Book Review: “Phyla of Joy” by Karen An-Hwei Lee

by Matt Larrimore

Karen An-Hwei Lee’s third collection of poetry, Phyla of Joy from Tupelo Press, is a highly skilled exhibition of the poet’s prowess. Regardless of length or form, of the poems the artist is able to demonstrate her mastery of language. Though at times the abstract nature of her poetry can challenge a reader, the effort is more than rewarded. With few exceptions, she combines a careful use of sound, a sense of rhythm, rich imagery, and an expertise with form to execute her artistic creations. In each poem and as a whole, the book attempts to demonstrate the connections between interior and exterior worlds, showing their differences and shedding light on the similarities between disparate worlds.

The book’s forty-three poems are broken into three untitled but numbered sections. Each section samples a multitude of forms and imagery. While each has its own characteristics, they could easily function as their own separate chapbook. The poems individually cover varied forms including, free verse, prose, broken prose, and a palindrome form that repeats lines in opposite order to create a crux in the middle and almost two different but related poems. The Palindromes are all very good but Hyacinth Sea Room stands out. Use of sharp imagery, excellent control of line to establish a rhythm, and an interconnectedness of the images in two halves of the poem help it succeed.

The absolute highlight of the book happens in the first poem of the first section and it establishes the theme of examining connections, prevalent in the whole book. In a masterfully short poem that may remind one of William Carlos Williams, Yingri nearly stuns the reader with what it is able to achieve with such little language. Two couplets, one long and one short, compose the entire poem. Any reader should immediately note the difference in length between the two couplets. Lee’s narrator is immediately setting up a visual dichotomy between the subject of the first two lines, the narrator’s interior world, and the world of the second two lines, the exterior world.

In such a small poem, the details are paramount. There is a richness of sound, “b” and “d” are used extensively in the first couplet and “s” and “a” are repeated in the second. The poem opposes the hard-hitting plosives against the ethereal syllabant and vowel sounds, so that even the sounds being used are setting up the dichotomy that the poem points to; as does the imagery. The first two lines have rich natural earthy images at their heart; “a bridge,” “beams of a house,” a small mound beneath a boat in the garden. They all create an inviting verdant scene. This is in opposition to the imagery used in the second couplet. The images are “an acre of snow” and blinding “winter sun.” The cold harsh images almost push the reader away from the narrator. Very skillfully, the poem has set up a relationship of opposites between the inner world of the narrator and the outside winter scene and has highlighted those differences in a palpable way. The effect is that the reader feels the separateness of the narrator from her surroundings in a way that is not common. The disconnection between narrator and her environment can suggest a loneliness as the poem settles over the reader.

While the book continually looks at relationships and connections, not every poem is interested in noting the differences between two worlds. The book contains a number of “Psalms.” Their prayer-like quality is undeniable and the poet’s expertise with form is on display, from prose to free verse, to what can only be described as a matrix of short lines that can be read in multiple ways.

In Psalm III, the narrator shows the reader a series of interrelated images, as opposed to Yingri’s dichotomy. The imagery on display is not as sharp as in other sections of the book, perhaps because the poem starts as a dream. A yellow automobile, a dress, and irregular terrain begin the imagery, through which the idea of an aunt passing away is invoked. Moving toward the middle of the poem the idea of genetic inheritance is brought to play with a very precise word choice. “Double strands of inheritance” and “nucleotides” give that section of the prose poem a brief scientific / medical feel. The poem then turns to a more natural experience of life but is still a bit vague and dreamlike, an “urn of ash,” “a rose,” the full moon, and flower petals. The poem ends with images of angles, satellites, and rayed panels; the connected double meanings of these images is a bit abstract and obscure in this case, but the relationships are apparent and the indication of their interconnectedness is clear, whether real or supposed by the narrator. The poem, as many poems in the book do, leaves the reader feeling that there are no separations in the world, that all things are connected, living or not. This very heady realization comes to the reader in its own time, it is never forced. The reader will appreciate being allowed to come to that realization on his own.

Phyla of Joy is an artful collection of poems that not only exhibits the poet’s skills, but also shows the reader the connections behind and between the worlds that she moves through every day. The reader will appreciate being reminded that those worlds exist and will be thankful to be given the time to reflect on those connections.

Phyla of Joy

by Karen An-hwei Lee

Tupulo Press

ISBN: 978-1-932195-14-9  


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