Allegedly, the earliest forms of writing were actuarial: lists, of inventory, accounts, transactions, rules, laws. If so, the lists should be as familiar to us as any form of text could be. And they are, of course, but that doesn’t prohibit them from being strange or even illogical, despite the aridity of the listing act. A list presumes its own justification; all these items belong together because you can list them, but you can list them because they belong together. That belonging is fertile, for between the literal lines springs forth ways of meaning that the listed items themselves permit. In this sense, reading between the lines is the only possible method of reading: the more items on the list, the greater number of lines, and the more lines, the richer and more complex the meaning. Thus, the mathematical specificity of the list can conceal or imply sentiments that themselves cannot be reduced to number or name.
If the first of writing is a list, then the first of books is a ledger. In a long piece of prose that occurs in the middle of Ed Bok Lee’s Whorled, in which he tells the story of his relationship with his father as the latter approaches the end of his life, Lee introduces a word I was unfamiliar with—jokbo—a Korean genealogical print record that features prominently in “Mourning in Altaic”:
One night I searched his bookshelves for something to read in Korean, and came upon the tattered jokbo my mother had presented me when I’d turned sixteen. Four bound volumes of my particular Lee (Yi) clan genealogy. My paternal grandmother had given them to my aunt, to give to my mother, to pass on to me when she deemed the time was right. In the jokbo, as my mother explained, my family’s bloodline was recorded by birth date, hometown, education, titles, and accomplishments, if any— seven centuries back to the Koryo Dynasty.
Reading this description, which places a jokbo squarely in the same function of a ledger (lives added, lives subtracted), summoned memories of my grandmother’s Bible, which served a similar purpose, though in her case executed with far less depth and precision than the Yi family genealogy. But the key, shared feature of both is the fact that even as the text annotates family, it inevitably leaves out more than it can include. Just as there’s no room in my grandmother’s Bible for speculations as to the madness of a possibly syphilitic aunt, the Lee family jokbo cannot accommodate that Lee’s father’s older brother would have turned, as “Mourning in Altaic” tells us, “into a black sheep and drunkard, bearing only one boy out of wedlock, then died shortly after the war under mysterious circumstances.” It is is precisely this kind of information that explicates or enriches the list; without this kind of data (micro-historical in noting the drunkenness, macro-historical in citing war) the listing function is hollow. Yet the more complex the annotations become, the greater grows the gap between the facts and their lived consequence.
When the speaker of “Mourning” seeks to succor his dying father, his list of proffered comforts includes visualization therapy, meditation techniques, and finally a chant in a language the Korean-speaking father cannot recognize. The son, by his own report, lives a life both cluttered and desolate in (of all places) Fargo, North Dakota, where he consorts with “stunted types of single parents, Edgewood trailer kids, mixed-race mongrels, military brats, Bible refugees, drinker replicas, druggies, vandals, thieves” whose recreational activities range from fighting, drinking and flirting to snorting lines of powered sleeping pills to the inconsistent sounds of “Zeppelin, Marley, N.W.A.” Though “Mourning in Altaic” is a singular prose work, with a section all to itself, its methods and concerns color the whole book: the ill-ease created by superficially contradictory or exclusive elements that are, in fact, the closest the speaker can come to a sense of a synthetic whole.
This commonplace multiplicity—the one that is the many—can be a property of nouns and adjectives both: a polymath, polymorphous. So what I’m just going to call the poly-, is now an assumed condition of what we keep identifying as modern life. Its hallmark is the kite trail of necessary listings which yoke together nominally distinct things: hyphenated nationalities, multiple ethnicities, myriad occupations, mixed martial arts, largenesses that contain multitudes. The spirit of Lee’s poetry hovers in the paradoxical space between markers of identification and actual identity. He makes wry and rightly skeptical use of the noun cluster and the adjective train, but does so in service to something elusive, something more precious. It’s as if he glues together shards of glass to make a bottle only to celebrate what that bottle cannot hold.
