Winner of the 2021 Frost Place Chapbook Competition and out from Bull City Press, Ae He Lee’s Connotary opens with a curious epigraph quoting Alberto Ríos, “Words are our weakest hold on the world.” Lee’s use of Ríos’ words invites a reader to engage with this statement and consider if the poems will read towards or against this adage. Quickly, the pieces reveal that words can bring us into moments in which we hold others closest.
Several of these moments involve the character Alejandra. “El Milargo :: Edges” sees her and the speaker sitting beside one another eating slices of pineapple. Alejandra is sharing the fruit from a place of knowledge. By poem’s end, she is the one able to eat “until her hands are empty” while the speaker confesses “I don’t. It’s hard / and not so sweet.” Throughout the experience, the speaker wonders how much she can share the same space as Alejandra. This is an extension of the threads of leaving and arriving woven throughout the collection. In this poem, a reader ponders as the lines appear how present the speaker can be. She notes early on of Alejandra, “She smiles, her face casting / an umbra, in which I am / a visitor.” Still, it is the physicality of the moment that counters any doubt:
We: a brief intersection
of elbows, a small choir of helpless slurps-
our mouths flooding and the juice
dripping freely, dribbling down
the length of our tanned fingers,
down to dot
If someone were to look at the sand below, they would see a co-written stain of pineapple juice and it would be hard to decipher whose slurping contributed which drops. Perhaps that is the point. Alejandra and the speaker are closer than they realize. Both can be equally present in shared space. Plus, there is a sense of harmony between their arms during this time.
Point of contact with Alejandra by way of the arms comes again in the poem “Trujillo:: Homecoming.” The speaker is returning to Peru and is at first unsure about what to do during the greeting. Something once familiar, such as which way to turn their heads as they kiss one another on the cheek, is now a moment of doubt. It establishes the stakes for the poem. Perhaps they have something in their life they want to be familiar with once again. Alejandra assures her that it is okay and the two share an embrace, “I unfurl deeper into green, / under the embrace of lush, / unfamiliar arms.” Yes, there is a sadness in this line that Alejandra’s arms are unfamiliar in this moment, but there is hope that what was once familiar can be so again.
Even when the speaker is not holding someone, the poem can still hold a character close in the reader’s view. The second poem in the collection, “Kimchi:: In Trujillo” works as a portrait of the speaker’s mother cooking a beloved Korean dish while the family is living in Peru. In particular, the poem brings to life the movement, once again through focusing the attention on arms, of the mother, “It occurs to me that my mother’s arm is an orbiting moon, unable to escape / the gravity of a planet much larger than itself.” These lines invite careful consideration of her mother’s obligation to cook. Is it something she is tethered to and can never escape from?
Perhaps, but that does not negate the care and intention that the mother brings to the task, “My mother’s measuring tool: her intuition, her philosophy / that fixation with perfection deters one from pouring jeong / into the food.” Jeong signifies a group of positive emotions connected as being within and apart of all aspects of Korean life. From her mother and through cooking the speaker learns that whatever a person does, it can be enriched through the emotions they bring to it. Lee’s collection attest to this as well.
Considering the close attention Lee does throughout the collection, it is worth noting that it is done not under some pseudo, feel good mantra of “every moment can be wonderful if we try hard enough.” Rather, her words are curated so as to be present in the times that mean most to her. This move should come as no surprise to a reader considering that the first poem “Hyu :: In-Between” recalls a grandmotherly lesson:
red like the beads of jujube fruits
our grandmother used to dry
out in the yard, so they would amass all
the sweetness of the world in their little bodies.
She taught me nothing is wasted
in waiting, and to be grateful for the sun,
which won’t ever hurry.
Much to a reader’s delight, Lee does not hurry either. It is a choice that comes to define the collection as she slows things down, sometimes to even notice on the nearly microscopic level. In “Bongsung-A :: Impatient Balsam” the speaker shares during a cold moment on the shore of Lake Michigan, “My cuticles flake under the gloves- / my nails thirst.” This rubbing of skin on fabric is hidden from view in this moment but that does not mean there cannot be a space to be present in it. In fact, the poem ends by reflecting on the rewards of not hurrying through a passing moment, “I remain a stranger to many myths, but not this.” By choosing to be present in their embodied experience, a person can become endeared to the world around them. Later in “Mogyoktang :: Inside,” the speaker recalls a moment of transcendence in a bathhouse, “ I pulse / and curve, feel lightheaded in the / warm water, or the beauty of something so ordinary / like the body.” Once more, pausing to notice the body offers connection.
A poem that brings together noticing on this level with a moment shared together is “Bougainvillea :: Papelillos.” The speaker is once more with Alejandra and wondering about a gap in time in between being somewhere, “I don’t ask out loud / whether a single dust particle has remained / in place since I left Trujillo years ago.” It is incredibly striking to mark the passing of time this way and to consider if measuring our lives in dust might be the most accurate system. We can remain connect to the things in our lives that transform and change with the passing of time. They may present in a new form but the bond is only strengthened. With Alejandra, the speaker stands gazing upon a bougainvillea bush in front of a neighborhood home:
We don’t stand too close;
we don’t interrupt the rustle of paper chalices
above our heads. We wait, under the latticed shade, stay
still to understand what it means to sway.
This image is so moving, in that it means to sway is something that could only be discovered together by the two of them. Yes, there may be doubt about what dust remains but there is still something new unfolding for them to share.
Thinking once more about the opening epigraph, it could be conceded to Lee that these words do all that they can to hold these moments, even if that hold is fleeting. What does remain are spaces of poignancy for a reader to be tenderly enveloped in emotions, sensations, and perhaps even inspiration about how they can now see their world.
Nicholas Howard is a writer living in Southeastern Massachusetts. He is an English Teacher who aims to say, “Could you kindly please” at least twenty-five times a day. His work has appeared in The Citron Review, Wild Roof Journal, and The Normal School. When not reading or writing, he can usually be found tuning into a baseball game, working in his garden, or walking the beach. A good day involves all three. He dabbles in the art of Twitter @Nick1845Howard