Asterism
Ae Hee Lee
Tupelo Press

Reviewer: Elisabeth Adwin Edwards

In a recent online event in which Ae Hee Lee read poems from her new, first full-length collection, Asterism, she shared that in writing it she was “engaging with the idea of longing,” which she “tried to reimagine as something that moves and expands … that extends itself beyond a single nation, a single community.” And in reading this extraordinary book, selected by John Murillo for the 2022 Dorset Prize, one senses that, in Lee’s universe, all things are possible. These poems feel like bodies in motion – arcing between continents, between narrative and lyric – both flesh and celestial, radiating far beyond the borders of themselves.

Lee, who was born in South Korea, raised in Peru, and now lives in Wisconsin, defines an asterism in the “Notes” section of her book as “a pattern of stars observed by the naked eye,” or “a group of three asterisks.” Further research reveals that asterisms are often composed of stars from multiple constellations; in a sense, stars that reach across space to create new identifiable patterns in the sky, the way the speaker in Lee’s poems travels from one country to another, arms open yet full, bringing her lived experiences and customs from one county to another and back again.

The collection is aptly divided into three sections. The first section is marked by a single asterisk; the second, two; the third and final section, three—each section further illuminating the sections that preceded it—discreet, yet borderless. Three represents the number of countries she’s called home, but is significant, too, in other ways. In “Self-Portrait as Portrait,” the first poem of the collection, the speaker addresses this other self as “Dearest you”:

Together we are
                  unhyphenated, indefinite, country
not culture not skin, clumsy
geese of three
wings: one for ourselves, one for the world,
                                                             one for strangeness.

In this first section, the poet melds the themes of memory, parental nostalgia, ritual (often centered around food), and inheritance, revealing a multi-centered self in a multi-centered cosmos, hungering for what is beyond the namable, the translatable, all that came “before immigrant, noun / unproper.” In “Inheritance :: Invocation,” she describes opening a can of sesame oil:

                                    The rim glistens
copper, the smell of an unfamiliar soil,
   a country I was born to but didn’t
grow up with. I breathe it in. I breathe out:
   gosohada—this is still a word
I cannot translate until it evaporates.

In the poem, “Han-Sum :: Breath, Singular,” the speaker lets out a long sigh; her father gently teases her about her “sighing habit” as she considers how “There’s endlessness / in this word: an inward- /stretching universe of lungs / and dark matter.” Then:

       His words assure me
even the smallest breath can
                      ripple.

“Self-Study Through Daily Sustenance” is one of three “Self-Study” sequences in the collection and reads like a segmented haibun; the footnotes at the bottom of each page are haiku-like in form and imagery. Each poem conjures the speaker’s experiences and memories of food, its preparation and consumption: food as love, integration, connection, even forgiveness. In one segment, after arguing with her young sibling, she makes an offering:

I approach my sister with a split apple in hand—in Korean, the sound of the word apple, sagwa*, also meaning to ask for forgiveness. We bite into the fruit and reconcile. I’m reminded forgiveness is something you can sink your teeth into, can limn what’s sharp with honey.

*Maracuyá.         Passion
                                                    fruit.               Perilla.
                                                                           Kkaennip.      Lúcuma.
                                                                                          See
how                      they                    wreathe
                                                                                   my tongue,
                                        how their sounds
                                                                                      wet            my mouth
with hunger.

Whether she is a girl in Trujillo witnessing “an hermana” snap the neck of a guinea pig she was playing with just moments before, who then guts, grills, and shares it with the other church members; or an adult improvising in her Milwaukee kitchen, summoning “a woman with blurry face who wears my mother’s apron,” Lee’s speaker finds that “In each country I call home, I eat my way into belonging.”

The second section of Asterism opens with the title poem, in which she offers up a prayer: “Tonight, I pray for wonder / innocent thread / without a needle, to play- / pretend embroidering / the missing / links” between the world, memory, and yearning. Here is a traveler who carries “a jealousy / for roots” yet has “feet / eager to get naked,” one who questions the very idea of borders, and marvels at “how a body can inhabit / worlds at a time.”

In “Trujillo :: Homecoming,” she returns to Peru after a long absence and is welcomed by her old childhood friend, Alejandra, who “doesn’t believe in discovery, / only in encounters,” and allows herself to fully feel the awkwardness of their greeting: 

                      … it’s okay,
es normal— for there to be sorrow
in forgetting how to cross
through gaps, now filled
with the gossamers of time.

And:

… so I go—receive her beso:
I too unfurl green, under
the embrace of lush
unfamiliar arms.

Lee explores the uncomfortable realities of being an immigrant: the challenges of learning a second language, making her way through customs, applying for a green card. Her speaker refuses to be diminished by others’ assumptions about who she is and is always probing the space between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the strange and the beautiful. In “Self-Study Through Homes,” she confesses, “When people ask where I’m from, where I’m really from … I want to tell them everything. I want to see how far we can go.”

In “(Dis)ambiguation,” the speaker reveals how sometimes “a person I just met halves my name, / addresses me as Dear Ae, / not knowing this / to also mean Dear Love,” then shares her experience in a coffee shop, when, in an attempt to make things easier for the cashier by introducing herself as “Ruth,”

The cashier scribbles it down on the cup,
says, What an American name!
about the woman
who had become a foreigner
for a foreigner.

In “Chicago :: Re-Entry Ritual,” the customs officers question her, and she questions herself:

“What’s the purpose of your visit?
    they ask. What’s the purpose of me?
I ask and answer myself every time:
    to be reunited with love, waiting
at every side of a border …
    to carry the migrant dust
on my limbs …
                       —rename
my departures into returns.

These themes are expanded upon in the third, and final, section of the collection, which opens with the poem “Green Card :: Evidence of Adequate Means of Financial Support.” Lee’s speaker begins the harrowing process of filling out the application, turning to a loved one for comfort:

you told me how I could stop confusing belonging
with belongings, good with goods, by sharing
the way our hearts continue to beat
resilient, even without an assurance of worth.

Yet this speaker acts with compassion in all that she does, keenly aware of her connection to others, to her ancestors, to that “stranger / I’ll meet another day.” As she’s completing paperwork to obtain a Social Security number, in “Papers,” she thinks about “how the difference / between me and those who aren’t here happens / to be paper-thin.” She then folds a crane and tucks a wish inside it. In the poem, “Mercado Central :: Marginalia,” she catches sight of a Peruvian flower-seller who sets down his wheelbarrow, kisses two fingers and presses them to a box housing a crucified Jesús. She confesses: “I could say // I understand / longing, but the truth is I know / nothing of his.”

In Lee’s image-rich and wholly innovative debut, a country can be a “walnut” or a “pronoun,” a home can be “a fist that dreams” and memories “open their palms.” The poet instructs us to “Learn from words,” reminds us that they “cannot be restricted to a single meaning,” and invents a universe where “tongues are proud / maps that guide us back to ourselves.” Language can “birth / a new mountain within the mouth,” she writes, and after reading Asterism, I say: Yes. Yes, it can.