Ed Bok Lee

Super Insensitive Species

“Asian carp [introduced to control weeds and parasites] have been crowding out native fish, compromising water quality and killing off sensitive species.”

                    —from “Invasion USA: Asian Carp Invaders Have Taken the Mississippi,
                    Are the Great Lakes Next?” in the Scientific American, July 5, 2013

The Asian Carp are on their way!
Thrumming waters, thrashing over dams mid-air.
You American engineers who released us

Into your streams and lakes, how could you forget
The Chinese Exclusion Act? Half a million
Top-knots wishing not only to dig and blast, but breed?

I am young and shiny in Prada at the mall.
I am hunched at the bus stop, grease-stained, smoky
Lungs full of sad erhu songs. Wok and Rolling

Through your suburbs sardine-like in a Honda.
Down Wall Street on a ninja crotch rocket at 4 a.m,
Paddle tennis rackets in my Gucci bag clattering.

A Bel Air clinic designed to disguise
How to re-envision this land of opportunity with even wider eyes.
Koreatown Peaceful Cloud on Snake Mountain tattoos.

Myriad in late-night cram
Schools of swishing bubbles like slitty
Mermaids at your sailors’ hulls.

Eating my own kind, even my own tail, to survive.
Feel our silvery fins sting through sludge and slime.
California and New York long teeming with our disease.

Milwaukee and Chicago, how will your golden shores survive
Such frantic froth? From Olympia to Providence,
It’s a new day, our 40-horsepower jaws so snappingly say,

So bend over and drop your pants.
Because the Asian Carp are on their way!
Polishing your platinum ingots, boardroom doorknobs, and bylaws.

Maybe not yet the Whitest House, but fast
Scaling ourselves clean on the jagged edges
Of glass ceilings. Bottom-dwelling

In deepest cyberspace. Chomping up bargain real estate.
How can the other fish possibly compete with no duck blood,
Biriyani, pad thai, or kalbi stuck between their grinning teeth?

Melting pot, okay. But not my fish head,
Not my G.P.A. Not my child’s yellow
Lamborghini-shaped, Harvard-bound birthday cake. Reverse Racism?

Affirmative Action? Quota? What you say?
No no. We don’t play that way.
Art of War jungle tunnels

Through your mind is our game.
And it’s too late for you to learn
How to play. Because the Asian Carp

Are on their way—Dastars flapping, shoguns blazing
Chopsticks and perfect SAT scores like rain.
Ancient saw-toothed

Devils shimmying up onto land
To squirm, crawl, stutter, walk about, and one day say:
Yo, where did all the Black

Elks, Standing Bears, and Pocahontases go?
Who rode off with all their horses, confiscating their guns?
Who over-forested then pumped green muck into rivers thinning the salmon?

Whose sugar and cotton plantations enslaved?
Who converted whose heathen souls to fill whose churches and factories?
Who profited? Who outsourced?

Who invented Internment, the H1B visa, and the KKK?
Who bombed whose families’ flesh and bones in Hiroshima, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq
Back to the “Stone Age”?

Yes, the Asian Carp are on their way
And life as is known can’t help but change.
But, really, if we must fish

For euphemisms—Who
Brought whose eggs and minnows
Here to invade whose waters, land, and

Purity in the first place?

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Ultraviolet Shaman

A ritual must be passed through with the whole body, not glimpsed through a door.
—Jane Hirshfield

Stop, says Seonsengnim, my drum
teacher in Seoul, tapping my wrist
with his yeolchae stick, not hard
as when I was a boy in Mapo
and my taekwondo instructor bruised
with nunchucks my supinate palms
for fighting at school.
                                        Remember, this drum
is a horse you’re galloping…Now, loosen up, and start again.

Seonsengnim is white-haired,
formerly homeless, until a troupe
of much younger drummers found him
in his fifty-eighth year sleeping in a park
and taught him seoljanggu—its ancient
cadences for thirty centuries, which now
he teaches beginners for a pittance. I observe
he crashes in this, their jerry-rigged
drumming studio in Edae, on the floor
beside a portable gas burner he places
a copper kettle atop as a makeshift humidifier.
By day, he sips barley tea until the sun goes down
and a soju bottle comes out. Here, drink this
to oil the soul warm.

