Reading Update: Karen An-hwei Lee’s Ardor

Ardor, by Karen An-hwei LeeArdor by Karen An-hwei Lee.

I’ve just received an Advanced Readers Copy from Tupelo Press, and it was very kind for them to send it along. While I am still thinking about what this collection is to “mean,” I wanted to say a few non-definitive things about Ardor here:

I have been revisiting/thinking on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee as I build myself a framework for understanding Lee’s work.

The book length poem project falls under the headings or sections of letter, dream, and prayer, which can be considered three modes of feminine communication. These three modes seem to be in dialogue with one another. Also contributing to what I am calling feminine modes of communication is Lee’s attention to the garden, and to the body. I would say “the body’s mechanics and mechanical parts” as she draws from the section of ophthalmics in Gray’s Anatomy, but “mechanics” is so masculine sounding a term.

(Woolf is self-explanatory I think, in terms of a woman’s space.)

I am thinking about the work’s silences, non-public and subjective modes of communication; I think about Cha’s she learning to speak, working to form her first utterances. The process is very internal, and is as anatomically complicated as it is socially or emotionally complicated. I think of this because it seems Lee’s I/she has made a lush and beautiful home out of these internally uttered prayers, dreams, and letters; that is, I can’t hear Lee’s I/she articulating/aloud, and imagine this poetry as extended internal monologue.

I think about Walker’s women, making art via quilts, hand-sewn clothing, gardens, and meals, as these were, apart from reproduction, the only places women could exercise creation and creativity. These modes of art are both public and intensely personal.

In Ardor, there is a recurrent I or a she who is a blind woman, and this is ironic, given the concern with ophthalmic texts; as well, Lee’s work is so full of such deep and luscious color: terra cottas, walnuts, cabernets, coral violets, blue raspberries, peach colored roses, azalea, and human heart as pomegranate or pomegranate as human heart. But we can also experience the beauty of these intensely, using our other senses. Lee’s work here is described as “sensual,” but I feel like the popular connotations of “sensual” are reductively sexualized. Lee’s poetic speaker/persona does pay very keen attention to the world via all of her available senses, slowly savoring the unraveling of each sense’s experience, even as she is shifting between images/fragrances/ideas in formation. This is how she is able to conceive of (and circumscribe?) the world she inhabits/her space.

In Ardor, I can’t help but notice I have encountered the term kwashiorkor twice, maybe three times. Kwashiorkor is a disfiguring disease of malnutrition, and a term which apparently means “the disease of the displaced child.” I can’t help but think this disfigurement and displacement is significant.

As well, Lee is concerned with flight — the anatomy of flight, the poetry of flight — and this of course, can mean many things.

Finally, here is this, in reference to the state of Lee’s poetic speaker, and perhaps Lee herself in taking on this project and seeing it through to its end (not necessarily resolution, but finite end):

ar·dor (är’dər)

1. Fiery intensity of feeling. See Synonyms at passion.
2. Strong enthusiasm or devotion; zeal: “The dazzling conquest of Mexico gave a new impulse to the ardor of discovery” (William Hickling Prescott).
3. Intense heat or glow, as of fire.

[Middle English ardour, from Old French, from Latin ārdor, from ārdēre, to burn; see as- in Indo-European roots.]

And this:

Ar’ dor, n. [L. ardor, fr. ardere to burn: cf. OF. ardor, ardur, F. ardeur.] [Spelt also ardour.]

1. Heat, in a literal sense; as, the ardor of the sun’s rays.

2. Warmth or heat of passion or affection; eagerness; zeal; as, he pursues study with ardor; the fought with ardor; martial ardor.

3. pl. Bright and effulgent spirits; seraphim. [Thus used by Milton.]

Syn: Fervor; warmth; eagerness. See Fervor.

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