Ed Bok Lee’s Mitochondrial Night

Ed Bok Lee’s third poetry collection, Mitochondrial Night (Coffee House Press, 2019), masterful and bursting with emotive power, gives readers the opportunity to experience the full range of his poetic talents in terms of form, image, emotion, and subject matter. Winner of the American Book Award and the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry, Lee’s poems are both personal and political; they explore history, war, familial relationships, and the speaker’s relationship to an ever-changing environment. In these poems, Lee is very much aware of the past and how it contributes not only to the present moment, but to the future as well. The poems in this collection are inventive and forward-thinking in the sense that each one takes on its own form, its own identity, creating work that is technically-strong, multilayered, and unique. Lee investigates his Korean roots and his relationship to his mother, but also, what it means to raise a young daughter in the current American climate, particularly within the Minnesota area. However, the book has a much larger scope, as it also asks readers to consider what it means to be human in a long history of war, empire, and trauma, what it means to survive, and how both interconnectedness and personal responsibility play a role in shaping human civilization.

A notable strength of Mitochondrial Night is the way in which the speaker uplifts women, particularly his mother, who is an influential figure in “Halfway to a New Home,” and the six-part poem, “Colonizing a Different Sun.” In “Halfway to a New Home,” the speaker recounts his mother’s experiences as a war refugee in North Korea. It begins:

After the coal train emerged from yet another tunnel, hissing
to still for a hundred more war refugees along a blue, snow-crusted road
between Seoul & Busan

your father climbed down & carried your lifeless brother into the woods.

The traumas of war are expressed in the form of long lines that tumble down the page as well as sharp images such as “coal train,” “tunnel,” and “blue, snow-crusted road.” There is also the heavy image of the father who “climbed down and carried your lifeless brother into the woods.” This poem operates through saturation as more images and situations are introduced:

Your little hands still purple
from earlier piggybacking his toddler limbs & feverish moans to the station
as if handcuffed alone in prayer.

Tracks years narrower than the roads from Taiyuan to Sinuiju to Pyeongyang
to Incheon when you were two, then four, then six years old,

yourself first swaddled under stars
by an auntie who later drowned in the Taedong River when the communists
declared victory in the North.

In these lines, the speaker’s mother is introduced with the image “Your little hands still purple,” that represents the physical manifestation of trauma, of spending her earliest years in a war-stricken environment. The word “piggybacking” is an especially poignant word choice. Here, the word is stripped of its playful innocence and infused into the larger tragedy of what her family was forced to endure. There is also strong tension between the lines “yourself first swaddled under stars” and “by an auntie who later drowned in the Taedong River.” The contrasting lines are soothing and horrific as they honor familial connections under severe environmental stress and reflect the violence of war. The words “swaddled” and “drowned” hold weight with their connotative and metaphorical meanings. The poem travels to the present moment in North America, as the speaker drives his mother to what will be her new home and locations such as “a Marathon station midway to Florida,” and “the Great Smokies of Georgia” are encountered along with places that are mentioned on the radio: “…the latest casualties in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, in Bosnia, East Timor, Chechnya, Palestine, the Congo, Guatemala—.” What readers gather from seeing these different locations grouped together is that war is continuous and it happens in other countries. However, the speaker’s mother says, “Don’t fall asleep.” This is both a command and a plea, and it refers to more than just exhaustion during a road trip. It refers to a deeper exhaustion related to the relentlessness of violence. In a sense, the mother is offering crucial advice to her son: “Don’t fall asleep” really means “Don’t lose consciousness.”

In part one of the poem “Colonizing a Different Sun,” the speaker and his mother are engaged in a conversation about emotional, spiritual, and political consciousness, language, war, and ideology. The central moment of the poem involves the concept of translation and interpretation. The mother says, “You know, I was reading of an American soldier, a Puerto Rican, who defected to Russia in the sixties, where he still lives with his family and enjoys fishing and painting outside Moscow.” She wants to recount the soldier’s testimony. In parenthesis, the speaker explains to readers: “(I translate her words from the man’s Spanish-accented, broken Russian as aired on the Seoul-based news show’s translation into Korean what she’d watched).” As challenging as this translation might seem, the speaker gives a wonderful interpretation:

Everything we say is a series of inverse sonic waves.
Yet people forget collectively their voice is stronger than an atomic bomb.
If everyone shouted their demands at the same time, the world could
electromagnetically change.
If everyone in just one country whispered all at once it could clean and transform
the ethical landscape.
When you make art and songs and poetry you change your own and others’ atoms.
Yet so few people think they really can.
The outward manifestation of this collective frustration and friction then
becomes the making of more and more bombs.
All so one day we can all be brought to our knees, our skin peeling off, our souls
like earthworms after a long rain…

This passage raises important questions: What does it mean to have a voice? More specifically, how is voice expressed? Here, voice is expressed through “whispers,” through “art and songs and poetry.” Voice is collective. Not only can it change the world, it can change “others’ atoms.”

