Sun. Feb 23rd, 2020

“Whatever, Whenever You Are”: On Ed Bok Lee’s “Mitochondrial Night”

“WHAT ARE YOU?” asks the homepage of AncestryDNA. Hand over your genome, and they will be able to tell you. Contribute to the database of a private firm which is attempting to racially enumerate the human population, and in return they will give you a pie chart.
The DNA test service, or the emphasis placed on DNA as an omniscient dataset, has offered interesting opportunities for writers and artists to explore the question of belonging. Bernardine Evaristo deploys one in her novel Girl, Woman, Other (winner of the 2019 Booker Prize) in order to subvert a character’s ideas about her own racial identity. In her memoir Shame on Me, Tessa McWatt avails herself of 23andMe and Ancestry.com, but is worried that her data might cause power outages in the labs (containing, as it does, Portuguese, French, Arawak, Indian, Chinese, Scottish, and African DNA). Later she finds that the test results do little to explain the historical currents which brought her ancestors together (in her case, the transatlantic sugar trade). The artist Lizzo critiques the service bluntly: “I just took a DNA test,” she sings in “Truth Hurts”: “turns out I’m 100 percent that bitch.” Genetic makeup by geography is insufficient, as what constitutes a self is so much more. A pie chart cannot account for the displacement of bodies from their origins, through war, migration, or invasion.
Ed Bok Lee, in his third collection, Mitochondrial Night, has chosen to frame his investigation of these issues with mitochondria, the “energy-producing organelles in our cells, inherited exclusively from one’s mother / maternal line ad infinitum.” What information, he asks, could these organelles be passing on to us, garnered from our mothers going back and back forever? How to honor the “raped / multiple bodies still cowering / in your DNA”? How might it affect me, or you, if our grandparents fled war or famine, or had their passports invalidated overnight? Is the terror of statelessness a genetically inheritable trait? Lee takes a scientific departure point (the accrual of matrilineal DNA) and provocatively combines it with trauma theory (the discipline which posits that trauma can be passed from one generation to the next) in an attempt to answer these questions.
The trauma in question arises from Lee being the son of two or more Koreas. His mother is a refugee from North Korea and his father was raised in the South under the Japanese colonial rule (which lasted from 1910 to 1945). But these are just two incarnations of the peninsula: Lee recounts his mother’s slippage of place names, from Korea, North or South, past Corea, to Chosun, forcing “a hiccup in my mother’s recollection” (“Metamorphosis”). (Changing borders and place names are another thing that DNA tests cannot account for.) All of this, Lee posits, is packed into the little pill-shaped mitochondria, “moth-white, fuzzy, brightened blurs” that drift through our cells, “like popcorn blinking lively in the sky.” “You gathering of random floating cells with style,” the collection begins:
You — all of you — dying trillions of times every hour
to recommence each new forever inside these eyes. Look.
Look at me seeing you seeing me from the beginning of the universe and time.
Never forget: wherever, whenever you are, is the history of all you loved in the dark.
It is an incantation which could just as well be addressed to a nation as to a person — random, regenerative entities as they both are. “Look at me seeing you seeing me” carries the echo of John Donne’s “The Good-Morrow” (“My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears…”). Lee does not share Donne’s imperial imagery when it comes to love and sex, but he is interested in the geopolitical implications of loving. In “Ode to the poems of any small nation,” he imagines his 14th great-grandfather courting the “beautiful third daughter of the village miller” with a poem from the Koryŏ (early Middle Ages) dynasty: “In less than two years, they will run off together. / […] Two of their children and several grandchildren / Will die over six decades in four wars.” In “Mitochondrial Evening,” “One / woman inside me,” another great-grandmother, “whispers / to her lover on a straw mat / […] breaths / like fragrant soup, they kiss / then oversleep.” For Lee, they lie there still, soup-breath intact inside him, dreaming of a better country. His poems carry them with monumental gentleness, and they are bound up afresh in each new body. In “Ultrasound,” the
transducer’s
sonic resonances
on the screen not unlike
a photograph of my unborn
father’s newlywed parents
decades before the war.
In a black suit and silk hanbok,
light pink or perhaps pale blue,
their adolescent faces float,
grainy as all unresolved fates.
