I’ve noticed a peculiar trend in rhetoric about nature – and especially flowers – in US poetry: Flowers have become an icon of the apolitical, the not-urgent, the insular. Not only does this run counter to the very pressing ecological disaster we find ourselves in, a cataclysm in which flowers play a key role (ask the bees), and (related) where flowers can be read as a history of the Anthropocene and colonialism, but it is also a rejection of something fundamental about poetry: the poetic.
One of the best counter arguments to this kind of rhetoric is Lee Hyemi’s maximalist, eco-queer, ultra-poetic Unexpected Vanilla (Tilted Axis Press), translated by So J. Lee. The poems in this book are bursting with flowers. Flowers that “poured out through a crack in the night” and flowers that “erupt through the body.” The flowers (and trees, fruits etc) perforate the human body, not to kill or harm the body, but as part of a volatile system that involves the human body intricately with the natural (and unnatural) world. The book presents a new vision of the lyric, not as a solitary communication between a poet and their readers, but something involved and involving, transformation, mutation: a queer ecology.
In the poem “Summer, When Loquats Light Up,” two people become intricated with each other – but also with fruits and trees:
Let’s walk with our fingers laced when the loquats arrive. Wet trees permeating between each finger. When we become jumbled branches with all the yellow we have, our touching palms become the world’s ripped interior. A tree begins when you break the berry and wet some other flesh. That’s why people who’ve put their palm lines together travel inside the same dream
Lee’s poems are driven by incredible, montage-like shifts that develop the strange causalities: something about the loquats arriving causes a tree to permeate the fingers of two people walking hand in hand. The poems is driven by a pulsating and volatile ecology of disorienting shifts – (big) trees can suddenly permeate (not so big) fingers.
As a result of this fruitful hand-holding, “our arms start to fall back to our sides” and their skin become “fibrous.” It’s as if they become plants or trees themselves. While this might seem like a recipe for calmness and peace (“back to nature”), the effect is decidedly erotic, resulting in “vibrations” that “[o]pen the jiggling fleshy fruits and listen to the sound of countless white bells clanging against each other.”
It’s not all pleasant sensuality as “the leaves nip the open air with their new front teeth.” While the humans become tree-like, the leaves get “teeth,” i.e. become human-like. It’s hard to even say that some entities are “humans” who “become” like trees; one gets the sense that all these bodies and plants are constantly commingling. There is no clear idea of an origin, but there’s also stasis. Things are constantly changing and exchanging. I think of Michel Serres’s book The Parasite: “parasitism is an elementary relation; it is, in fact, the elements of the relation.” And:
“The relation upsets equilibrium, making it deviate. If some equilibrium exists or ever
existed somewhere, somehow, the introduction of a parasite in the system immediately
provokes a difference, a disequilibrium.”
That is to say, these poems have a kind of parasitical ecology, a “disequilibrium.”
Lee’s poem ends on a brilliant vision:
… When we produce
a single superimposed seed with all the bones we have, we hear
the season we entrusted arriving inside the luminous yellow.
The result of the movement of this strange ecology is surprisingly conventional: a “seed.” That is to say a kind of child. But it’s a very strange “child.” Not only is it a seed, but it has “all the bones we have” superimposed on it, and what is inside the egg-like seed is “the season” itself. The seed should be small, but it encompasses the people – and the season – in its “luminous yellow.”
These strange ecologies result in a surreal sensuality. The book starts with a kind of thesis statement:
There is always an exchange of fluids at the critical moment when a relationship deepens.
Holding the fish jar in which alphabets swim I step into the world of the second person.
Rather than the typical communication ideal, where one person speaks to another, communicating their soul (or some version of that), here, the deepening of the relationship results in an “exchange of fluids” or “the fish jar in which alphabets swim.” That is, speaking is a kind of sexual exchange of fluids, or possible sexuality is a kind of language of fluidity and noise (parasites).
This erotics comes back again and again. In “Cupboard with Strawberry Jam,” Lee writes:
Unni, we must be one person, cunningly divergent. The morning
000000we wore the disheveled green crowns of strawberries and spoke
000000of our first wet dreams under the covers. We laid a chewy seed
000000in every pore, growing recklessly private and gradually tender.
000000In the kingdom for two who sway inside translucent jelly.
Here the alphabet soup in the fishbowl becomes “two who sway inside translucent jelly,” a more erotic (but equally strange) vision of exchange. When they speak about their “first wet dreams under the covers” it’s almost like speaking – exchanging words – is a kind of “wet dream” in itself, a kind of sexual act, that again result in seeds being laid.
As a result of these erotic exchanges, this swaying in jelly, can be said to be a kind of collectivity, a kind of statement of belonging in the volatile ecology.
The US definition of the lyric tends to focus on the individual expressing themselves. For example, Louise Glück recently espoused the lyric as “the solitary human voice, raised in lament or longing” when she accepted the Nobel Prize. Lee’s model of the lyric is very different. In her poems, the speaker doesn’t seem at all solitary, but rather involved in an intricate ecology. The poems are not so much a matter of “voice,” but more like an exchange of fluids. Lee offers us a different vision of how or what poems communicate: not the expression of a stable interiority like a soul, but instead a kind of co-parasitism, a noisy exchange. The people in Unexpected Vanilla “sway” inside jelly, they exchange wet dreams, they lay seeds.
Born in Lund, Sweden, Johannes Göransson now lives in South Bend, Indiana, where he teaches at the University of Notre Dame. He’s the author of eight books, including POETRY AGAINST ALL, The Sugar Book and Transgressive Circulations: Essays on Translation, and the translator of several poets, including Aase Berg, Ann Jäderlund, Helena Boberg and Kim Yideum.