Three Poems by Karen An-hwei Lee

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

On the Fourth Day of Fires by El Centro

Solo wild doves cry by the lake. A thousand acres,
and the flare-blanched scent not of camphorwood
nor fused lilies, not a million eyes of singed pansies,
not ginkgo-fans weeping on fluted bones of swans
from wreckage, not our human rubrics of despair
shattered by the wrath of hydrocarbon naphtha
liquidating our galleries of mute incense clocks
              charred by the dark hunger of arson
and dying aspirations of a thousand orange trees,
the brazen fire-storm of midnight’s lost cathedral
of false piety as gold radii encircled torso on torso
of frozen pine. For we know that if the earthly tent
we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God,
an eternal house in heaven,
                                           not built by human hands.



Flash Point

You cannot harm yourself unless you step in it—

a flash-pan so big you could wash the moon,
eight ounces of diesel and gasoline ignited by a flare
on the end of a fruit-picker pole

burns dirty in the parking lot.

Slide out the pin of the extinguisher,
the longest lung in the world holding its breath,
carbon dioxide.

Just a stone’s throw away, you raise the tank,  

asphyxiate the flame—
cirrus rushes over a scorched black cake.

One day later, with a wind advisory
in the foothills, Santa Anas out of the high desert,

no tell-tale tinder box in the chaparral understory,
no verbal confession—
                  only a quarrel at a reunion in the backyard—

who sparked ounces of noxious strife?



Most Ubiquitous Producer of Oxygen

Not redwood or sequoia forests,
nor tundra moss near the Arctic circle,

not the lone cypress, ancient
fir needles unfolding

on a stone coast
or in groves, breathing. Not
               rainforests of corozo

and kapok trees,
nor the venerable olives.
               On the contrary, it is





Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo Press, 2012), Ardor (Tupelo Press, 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande Books, 2004). Lee also wrote two chapbooks, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe, 2002) and What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press, 2014). Her book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations (Cambria, 2013) was selected for the Cambria Sinophone World Series. Lee serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles.

Abstract image of flames courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.