Rose is a Verb: Neo-Georgics by Karen An-hwei Lee. Seattle, WA: Slant Books, 2021. Paperback. $16.00.
In her recent collection Rose is a Verb, Karen An-hwei Lee gives readers a new vocabulary for coming to terms with everyday miracles, challenging and rewarding those who are willing to brave her incredibly dense poetry with a richness beyond the usual fare offered by poets of observed nature. This is a chewy, complicated, multilayered book; its formidable powers of reference and quotation tie it not only to the epic by Virgil mentioned in the subtitle, but also to twentieth-century poets like T.S. Eliot; her poetics also stretches the Joycean concern with the allusive powers of words to a consideration of the layers of meaning inherent in everyday objects.
Karen An-hwei Lee announces the focus of her new poetry collection with an epigram from the Oxford Classical Dictionary, in reference to Virgil’s Georgics: “The central concern is rather the place in the world of human beings and the possibilities of happiness.” Many of the poems feature comments from “the sage” and “the stranger,” two pseudo-characters who stand, respectively, for an analytical, rationalistic view of the world, and a rather uncertain, agnostic understanding of it. Lee does not seem to put her lot in with either; instead, she revels in the meaning of objects-as-they-are, finding joy and happiness in the tiniest fragments of the world around her. For her this world is not a vale of tears; it is a gift, a rich treasure to be enjoyed and studied.
Lee’s collection of densely layered free verse updates Virgil’s central concerns; her perspective is both broader and more encompassing, and deeper in substance, than the Roman poet. Like Virgil, she notices the natural world as modified by human hands and the people who are part of it. But Lee goes further by bringing a sense of the transcendent to her observations. Her understanding of nature is that it is the locus of the outworking of God’s artistry; throughout all her meditations on the meanings of flowers, trees, garden plants, and the food that comes from them, there is a sense of the world’s enchantment, a deeply-ingrained sympathy with the miraculous. Lee sees the entire world as a stage for the performance of miracles—and not just the kind that she defines as “miracles of origin, degree, or sequence (13).” For Lee, existence itself is a miracle, as are the many ways our existence interacts with the natural world, in raw or mediated form. As Jeff Mangum once sang, “How strange it is to be anything at all.” This superabundant strangeness of given existence is where Lee’s poetry lives.
In Virgil, bees are a stand-in for human society, with their hierarchy, their sense of duty and purpose, and their diligent, productive toil at rewarding tasks. Bees are present in Rose is a Verb as well, although not as prominently as in Virgil. Lee sees them as part of a world full of transcendence and miraculous being; the products of the beehive feature as much as the insects themselves, as part of a fecund, abundantly plentiful nature of which human society is a fully integrated part. This might strike some readers as strange—how can such things as jet airplanes be an integrated part of the natural world? The key is to remember that humans themselves are part of nature, and are tied to it in more ways than we sometimes acknowledge. This has serious implications for Lee’s stated aim of exploring “the possibilities of happiness”—how closely should people be involved with the daily workings of nature, of the agrarian life, of trees and flowers and vegetables and bugs? Is it safe to hide away in cites, not knowing, in an experiential, visceral sense, where our material goods come from?
Lee sees hidden connections, but also hidden fault lines. There is a vein of sadness running through Lee’s poetry—an acknowledgement that the world contains serious structural problems which sometimes threaten to render the whole project of human happiness an unattainable ideal. Throughout the book, there are flashes of this brokenness displayed, such as the instance of cold aloofness narrated in “Sought on a Flight of Happiness” (20). This collection masterfully captures the simultaneous beauty and brokenness of the world; throughout, Lee acknowledges the giftedness and glory of creation, while also admitting the serious problems surrounding her. She acknowledges to God that some of these things don’t make sense: “I tell God about the emerald-green lungs of the world, dying…I tell God, who knows. All. (113)” This awareness that God knows all is comforting, and necessarily humbling; it is the height of hubris to think that we humans can fix, on our own, the problems we see around us. We need a transcendent solution to transcendent problems—perhaps, even, a miraculous solution?
What, then, is our duty? In a world of broken miracles, of colony collapse disorder, of climate change, of fire blight, what should we do? Should we stand back and watch it burn? It is difficult for Lee to answer that. Her heightened awareness of her surroundings can simultaneously be a blessing and a curse; she is able to notice the connections between things and celebrate their significances, but her stance as an observer sometimes means she forgets to participate in the events which occur nearby. In “Tapenade Bathed in Ore-Fruited Blood (62)” she describes a feeling of regret after not offering assistance to a fellow airplane passenger who was having a medical emergency. Does the life and vocation of the poet render poets unable to properly participate in the world they see?
Throughout the collection, Lee’s concern with the precise use of words is paramount. This is manifest in her near-constant mentioning of culinary terms like “Onion Ribollita” (24), her frequent use of technical terms such as “chatoyancy (94)” or “pneumatophore (22)”, her preoccupation with the definitions of words—“Did you say prey as in predator or pray as in prayer warrior?” (113)?—and even the title of the collection itself. The title phrase is repeated many times throughout the collection, discussed, analyzed, and modulated; it becomes a stand-in for the collection’s fundamental metaphysical tension, that between the material world and the spiritual—between “rose” as a noun, signifying the world as given and perceived, as a mere materiality, with nothing transcendent about it; and “rose” as a verb, an action, a miraculous action—the rising of Christ from the grave being the foremost among a legion of metaphorical and actual “risings” (of jet airplanes, of bumblebees) which are miracles in either a literal sense of figuratively. That the flight of bumblebees or airplanes can be described by the laws of ordinary physics is immaterial. These occurrences are still amazing, and to be celebrated.
Do the miracles of the world enrich our lives, or are we too distracted to even notice them? When Virgil wrote his Georgics, the agrarian world of farm and forest was the only world—but we moderns have the choice of insulating ourselves from the source of our food and clothing, from the plants and animals that furnish the raw material of our lived experience. How many of us have ever milked a cow, picked olives from the tree, or spun wool into thread? I know I haven’t. But Lee’s interest is in reconnecting us to the world of everyday miracles and showing us just how much of a gift reality really is. Just because we take the world for granted doesn’t mean it ceases to be amazing; and the world will wait for us to notice it again when we are ready to do so. Lee’s collection of poems helps us prepare for that noticing, acting as a guide to what she has noticed before.
William Collen is an art researcher and writer. He publishes reviews and theoretical essays on aesthetic criticism and art history at his personal blog, ruins.com; his writings have also been featured at Agape Review (where he is the staff film critic) and Artway. He lives with his family in Omaha, Nebraska.