Poem of the Week | April 14, 2014

This week we’re delighted to offer a new poem by Karen An-hwei Lee. Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo, 2012), Ardor (Tupelo, 2008), and In Medias Res (Sarabande, 2004), winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. A book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora (Cambria, 2013), was selected for the Cambria Sinophone World Series edited by Victor H. Mair. Recipient of an NEA Fellowship, Lee currently serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles.
Author’s note:

An oblique exploration of xenophobia, the irrational fear of strangers, the poem unfolds via internal / external boundaries: fear of “the other within” borders – and the soul as stranger to flesh or vice versa – or environmental waste, albeit human in origin, as uncleanliness or pestilence (“the gutter”) – plus ostracism – ending with a stranger who mispronounces my name in a vexed interdependence of self and other, “carry me.”
As to why schadenfreude appears in a poem about xenophobia, I cannot recall. Might be related to a gift of perfumed soap once x-ray screened at the airport. Security inspectors examined all my belongings to determine the source of a large red rectangle on the x-ray monitor, indicating potentially hazardous biological / organic materials — or milled green tea soap. I’d heard about someone who tried to fly overseas with a box of English plum pudding: density or consistency of a bomb. This was, however, my first personal encounter with an organic no-no.
Finally, I was allowed to carry the gift with me. Why this is (or isn’t) schadenfreude – pleasure in another’s misfortune – and whose in the context of a xenophobic culture — I leave up to the reader.


X Is For Xenophobia


Things I find unsettling —


A brain coral – no, an actual brain, the folds of gray matter
unraveling through a sleeve underwater —


The gutter, a lake of no respect —


Are you a lifer – schadenfreude-laced exchange
at the speed of its antidote, a confession or apology —


A suspicious package at the local airport,
milled palm-oil soap called green tea


Carry me, cries a stranger, mispronouncing my name —