In “Babygirl Learns to Take a Trip around Venus,” the speaker addresses his daughter. Her experience of life, which is still new and emerging, is put in conversation with the complex dynamics of the surrounding environment, along with the region’s complicated relationship to colonialism, imperialism, and empire. The speaker says

Take these violets we stroll past each day along the sidewalk, leaves
scalloped, sepals half-concealed like they know what is coming.
See how our Babygirl greets each face-to-face, nose bobbing, tongue
tip hovering over the anthers like a bee. She doesn’t care
this diminutive flower contains hydrocarbonic terpenes to temporarily
desensitize her olfactory receptors. Does not know
one spring not a mile away, as violets bloomed, a Hmong family of four
from Frogtown
bought the house behind my landlord’s, and the next week I overheard
two white neighbors mumbling: like dandelions more would come
because you know how the Hmong breed like weeds.
Not a word of the apartment complex down the way,
mostly black, that nearby gear-supply factory’s history. Or
the boarding house a block south, its men
with secret shifts surrounding all the taquerias up and down Lake Street.
Or the Little Earth Native American housing projects four blocks north of
the Pioneer and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery.
And nothing of the Scandinavians and other Europeans—all the mice,
hemlock, and smallpox stowed away on their ships.

Like many of Lee’s poems, this one operates through saturation, and in this case, the saturation of history: what it means live in a country that is made up of diverse communities and how those communities are often oppressed, regarded as a nuisance, or not seen at all. More significantly, these communities are not acknowledged in terms of their connection to a history of inequality and how that history stretches back to the very beginning of the colonization of North America. However, the speaker explains: “All Babygirl understands is violets / taste like vanilla and wintergreen. And if she holds my hand we can cross / the street to visit the empty seedpods, wild plantain, and clover.” Babygirl functions as a psychic cleanser. She loves a variety of earthy substances: “violets,” “vanilla,” “wintergreen,” “seedpods,” “wild plantain,” and “clover.” Babygirl is unaware of the larger historical implications behind her loves, especially regarding the violet. The speaker continues:

Take the African violets on our porch—aka Saintpaulias
after Baron Walter von Saint Paul, a middling colonial
administrator who in 1892 discovered the flowering blue wild on a rocky ledge
in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania, therein initiating their mass
cultivation to the West.
Maybe all flowers have an imperializing function.
If not to cover up the stench, to beautify all the graves.
Part Korean, Irish, Ukrainian, French, German, and Jew,
O Babygirl, I want to believe your future is an open field of glorious weeds
and wildflowers…

This poem gets at the root of what Mitochondrial Night is about: interconnectedness. It happens under horrifying, traumatic circumstances, like war and empire. It happens through political and cultural turmoil. It happens through language, through the meanings of words. It happens through history. But it also happens under the most beautiful circumstances. It happens through nature, through relationships. In this poem, it happens between a father and his young daughter “only two years old, with not fifteen world-soaked words.” And it happens in a future the speaker imagines for his daughter when he says:

…far in your future,
all will recognize a human being when they encounter one.
And if they don’t—
as with violets, red maples, stinging nettles, even Jupiter’s loneliest moon—
you’ll still know what to do.

Another noteworthy poem of the collection is “Playhouse” where the speaker builds a small sanctuary for his daughter that is “primitive and futuristic: / part wood, grass, plastic / castle, spaceship, cocoon, and cathedral / of double helixes, left unlocked / in this shade-dappled corner of the universe / amid peach and oak, / heaven and earth…” The same can be said for Mitochondrial Night which is its own kind of sanctuary. It recounts trauma, honors the beauty of life and nature, and serves as a safe space where healing can occur. This collection is incredibly expansive and could benefit from multiple readings and critical analyses. Lee’s work is intuitively strong; the poems are well-crafted into a series of masterpieces that build on each other, creating a larger master work that reveals a world made up of individuals who endure, survive, and connect. But it’s also a world where the speaker empowers himself as a son, as a father, and as a witness to the contemporary moment, allows himself to be immersed in love and vulnerability, and writes the poetry of a passionately engaged human being.

August 26, 2019