Of Fire and Water: Ed Bok Lee’s Real Karaoke People

Lee, Ed Bok. Real Karaoke People. Moorehead, MN: New Rivers Press, 2005. (96 pages)

Few books wrest new wisdom from old frontiers as well as Ed Bok Lee’s Real Karaoke People, 2005’s New River Press prizewinner. From start to finish, Lee’s poems and prose propel readers through a journey rendered with the agony and delicacy that only a true journeyman can forge. As the narrator sings from “Inside Lake Heron,” men “of [our fathers’] generation were born in flames/so [their] women learned to love through water” (17). In the crux between complementary opposites, the center of the Korean flag where yin and yang meet at the 38th parallel, his poems and prose are born.
       Readers in turn are borne upon lines that “echo blackbird wings shadowing” (16) an “intoxicated archangel”--a homeless war veteran in the poem “frozen in the sky” (23). He chews day-old donuts, which in the narrator’s musing become surprising eucharist, a “curdled body”:

        lament of a dozen gook legs and bellies

        choking the rice paddies
        in Saigon. No Gun Ri.
        Iwo Jima. Bataan.

        Bullet against bone ash,
        butane flame to gangrene,
        tank tracks on the back scarring mountains…(21)

Within seven lines, the narrator collapses decades of US-Asian history into the bullet-fire, bomb-blast rhythm of war. He tunnels through collective memory, depicting the 1945 mass migration of Koreans southward to Seoul through his family’s voyage. In so doing, he yokes the experience of veterans and families in all forgotten wars together in an eloquent elegy.
        Similar eloquence rises from “the man from guangdong,” a prose piece which releases a universal story of friendship between two Chinese restaurant workers. An unnamed grown man continually extorted by “snakeheads” who smuggled him into the US befriends the narrator, a seventeen-year-old Asian American struggling to define home. . “The blue evening winnows into a blood-singed horizon” as the story ends (86). This vivid account humanizes the voice of an illegal alien, striking hard with its simple pathos.
        At the same time, humor reels in lines spanning from ironic to slapstick in “skip ching porn king” and other poems; the range of Lee’s chosen landscapes, conceptual and physical, will take readers around and inside several worlds. At home and homeless in pop-cultured, urban settings and high-cultured, ethereal ones, the narrator gathers on his journey touchstones born of fire and water. Revealing through them landmarks on an intimate, global map, Ed Bok Lee shows us that Real Karaoke People live and travel everywhere.

Mary Chi-Whi Kim lives and teaches in Savannah, Georgia where she recently co-organized the first Savannah Asian American literary event. Her first chapbook of poems, Silken Purse, was published by Pudding House Press; her self-help book, Karma Suture, is forthcoming on Amazon.com. (hannaverse@yahoo.com)

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