sweep of subjects — globalization, war, love and loss; the distinctions of culture, language and identity in an age of multiculturalism. But he does so gracefully, rooting his investigations in the observation of individual lives rather than in lofty pronouncements or calcified ideological camps.
Drawing from a well of personal experience, empathy and his fine-tuned imagination, Bok Lee sketches vivid characters caught on the fulcrum of history, where political machinations and cultural currents far outside their control meet. Mixed in with these are personal reflections and eloquent digressions: on language and poetry, on Bruce Lee, on mourning and his father’s last days, on the bittersweet tang of romantic love.
Sure, there are moments when, as one reviewer put it, a few of Bok Lee’s dreamier ruminations stray off course and “lose the tune of the poetry’s music.” But such missteps pale in comparison to those moments when his insights ring startlingly true, when his vision and fearlessness pay off (for a striking example, just listen to the poem he reads in the video above).
Bok Lee’s work shouldn’t be pigeonholed as political poetry, or worse, placed in some ethnically determined special interest category, like “Asian-American literature.” Doing so feels dismissive, overlooking the breadth of what his poems offer a reader: naked humanity and sensuous use of language, alluring melancholy and unvarnished insight and undercurrents of tempered fury and compassion that color his every word.
“Whorled,” a new collection of poems by Ed Bok Lee, was published recently by Coffee House Press. Find out more about the book, read and hear more of this author’s work and keep track of upcoming readings on both the publisher’s and the author’s website. The poem read in the video above reflects on the story of Chai Soua Vang, a Hmong hunter whose killing of six men in Wisconsin dominated local headlines in the late fall of 2004.