Karen An-Hwei Leeís book-length poem, In Medias Res, won the Morton Prize from Sarabande Books. Her chapbook of prose poems, Godís One Hundred Promises, received the Swan Scythe Press Prize. She holds fellowships from the Yoshiko Uchida Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives and teaches on the West Coast.
Karen An-Hwei Lee
Dream of Flight
No flight experience, yet he is required by necessity to fly, the fourth nightmare for a blind man awaiting a sustained form of lift in the darkness, a form he can trust or tolerate at minimum. Sleep, for instance, is an acceptable form of lift. Flying a plane, however, is not. The man would rather be adrift on a boat than dream about flying over unbroken waters, winging life at the margin, brushing tips of white crests, aware of the small survival of desert birds and insects, waved sand depicting the wind's journeys, mysterious as silverware set out for no guest. A spoon, a fork, and a plate. Gracious service for none, indecipherable signs in the water. Or is he the guest? Is he alone? Who lives here behind the broadening pillars of blinding sun? Who speaks? What is the language?
Dream of the Interpreter
Not this language, one he knows. His wife moved across the wasteland, left the house in embers after the season of fever. Those who survived the first winter moved to other places. A person was never warm enough in that country, despite the fever illness. A person asked for more fire, more fuel in the hearth, though the windows were sealed and a fire roaring. One patient with winter fever desired to eat hot pepper seeds. One patient imagined himself standing in the snow. One patient imagined herself dying of hypothermia, not of fever. One patient imagined himself reading a book on a brisk ocean terrace. The ailing body failed to interpret its own ambiance properly, translating heat into the realm of composure.
Dream of the Physician
A manís eye was shuttered permanently after a fire. The eye sat in his left hand, soft orb, while a broken hand was stored inside left pocket; the small broken bones and eye stored together, that is, while all living things in the world were rotting asunder, including the arms of his jacaranda tree. A man moved to the desert to escape the plague only to encounter famine. A man was so thin he could hold water in his clavicle bones. A line of patients waited in the third dream, a line winding around a corner not far from the physician's former house, or what remained of it, a heap of stones.
Dream of the Intercessor
In winter desert light, he prays for barriers against the desert chaos arising from nowhere, destroying what hands made for transient shelter. What about the peace that transcends understanding? Winter desert wind. A man imagines sanity, simple resistance to disorder such as a low stone wall, at minimum, or even the frail stucco ruins once enclosing his garden. A simple structure for peace. Yes, bougainvillea and the rutted earth littered with creased citrus leaves. How he misses them. Inside the house, a clean place awaiting him, and his quiet wife. Escape from aphonia, voicelessness, human absence.
Dream of the Disciple
Thin blood affects the health of bones and the heart. The fever begins with a rash of furuncles and ends with the infection of the meninges, often fatal. Yet there are those who survive with only a sensitivity to light for the remainder of life, an illness that settles in the eyes. Lay hands on the patients, all of them, despite the contagion. Offer the substance of hope when the medicine runs out or doesnít exist, no cure. Lay hands on those suffering from inflammation of the heart, pray for healing from contagious fever, those suffering from blindness and severe disfigurement, pray for healing. Lay hands on them, one by one, and pray that fevers and viruses would become extinct from the world, even those sleeping as dormant crystal seeds, vanish.
Dream of the Woman
Yes, she says, appearing in his dream, saying neither how nor why she is there, his wife who has passed to the other side. In the dream, a midnight bird appears larger than an indigo bird, and no other person but I can see it, she says mysteriously, no person but I understand the relation between its color and form, how the skies appear smaller and violet in the shallow hours of the night, how the margin of the city night is magenta yet the center of the sky is indigo, how the margin is hydrangea in the late evening and heliotrope at midnight, the hour when the sky is most immense. A midnight bird, therefore, appears larger than an indigo bird. Yes. (Never having seen heliotropes, never having seen hydrangea either, the comparisons are lost upon the man, who not only desires to see his wife changing her clothes and refreshing the inner rooms, but also to walk in his bougainvillea garden, one they tended together, now burned.)
