Is it Tuesday? Every Tuesday a new poem appears in the box and on the blog.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Poem 15 Ed Bok Lee

Ed Bok Lee's poem "String Theory" appears in his book Whorled (Coffee House Press, 2011).  A person could get awfully caught up worrying if she somewhat understands string theory before writing about a poem with that title, but that would be silly, wouldn't it?  Luckily, after reading String Theory for Dummies online, I did eventually realize I was getting a bit off track. I chose this poem simply because I love it, and I can explain why I love it without explaining string theory.  Thank goodness. 

The poem begins with the speaker's specific memory: "As a boy, I chose a beach ball/ with metal chopsticks/ over food and grownups".  The solitary boy, playing to keep a ball aloft with his chopsticks, purposefully stays within his own world.  This sets a scene for us of isolation and of play, of culture and, in the next line ("What wouldn't float away/despite any mouth") language.  These first lines also introduce the poem's structure.  None of the lines are endstopped, but each new idea is capitalized.  Thus the reader must decide:  does the "what" in line four mean the ball?  wouldn't the word be "that" if its intended as a relative clause? If so, what is it that isn't floating away? The capitalization also helps us begin to see that the ideas follow one another but are not necessarily grammatically connected to each other. 

The next line begins "Some things choose us" (as opposed to the ball the boy chose in line one) and is followed by a list of actions which are striking for their loss and longing, "waking in a best friend's coffin" and "falling asleep in a too-thin language" are just two examples of the speaker's sense of grief at his losses, of a native language, of a friend.  And the list goes on. 

But then at midpoint, the poem shifts.  With the line "Each time I burn the world pure" two things happen.  First, the loss is reconfigured as a way to achieve purity and beauty.  Second, from here on the first person speaker disappears, and the voice begins to echo the Book of Genesis, with the words "Let there be" beginning three lines. In the last lines of the poem, the speaker creates a new world, with a new boy child, who refuses "to obey."  This boy, we are told, "will speak through scissors;" he will cut away to make language (or poetry) by snipping one meaning from a larger fabric.  In the end, "He will fashion a kind of belief/in subtraction's eloquence"  

At the end, this new child, created from the burned pure world, holds out hope for a new religion of loss.  In the world of unsatisfactory language, perhaps it is in the math of subtraction we find beauty and a basis for belief.

String theory. Unified field. Reality changed by who looks at it and from where. The vibrations  of particles like musical notes. Or a boy at play with a ball, in a world separate from the world of his immigrant parents. His life will always be informed by different language, different food, different geographies. By taking control of the loss and becoming the shaper of his world with his scissors, this boy (the same one at the poem's beginning?) can make art from dislocation and loss.  

Um, did I mention Lee won the Minnesota Book Award in poetry for this collection? It's wonderful, challenging, beautiful. Buy it.

String Theory

                                    by Ed Bok Lee

As a boy, I chose a beach ball
with a metal chopstick
over food & grownups
What wouldn’t float away
despite any mouth
Some things choose us
Waking in a best friend’s coffin
Falling asleep in a too-thin language
The slow, inward draw of a lover’s
draining dream
Feathering rain that will never land
Sweet dry leaf sage translucent silver-
fish flee still dispatching oceans
Each time I burn the world pure
When the Lord created the sun
shadows unfastened themselves
Let there be the mature mind
Some things won’t return
Let there be the unquenchable sea
Let there be an infant somewhere, always
in the city night, refusing to obey
He will speak through scissors
He will collect infinitely useless string
He will fashion a kind of belief
in subtraction’s eloquence

To buy Ed's book, go to

For more information about Ed:

a gorgeous video of Ed's poem "If in America"

1 comment:

  1. I love this poem, thanks Cullen for sharing it. I will make sure to share with others!