Sundress Reads: Review of Dear bear,

Alluring and verdant, Ae Hee Lee’s Dear bear, (Platypus Press, 2021) is a gorgeous assemblage of post-apocalyptic love letters addressed to the speaker’s beloved, “bear”. You only need to have read Dear bear, once for it to permeate your living, for it to burrow deep into the innermost layer of your heart, for it to transform how you think about love and possibility after the end of the world. In this collection of tender epistles, Ae Hee Lee cultivates an ecology of romance and wonder.

Dear bear, is set in a (meta)physical forest after a flood—“when the mouth of the sea gaped over our homes”—destroys the speaker’s world. The poems guide us into a forest where a strange collection of flora and fauna blooms from the wreckage. The forest, both real and unreal, marks the destruction of the speaker’s past world as it grows into something alive and intoxicating, while underneath the forest’s ethereal beauty is a desperate rot and brokenness. Ae Hee Lee’s poetic world-building is irresistible, even as she acknowledges that “in this world, nothing can ever be whole.”

Dear bear, is bursting with color; its rich and vivid language engages all of our senses: honey rivers flow down tree trunks, red camellias whirl like silk dresses, and a swarm of bees make love to their queen under the pear blossoms. These poems exude a secret wildness that is thrilling and beautiful. Here, the forest is not yet threatened by the violent process of discovery: “The forest is not delineated or discovered. It pours suddenly until you realize it has always been there behind your eyelids.” Using the forest as a guide, Dear bear, gives us a new way of looking at the self, which decomposes into the “clever design of propagation,” gesturing towards collectivity. Dear bear, leads us towards new possibilities for connection between humans and the more than human world. 

The relationship between the speaker and the bear is full of tenderness, equipoise, and desire. They are each other’s solace and strength in the forest: “I looked hard and tender into the ebbing black and met you.” Witness the gentle twining of sharp bear claws and a woman’s tender spine as they nuzzle and curl into each other. Dear bear, is seductive and lush; a decadent, verdant pleasure is unearthed within these letters—“I sighed along the moss that moaned under the bareness of my legs.” Their romance is defined by a wild longing for what cannot be captured or taken: “my fingers run through the abstract fur of your body”.

The forest is not without its dangers. Along with the speaker and bear, it is inhabited by the huntsman—”blunt-force trauma, the last of men, gristle of the earth”—who chases after them. The huntsman seems to be a vestige from a dangerous past, hunting them across worlds and time. In the huntsman’s looming shadow, the speaker wants to forget the “spectacle” that is our violent history. Here, in the forest, “the only blood we witness is from the berries we burst inside our mouths and let slide down our fingers.” The speaker avoids the ruins beyond the abundant forest, evades the past before it can harm her again.

Like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dear bear, is a compendium of myths that guide us through transformation. The poems begin with a devastating, world-ending transformation, but even as we find evidence of eroding and rotting, we also bear witness to burgeoning and blooming. The mythos here is rooted in change and re-imagination: “I peeled my past like a tangerine and ate it because I feared I would turn into a pillar of salt.” Through Ae Hee Lee’s vibrant poetics, we are transfigured alongside this curious new world, reminded that transformation is both a survival strategy and a flourishing. In reading these poems, we become something more than how we began.

Dear bear, beautifully charts the edges of erasure and absence, including the loss of adequate language. Sometimes, the forest is an impossible thing because we have forgotten its name: “In the forest, a blood vessel is not a blood vessel, it’s an ocean that shed its rivers, its roots, and forgot it was once a tree.” As an archive, this book builds upon what has been broken, meandering around what was forgotten or erased in the disaster. However, absence is never feared because it is “forever here.” The inevitability of absence is transformed into the possibility of presence—“a universe beating inside silence and stasis.”

Throughout this collection, the speaker fixates on endings. The letters are a part of a never-ending sequence, where each letter ends not with a period but with a comma—perhaps leaving an opening for an answer. Dear bear, is about the end of the world and the depth of love that is nurtured in its wake: “P.S. Maybe the world had to end so we could finally love, but since the cosmos remains inside of us, it must be all the more complicated than that.” Even as the world is destroyed and reborn, parts of it remain inside of us, and we make a home out of what is left behind. I promise that long after you’ve put Dear bear, down, it will remain inside of you.

Dear bear, is available at Platypus Press

Abigail Renner is a junior at George Washington University studying English and American Studies. She is currently a writing consultant in her university writing center, where she loves unearthing writers’ voices and reading across a myriad of genres. She dreams of living on a farm, filling her shelves with romance novels, and laughing with friends over cups of peppermint tea.

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