Dream of the Exile
At the thought of his home, bitterness twists like a white rope inside the exile's heart. In the first month, the sand was so deep that it could not be swept from the terrace, sand deep as snow. How he loathed sweeping the coarse sand from his bed, hair, ears, and hands, and how he longs to hear his children sing. In the third year of their marriage, his wife painted portraits of their children, later burned in the fire, both portraits and children. Yet the life of the aphonic world continued, voiceless desert legacies, and the windows opened to let the light in. His sense of time was lifted from the confines of the earth. (The timeless work of souls with a pittance of faith, reflection of light on surfaces, water and journeys, home in memory. In his dream, the exile tries to discern the transparent from the opaque, the opaque from the translucent, movement from the motionless.)
Dream of Shelter
Out of the voiceless ground, the broken house of lost sons and daughters drifts into the man's sleep, bringing to mind additional places of ash, as though his present life were not ash enough. A memory of scraping his wounds with a shard of pottery. A beautiful woman, her hair in a braided loaf, standing before him. Will the tree sprout again after the rains? Will it pick up the scent of water, send forth leaves? That is, if the sky opens, if the rain falls again. Small lights point along the desert road, what lights, he wonders, what road, is this a memory, like rain in the uncarved sand? Remember the night shaped like a horse's head, ominous midnight and seasons of famine, pain in the febrile body, tender boundary of shelter and comfort torn from its abode. In his hand, the key to his old house. The man built his home as a moth spins a chrysalis, tenderly without regard for transience. (Under the stones lay disbelief; how can the place of stones underneath the sun be places of rare minerals and life, once places of shelter? Bitterness runs inside the heartís wary root.)
Dream of the Desert Flower
He would love to clothe the hot winter desert with a dense ocean shroud, or see a rare occurrence in nature, a cactus blooming once a year at midnight, birds migrating from an inland isle in a river, or sons and daughters seeking him, blossoming forth from the place of the dead. With seared eyes open to the sun, he lies dreaming in the shadow of a desert tree. In another season, he may have worked as a deep sea diver, earning a living by picking rare coral growing in the ocean. Warm seas, but not shallow ones; he would dive deep to the places where the coral flourished, harvested by hand for whittling into pendants and brooches for his wife.
Dream of the Ocean
(One time, he remained submerged too long. He woke thinking his lungs collapsed in the rapture of the deep, pressed against the ceiling of water. When the man woke, there was only fiery wind competing with the sun.)
Dream of Forgiveness
He wonders whether he could ever leave the fever season or recover fully from the experience. A blind man extends his hand into the air, whispering, tell me about the shape of this desert; tell me whether someone I love is in this place; show me whether forgiveness waits on this desert road. Show me with your hands or voice whether you are listening. Are there walls in this desert, are the winds its only shadows, and who is listening?
Dream of Blindness
His darkened mind is dense as a head of black coral. Where did his soul go in those few moments when he fell asleep, imagining himself enraptured, pressed underneath a shimmering ceiling of water, drawn through to the other side? Or was he one of the ancient divers who dove with covered lamps and were pinned under the sea by stones, their bodies never to surface though their souls left earth? His eye, soft iris, blooms dark against an unseen world.
Dream of Small Rains
Whispering, I miss the gentle sea moisture drifting in, the small rains confessing our healing in the spring, and the orchard's pleasures. I once found the small fires of the stars unfamiliar, since I had no time to look at their patterns; they are not so unfamiliar now, beating closer to earth; the exile knows their names in his private language torn from the bottom of the sea, displaced from a transparent hedge of angels. I am learning to decipher the language of new inner wind, intervals in the sounds of its flute.
Dream of the Oil Lamp
An exile wishes for the refreshing sight of reed grass, certain water signs such as birds and insects. Alone in the night, he digs a small ditch, covers the bottom with wood, and places there an oil lamp with very little oil in it; he touches the wick with his finger. If the lamp is still burning when the sun rises, then water exists underneath the sands. He does not understand the science in this method; he only knows it works from experience. He also knows this, that if a voice were given to the sides of the desert, it should be soft as the hum of an oil lamp.
Dream of Water
For a moment he wishes to bury his body with the odorless lamp underneath the smooth desert stones. He remembers his wife suffering as a flame suffers inside a covered lamp, depleting the hidden source, a mere quantity of air. In the place where short flowers thrive, the only human wish is to travel wherever water goes, the nomad's desire to cup water in his hands. He does not even possess his own life; his desire to procure water is no longer in his hands.
