Mitochondrial Night: Poems by Ed Bok Lee
Coffee House Press, March 2019
88 pages / Amazon
Place Ed Bok Lee’s Mitochondrial Night under a microscope and you’ll see cells turn to stars, the body a galaxy we never see. In this collection, poems dash from the corporeal to the celestial, from the intimacy of parenthood to the vastness of war, each gap stitched together with a theme of inheritance, DNA poking holes in every boundary—geographical, cultural, or spiritual—that humans construct.
The book, divided into three sections, contains two standalone poems on either end. The first, “Random Floating Cells with Style,” plays on perceptions of randomness, highlighting how presentation shapes what we perceive as chance and what, fate. In a poem that seems to float off from the rest, a line of white space separates each sentence. The words drift on these white spaces like a body on water, weight distributed equally amongst stanzas relatively uniform in length. Readers glide down the page, watching how “Each evening / this movie of love plays out like popcorn blinking lively in the sky” (1). Lee, always emphasizing scale, compares the experience of love with that of watching a film, before he pulls back to the stars to illustrate that intimacy of love as one shared by multitudes. Because Lee draws images from space, the comparison does not devalue love for its commonness any more than the stars for their quantity.
Like the rays that spur the growth of a plant, Lee’s first section, “Ultraviolet City,” focuses largely on parenthood. Introducing it, the poem “Metamorphosis” establishes the parallel between the past and present that reappears throughout the collection. It opens with an epigraph from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Omnia mutantur, nihil interit” (5). The translation—Everything is changed, but nothing disappears—is not provided, requiring readers to search for it on their own. In the poem, Lee describes classification systems against his mother’s confused behaviors, this integration ultimately depicting his urge for concrete understandings. Roughly three-quarters of the way through the poem, he defines mitochondria—organelles inherited from our mother’s side—and provides their Greek roots mito (thread) and khondrion (grain or granule) (6). A call back to the book’s title, this poem ruminates over how we construct meanings through our translations, in part through a scene with his newborn daughter whose comprehensions all the adults want to guess. In this one poem, Lee presents this entire collection as his translation of the life he inherited, one he is now passing down to his daughter and also to us.
Concluding the first section, the poem “Still Life with Dust While Listening to Al Jazeera News Over Coffee” reads anything but still, its form—mirroring the movement of dust moats—the most experimental so far (33). This shift propels readers into the next section “Abscissions,” which explores how—like a ripe piece of fruit just fallen—one finds identity outside of family. A Korean American poet, Lee incorporates themes of immigration into poems like “Super-Insensitive Species,” which parallels the birth of his mixed-race daughter against the pervading fear that invading Asian carp will take over American ecosystems. Images of aliens combine with nontraditional forms in these poems, a formal change reflective of the individualization many of their characters seek.
Nevertheless, Lee’s last poem in the section, “In the Key of Iron Wind Chimes,” reminds readers that while our basis for divisions may be new, the divisions themselves are not. Here, humans attribute the seasons to the work of a deity, reflecting contemporary debates over climate change. When the weather does not transpire according to plan, the characters begin to question the deity’s validity. Yet, the accusations matter little, for in the end, they “still rise, yawning / to the sun’s newest refrain” (62).
This poem sets up the final and longest section, “Colonizing a Different Sun.” The poems here largely combine the experimental forms and themes of identity that appeared in the first two sections, only reshaped for a new generation—Lee’s daughter. Many of the questions Lee had for himself are reimagined as he contemplates what his daughter will inherit both from him and from the earth. He responds to his questions in the final poem “In this Zoo Everything Is in Drag,” which highlights the futility of searching for any measurable answers.
In Mitochondrial Night, Lee incorporates imagery we accept to be endless—the systems of our body and of space—to explore how we create rather than find certainty. Concluding the collection, the freestanding poem “Water in Love” returns to the question of how we love, fulfilling the promise made at the end of “Metamorphosis” to move “at once forward and backward in time” (7). Like microscopes and telescopes, Lee’s collection shows how language is another tool for humans to see in part what is impossible to see in full, the rest left to our interpretation.