This is beautifully deft. Here the 10-week scan of a daughter (her gender still unknown) tumbles across the monitor, “An aftereffect / of loose-knit light,” and in her, fleetingly, an infinity effect of the as yet unconceived and the already long gone. Father, daughter, fresh-faced grandparents: they are together, all at once, and the jellied probe sounds them all out in the deep.
Where the parameters of Korea have shifted, the Korean language has remained constant. To quote Czesław Miłosz, “language is the only homeland” (Lee did quote precisely this, in conversation with Columbia Journal in 2019). Of course, the Japanese banned it. In this context, Korean poetry carries a particular charge here: at the dawn of the century, Lee’s great-grandfather is using medieval verses to get the girl. Later, Lee’s father mentions how his mild-mannered teacher was beheaded in a corn field for “reciting a classic Korean poem after lunch on a grassy hill” (“Colonizing a Different Sun”). He was reported to the Japanese headmaster by one of his students. Both moments are notable for involving classical poems which — and this is key — have been memorized. Metabolized into the body and passed on, these poems are part of a lineage of national literature, crystallized instances of a language which survives the erasure of its nation. Like mitochondria, they are potent inherited information which accrue in other bodies.
By contrast, Lee is writing in English, in the United States, under Trump. At the same time, he is becoming father to a daughter, known throughout the collection as “Babygirl.” “I didn’t understand that she was already openly translating,” he writes as she cries in a mid-November night of 2016. Her primal wail surpasses his “wrestling with a poem” as a purer articulation of “our deeply lodged insanity.” At an anti-Trump protest, in “Pink Lady’s Antenna Receives the Future,” Babygirl sticks out her tongue, “skyward like a stamen,” to receive the charge of civilians expressing their discontent. For now, at least, this is a place where they can take to the streets and openly resist a harmful regime. Lee thinks of South Korea under dictator Park Chung-hee, how he “beat poets / like drums.”
In “Ultraviolet Shaman,” Lee returns to Seoul (“to renovate my heart with a million / precolonial kidak strokes and pulsating googoongs”), where he learns the art of seoljanggu drumming. “We’re drumming,” his teacher tells him, “Not for repentance / or supplication or sublime escape / or even meditation,” but “in the tradition of shamans,”
so the ancestors won’t be so lonely.
Because the spirits need us
more than we need them.
And for hours
they’ll listen to anyone.
It is a sentiment which could be used to explain the whole collection. Of course, Lee isn’t just anyone. His poems have a reverential force, winningly combined with a certain cool-kid panache. At times he folds in moments of a different register, with mixed results. Here is “Halos,” where eye surgery leaves the speaker’s vision temporarily blurred:
I like that any nearing face
is surely smiling, gorgeous;
each blurry body’s aura numinous:
style of no style, racially
ambiguous, a glob, pure
spectral incohesion. Aren’t we all
just masses of energy and light
approaching or leaving
one another in the jumbled
future or past; sometimes stop-
ping to embrace
for a moment or decades,
before passing
way too far for sight?
“Style of no style” is a reference to actor Bruce Lee (or Lee Jun-fan), credited with the phrase in response to a question about his fighting style: “I do not believe in styles anymore[.] […] Because of styles, people are separated.” The martial arts discipline he went on to establish, widely acknowledged as the precursor to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), did indeed combine elements from many different traditions. The phrase also appears earlier in (Ed Bok) Lee’s work — “Ode to Bruce Lee,” from his collection Whorled. In it, poet thanks actor “[f]or knowing who you were when everyone else was just too damn slow”: “boxing and cha cha champion, / Style of no style. Teacher, waiter, philosopher, dragon.” In this poem as in life, Bruce Lee is a man containing multitudes, an icon for Asian-American boys growing up with 2D racist stereotypes of Asian emasculation.
Meanwhile, “Super-Insensitive Species” sees the poet examining the racist tone of a Scientific American article about Asian carp with the irreverent joviality of a Shel Silverstein poem (“Melting pot, O.K. But not my fish head, / Not my GPA”). This may provide a comic interlude from his more poignant work, but another poem to this effect, “Can” (detailing the travels and travails of an empty soda can) is a tonal judder in what is otherwise a beautifully executed arc. Nevertheless, this is an agile collection; it manages a delicate task with grace and good humor and offers a partial treatise on the sheer knottiness of belonging in a world where borders are always failing, moving, or threatening to return.
¤
Stephanie Sy-Quia is a freelance critic and writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in The FT Weekend Magazine, The Spectator, Monocle, The i, and others.
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