What if the apocalypse brought you to an eco-paradise wonderland? What if in this world, the flowers bloomed for themselves? Nature’s self-care, a gift. What if your one true love lived in this land and this love was at its best when you become absence?
Enter the epistolic atopia of Ae Hee Lee’s Dear bear, where nature conquers human and human’s greatest construct—language—unfurls.
In the beginning, there was a flood... Before this beginning, we were content with swimming in pool waters... [Then] I shed my skin like a sea snake, dipped my face into the waters, pulsing. I looked hard and tender into the ebbing black and met you, my swan song, swimming up, slithering / into my ears,
The speaker’s letters to her lover never end, but trail. With each ending comma, the letter pauses and continues into boundless habitation just as the speaker’s new nature blends into her surroundings: skinless, pulsing, but not clearly designated. Bear, however, is clear, distinct, natural.
To read Dear bear, and to take on the voice of the narrator, one immediately embodies Alice in her rabbit hole, not quite falling but crawling vertically into her heart’s desire. Throughout the book, Lee invokes, as she acknowledges in interviews, the work of Marosa di Giorgio, a creator of her own dark but exhilarating wonderland. Both Lee and di Giorgio explore the self through a spiritually creepy rendering of the beauty and horror of nature. “Look:” Lee’s speaker says, “I have adorned my skin with a red camellia dress made from silk cocoons, harvested in prenatal limbo” (13). Di Giorgio’s speaker in The March Hare says, “Mama’s wings are brown, silk; mine, violet; when they spread open, layers of gauze unfold. We follow the wall; our thin antennae grazing branches… .” In each scene, both Lee’s and di Giorgio’s speakers become indecipherable from the magic of the natural world as they search and unbecome. This conflict between being and absence—absence read here as an uninhabitable utopia—is perhaps the most compelling thread of Dear bear,.
…I was thinking of always being inside of you, safe and cozy in the warm nest of your stomach. I was thinking of myself only. But you were afraid for me, of me wandering in the black of your belly, fighting the soft fleshy walls draping my eyes.
The speaker wants to physically enter bear, to be enveloped, but to do so would erase the relationship of the speaker and bear. By entering bear and becoming one with bear, the speaker makes bear single. In this endeavor, the speaker traverses the contradictory landscape of passion common in both religious thought and modern ideals of romantic love: to exalt the lover by either making oneself small to the point of absence as is often the case in religious devotion to a god or by joining in union with the lover so that there is no longer a Self and an Other but a new unit, the Couple, as in romantic love. The narrator wants to erase herself, to be love itself, but with this erasure there is no experience thereof. She becomes utopia and thereby is unable to enter it.
To understand the conflict in Lee’s speaker’s desire for absence, I think back to Anne Carson’s essay “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God.” In the essay, Carson explores how these three women aspire to absence as an act of devotion and love, but how writing about absence is a contradiction:
When Sappho tells us that she is “all but dead,” when Marguerite Porete tells us she wants to become an “annihilated soul,” when Simone Weil tells us that “we participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves,” how are we to square these dark ideas with the brilliant self-assertiveness of the writerly project shared by all three of them, the project of telling the world the truth about God, love and reality? The answer is we can’t. (Carson)
The speaker of Dear bear, is separate, independent, talking and not just talking but writing, the epitome of human civilization. But throughout Dear bear, a war rages in the speaker’s desire, a desire blurred with the world she inhabits. She wants to disappear into the wild that has taken her world, a world once filled with swimming pools and now made up of the “sea mingled with lakes.” She wants to unify with bear, annihilate herself so she can be in union with bear, and thereby nature: “Let us try and try until you swallow me whole, shatter me bone dust, lead me to your wet marrow, marry us into a single flesh...” However, she also wants to maintain herself. She is not natural. She is civilized. The speaker wants to “decreate” herself as a means of “participat[ing] in the creation of the world” around her just as Carson above says Weil wanted, but in writing her desire she cements herself into the fabric of the forest of Dear bear,. This struggle is most clearly articulated here:
This is how my disappearance would go: my limbs would leave me first, camouflage themselves into branches, my hair would dissolve into greenery next, mime the leaves, breathe in unison. And my face–my eyes would be the last to go, follow the night into a burrow, disintegrate into moist humus. I want to escape this because the mirror tells me the self exists, and selflessness is terrifying. I pluck the leaves from my potted basil plant, feed on them, savor the fiber stretching between my teeth. I do it to feel wild. But I realize I’m simply driving myself wild / with longing,
The reader has a similar experience to the narrator while reading Dear bear,. She finds herself slipping into this world so intricately designed by Lee while simultaneously standing outside of it and watching in terror or in admiration. It is difficult to know which.
Alethea Tusher has work published in Entropy, Pulpmouth, SPF Lit Mag, The Gravity of the Thing, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Minneapolis with her dogs Appa and Artemis.