Dream of Regrets
If the house had been stronger, if he had overseen the building himself, if stones rather than wood, if he had tended to his wife himself at the onset of the fever instead of allowing her to leave. What hour was he born, what hour would he die, this hour passes without thought when he is sleeping, always with the transpiration of light and imaginary trees offering shade, a dream life equally illuminated and shadowed by joy and regret.
Dream of the Seed
Of course, his prayers do not cause the sun to rise or set; he only hopes that the sun would endure from day to day. When would God deliver him from this trial? This is the dream of the seed, that his future sons and daughters would learn how blooming plants produce fruits from their flowers, and in turn, seed. His sons and daughters would touch leaf buds on the young mallow and pear. The children are taught lessons when the plants are in flower or when they are in fruit; they are asked to identify the wings of sycamore and silver maple and ash, and seeds dispersed by water, wind, and birdís wings. Would he have future sons and daughters? Would he hold the samaras of the silver maple in his hand underneath a tree that stirred at the scent of water, gave forth plentiful seed?
Dream of the Joule
(How old is the light, how many years old, whether the years can be counted, what is the lifetime of light, how to speak of the age of light in terms of the work it has done, it is older than the sequoia, the creosote in the desert, any tree resembling stone, older than water and the oldest men and women, light years in distance, light years in age.)
Dream of the Eye
He longs to see a stand of white fir or herds of small horses with slender noses pausing at a stream. He longs to see little flies asleep on modest soaks and springs or in a rain shadow. He longs to hear a language he comprehends, to sense a human presence, mother or father, red blood cells of his childhood. Or pick up a sea urchin, spines on a watered stone, almost like a round fossil, or the barnacle with its chipped ivory tooth, any of these things are reassuring signs of childhood seas. A child's tooth, a barnacle, or a rose. In the desert, life is better off as stone, salt and earth elements purified without living marrow to harbor woes, without a throat to harbor chronic thirst, yet the thought of the unpotable sea is more comforting than the thought of clean stones, and the thought of fresh water, supreme.
Dream in Parenthesis
(A desert man dreams he is on a ship on a night sea. A journey.)
Dream of the Rain Shadow
A long waterless rain shadow. The man sometimes imagines shadows when there are none, only blinding light. He imagines the side of a ship sheltered from wind, yet there is none, or a new world hidden within the old which does not exist. Up a steep escarpment to inspect the refined movement of the rain. No barrier to wind here, no sparse grove of desert stones, only a long shadow cast at a distance. Here is the place where the diver dreams of blighted lanterns buried in the earth and of ice with blue tones surfacing in the north sea, the purest water in solid form. He dreams of fish leaping onto a boat at night, attracted to his fishing lamp, and of the restless movement of the ocean and rain nestled within one another, resting in the form of another sleeping human, a woman, his wife singing him to sleep.
Dream of Gravity
No desire to fly, stairless heavens cascading to earth, gravity of dreams dropping in the rivers to the south. The man follows the wisdom of small creatures, the direction of riffle beetles and red birds calling to one another; to the migrating desert birds, the light is a reliable alphabet. Here is a drifting leaf, an egg falling, the wind flowing down the sides of a dry mountain, another beetle, another bird. He remembers home, a hot street covered with yellow leaves near the canal, the open fever street of bleeding hearts, a childhood road lost under a sandstorm, the road beside the river of vanished water lanterns. One by one, as by petrification, the cells of life, incremental spaces are replaced by minerals in the form of words more certain than stones; in these words he shapes a home.
Dream of the Night
As the journey deepens, flowers are opening by the force of the man's dreaming, a night of forgiveness where fruit is conceived, and the vine bears much fruit in season. Waiting for the season is difficult, a trial in itself. A man's tears drop into the soil where his house once stood, where his sons and daughters once lived, a lifetime ago where he did know about living on words rather than bread alone. He opens his eyes in the night, and the sands stretch far in every direction, to the south where the long bending grass bears pods called tears, and far north to the place of the midnight sun. (Yes, he agrees, the words are truth, and more numerous than grains of sand.)