One of the ways Lee does this is to attend to where his subjects actually are, not in terms of geography or nation but at the more mundane level of discrete physical space. Many of the poems in Whorled occur in bars, hospitals and casinos, the last of which Lee writes about with dizzying fluency and speed, as in “John Henry Tran (a.k.a The Terminator) vs. The System”, which follows the appalling adventures in ill fortune of a one-handed Viet down and out in an Indian casino:
But in ten minutes flat dude dropped
$1200 on a barbed chain of hits,
until homeboy on third finally says
Yo dawg, ain’t no race;Handless Man’s eyes now glassy—
Down 13 grand,
he explained & shook
his head,peeling five more c-notes
from a silver clip with his good hand’s
Lee frequently returns to scenes like these, perhaps because what casinos, bars and and hospitals have in common is that they at all places that increase the visitor’s odds of seeing the human parade in all its poly- glory. That such places are often depressing sites of confusion, deprivation and bad judgment in both its larval form and as a scarlet-winged butterfly of bloody ruin is no accident; even though any given casino of course exists in a specific place, it more fully represents a sort of superspace. Each casino resembles every other casino far more than it shares an aspect with wherever it is located. Lee, no fan of unchained capital or its imperial master, doesn’t shy away from the cost of global catholicity, but neither is he nostalgic for some pre-lapsarian state. The energy of the poems doesn’t count as an endorsement of the world as is, but it does suggest that there’s life to be extracted from it.
isn’t ready for us, you said,
luxurious, recidivistic; I remember
thinking your dream-yelps
must be your Viet father on fire
But maybe your Hmong mother’s third marriage
equally fixed you for life
TomboyTwo nooses of black braids
all July tempting the entire Metro barGone
Torched one Sunday dawn for the insurance
Every world has its devils
You won’t escape these anymore
than you’ll capture them
Now I see what you meant when you said
we should have another superpower
after invisibility or
Blacks & Indians
in this town billeted inside white guilt
We should have pain-love & longing-anger
like ice cubes in warm beerWe should
have women who don’t destroy their men
as if soldiers trained by their jungle-soaked fathers
We should expect no one
will understand this; press our own
sweet confections from the inverse molds
of these stale dark emotions
no American History book will ever reference
This is grim and despairing, but Lee concludes “The Book of Blackouts” with the promise that the speaker will “finally understand / All this sadness / did not eventually drown / our love— “. There’s something post-Romantic about this—Lee writes frequently and without irony about love and friendship—but it is not indulgent or salvific. Even at his mooniest, Lee is more than a Matthew Arnold, a figure who cannot help but take the cacophony of the world as a personal insult.
If the modern world is a problem, it’s a fascinating one, both despite and because of its crimes, both large and small, and Lee does this truth better than justice. I don’t always enjoy every last element of his verse (I think his language is sharpest when he cuts the comic with the tragic, but when he tries the reverse, the results can be too purple for my taste), but I think he’s deadly accurate when it comes to characterizing the difficulties of committing to a single point of view, even when the self under consideration is one’s own. In one of the poems in Whorled that best showcases how attuned Lee is to temptations and flaws of easy, self-satisfying answers, “The Riddles”, the speaker tells the story of how, when he was six years old in Seoul, “Jimmy Riddle, son of an American / businessman, five-fingered / cash from my mother’s purse / while hiding in our closet.” Over the years, the narrator turns over every possible reason for this literally petty larceny:
There had to be
some other impulse, some reason
a rich white boy playing in a native’s humbler apartment
would pocket cash
then deny, pretend, blame,
and never once cry—
and in struggling to answer that question, Lee considers all the relevant variables: class dynamics, represented by his mother’s exasperated refusal of Riddle Sr.’s cash remedy, an act equally evidential of racist and nationalist norms. He also wonders if simple familial psychology explains Jimmy’s theft. In short, he makes a list, but also explodes each item on it, which is the inexorable result of examining anything at length. Every interpretation marks a location on a map of possibilities, but spend too long at any one marker and you get lost. As both list-maker and collection of listed attributes, Lee finally asks
Or is this all too easy?
Is the blinding dynamo here my own inner rationale—
Not only for Jimmy Riddle,
and his misplaced, dysfunctional family,
but also my own
small spun soul
Tangled there, with his, somewhere
over that cold, inscrutable ocean?
Note that Lee doesn’t answer his own question. Maybe it is all too easy, the formulation of answers, the compression of complex facts into simple lists. Maybe that isn’t too easy at all, and Jimmy (as can be much of the world) can be explained away with a thorough enough catalogue of impersonal factors. But the more likely case is that Lee is right to answer first and ask questions later. Whorled is not a book of clean lines and sharp corners, a book that’s also a box. It spills and erupts and makes a mess, but its lists expand and grow, as living things do. A ledger is an enumeration, but what it enumerates is transactional and thus a record of exchange, intimacy, the trace evidence of the social. Lee sometimes experiences listing as exasperating (how many adjectives, after all, does it take to adequately describe a noun? How many elements of the world must one name before one can simply call it the world?) but he is also aware of how much more beautiful and vital are the many than the one. It’s this truth to which he is inclined. It’s fitting, because while to list does mean to enumerate, it also means to lean towards. List, which comes from the word we once used to describe what it means to love.