Sunday, May 14, 2006



Real Karaoke People: Poems and Prose by Ed Bok Lee
(New Rivers Press, 2005)

[Review first printed in Hyphen, Issue 9, 2006. Contributing Books Editor: Lisa Ko.]

United Church of Karaoke

In the prairies of North Dakota, single-roomed churches rise out of the wheat. Some are the only buildings along stretches of road. Some rise out of the intersections of two dirt roads. Some are squat with stained glass, stone walls and brown facades. Some are wooden painted white with one steeple. They tower over plains that roll gently from the main roads. They are the lone attestors that a community lives in this part of the prairie.

The churches were built by European immigrants in the late 1800s up to the 1950s. There are about 2,000 of them scattered throughout North Dakota, the centers of towns of about 2,000 residents each, and about 50 of them fall into disrepair and neglect every year -- earning them a spot in the National Historic Trust's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2001.

This is the setting of Ed Bok Lee's "Year of the Dog," a poem in his collection, Real Karaoke People. Lee tells the story of young soldiers escaping wars in Vietnam and Los Angeles only to end up in towns whose center used to be the decrepit church down the street, hard to miss, crumbling in its obvious not-belonging.

... refugees from Bosnia and Saigon, come to till the abandoned prairies, ghost towns of a century-and-a-half ago, where Swedish songs of sugar beet farmers mist the one-room church houses

if you concentrate, you can still hear their walls in the wind; journey the spine of abandoned railroads on the Dakota Plains to the end of civilization, past vagrant, shot-through Indian reservations, and you know how they came, but where did they go?
(Year of the Dog)

Most churches ring with silence, heavy with memory. Lee mixes the memories of new immigrants washing dishes in their new towns, how the same Guangdong hands that used to separate fish from fine nets now separate plates from glassware and forks and spoons at the only Mexican restaurant in town.

Fishermen may not have imparted their memories in the same careful and gentle language that Lee translates them for us, and Lee clearly takes pains to do justice to their experiences. He manages to tell the story of a mail order bride enduring the differences of man and Asian wife and saving enough money so she can send for her friend from Saigon and be with her. He remembers the words a would-be older brother who showed him scars from life on the streets and said,

"Go off and write... Poetry. ...

And when you do,
do me this one favor. ...

And make our father and me

the heroes

you always needed us to be."
(The Secret to Life in America)

Just when Lee convinces his reader about the unhappy lives of his subjects, he rises and sings a song:

when you're singing karaoke,
really singing from the center of your being,
in whatever town you're in, whatever bar, club or smoky poolroom...

the only thing that really matters is...

(Real Karaoke People)

And you can't help but smile, because even if poetry were invented to make you despair -- after all, all lives lead to the grave, indeed, Death is everyone's destiny -- or invented to jolt you awake -- after all, some of us Asians were born here, or brought here at the highest comfort our enterprising lawyer-doctor-business parents could afford -- then poetry is life, and all our despairing, expiring lives are poetry.


Yvonne Hortillo is an editorial assistant for The Associated Press. She has never owned a business card in her life. She has crossed the Chicago River countless times, and is fated to cross it untold times more. She adores truth in all forms.


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