                                       He has one student, me,
and a lazy eye, a weak gray mustache, and little education.
Soju, it helps you understand the horse. His father,
an infantryman, froze to death during the war,
and his mother disappeared when he was six, maybe escaped
or was kidnapped back to the North.
Now just another old man
with no friends and a childlike smile you see
wandering the streets of Seoul.
All right, that’s enough for today, the horse is tired.
On Friday mornings he drum-dances solo
at orphanages and elderly centers: a cantering
dervish on horsehide and deerskin heads
stretched over hourglass-
shaped paulownia wood; the deep
and simultaneous staccato rhythms long and intricate
enough to harken the Neolithic.
Drum patterns that by the dozens
I keep losing when I play like animal tracks
on a damp trail through mountain mist.
Drifting off each night five subway stops away,
I strain to memorize them, tapping out long
segments against my thighs in my jachi room, rented
usually by the week for test preparation.
There is coarse mothball bedding; a communal
shower that whines and sprays only ice water; and a flickering
fluorescent tube over a study carrel
in what can only be described as a cell.
Law exams. College entrance exams. Medical school
exams. Police exams. Realtor exams. The occupants
sigh and groan and fart through the walls,
stretch stiff limbs in the halls,
and are generally testy in this stressed-
out land, highest suicide rate in the world.
Seoul.
           You city where my earliest memories surge
into tanks cracking asphalt, sirens, martial
law over bullhorns, protests
and tear gas each week on my way to kindergarten.
A South Korean military dictator who imprisoned and beat
poets like drums
until brain damaged into honorary jobs
in the propaganda department.
Seoul. You history of mortars
and rockets like monstrous shovels
exhuming ancestral bones.
                                                     I have returned
to renovate my heart with a million
pre-colonial kidak strokes and pulsating googoongs.
Stored up all my belongings
in Brooklyn, sold my rusted Mercury,
and arrived to beat whatever I need
out of both you and me
twelve hours a day. Sometimes
we skip meals, and pound on, lost
in the one-on-one DNA yoke
of the powerful tempos.
                                               On Sundays,
the studio’s professional crew comes
and together we all touch knees and shoulders
and drum
an invisible history reanimating the guttural chants
of priests and rice farmers.
Themes and variations long ago
invented to help defeat
the stooping tedium and uncertainty
of seedlings in tempestuous fields; so the back-
bone doesn’t crack and seep
like the milky broth of oxtails and noodles
some nights we go around the corner to slurp
together, this old man and me,
in sweat-soaked shirts.
He will die in six years.
He will wheeze through a cancerous lung,
his one good eye gone fishy dim.
But, I hear, he sat and drummed till the end.
                                                                                   Often I go for months
without thinking of him; that winter
into spring; those few cherry blossom
branches quicker to bloom
for their proximity to a train line.
The walls where I live now
are all too thin, so
if I must, I drive to my office
in Saint Paul at night to thunder shit out.
When the way won’t come.
And the dead shapes shine.
I drum
and think of the old, galloping Korean
who one night over dried squid and beer
confided he didn’t play for the small
studio’s leaky roof over his head.
He preferred bridges. Did not play
for the meager wage. Understood
the troupe’s leaders only assigned him
the random hobbyists passing through.
He knew he began the art way too late.
And his hands would sometimes shake.
And he took too many smoke breaks.
He played, he claimed,
for other reasons: spiritual but not
as prayer like all the churches
that ever fed and took him in
waited for him to do. Not for repentance
or supplication or sublime escape
or even meditation.
                                     We’re drumming,
he explained, in the tradition
of shamans,
so the ancestors won’t be so lonely.
Because the spirits need us
more than we need them.
And for hours
                         they’ll listen to anyone.

 


Ed Bok Lee is the author of Whorled (Coffee House Press) and Real Karaoke People (New Rivers Press). Lee grew up in Seoul, North Dakota and Minnesota, and was educated there and on both U.S. coasts, Russia, South Korea, and Kazakhstan. Awards include a PEN/Open Book Award, an Asian American Literary Award (Members’ Choice), a Minnesota Book Award, and an American Book Award.