Ae Hee Lee’s chapbook Connotary (Bull City Press, 2021) is a collection that explores the divides in both borders and relationships. Winner of the 2021 Frost Place Chapbook Competition, Connotary does not rely on direct translations of the language shining on the page; instead, it navigates a way through different cultures, countries, and relationships while maintaining vast and poetic craft connecting the speaker to these roots. Each poem stands on its own while simultaneously feeling like an entire unit, progressing and working together, and if you ever doubted that poetry is anything but magic, I suggest reading this collection. One thing that’s so compelling about Connotary is the braiding of English, Spanish, and Korean throughout the poems, and recognizing that language has the ability to hold its own and not need to apologize for it. This is especially significant in a book where the speaker experiences a sense of absence or loneliness in these different homes and relationships. Despite this, Hee Lee continues to yield power and I, as a reader, am better for it. The clever language and witty craft made me regret this chapbook was so short and kept me longing for more wisdom with each page.
The poems narrate a speaker who is playing games with their sister, a mother, the delectable food that is reminiscent of youth, and multiple homecomings in the fashion of place, people, or familiar taste. Ultimately, these poems make you feel cared for, able to witness an intimate understanding that I assume can only come from a multitude of migrations and meetings. In the poem “Trujillo :: Homecoming,” the pondering of absences and returns are expressed through images of nature, growth, and the return of life. Here, fingers become wispy fronds, arms become wild ferns, and a reunion happens within “gossamer veils of time.” The heart of the poems bewilders “Gwaenchanh-a, está bien— / for people to become strangers / to their own bodies, question / why absences insist / on weaving something new.” This curiosity is apparent throughout Connotary, and Ae Hee Lee possesses this question like a sheer curtain over each poem. You continue to uncover something new after each line. Her poetry transports you, as if I, too, can feel my sandals scrape against bark from climbing a poinciana tree or the wind whip through my hair.
Another poem sharing a cherished moment is “Bongsung-A :: Impatient Balsam.” It begins with the phrase “Monsoon in Busan,” which immediately sings to the reader’s ears. The narrative continues with the speaker and cousin gathering balsams from the garden into the next stanza to the present moment at the edge of Lake Michigan during a polar vortex, and an incapability of distinguishing snow from lake foam. The contrast between these two locations and weather patterns shares something in common—the search for meaning in life. The first stanza ends with “I look for meaning / in everything, and here: the belief in true love / if the color lasts until first snow.” The poem’s orange-red stains in the first stanza to the coral glow of the second suggests the speaker has found this color, in a sense, despite the frigid temperatures around the lake. Connotary does this, finding meaning in cyclical patterns and growth and clinging to it, the way ivy vines climb and cling to its foundation.
In addition to the magnificent images, musicality, and language Connotary shares, it also has a unique form and structure. One of the poems, “Korea :: Things to Review Before Landing” is creative in its use of space on the page. The poem shares an origin story, a grandfather’s name, an idiom, and a road, which pairs with a reflection on the topic, similar to the aesthetic of how each title is balanced by two phrases. The act of balance shimmers through this book, how with each absence there is a return. It’s cyclical in this way, the metaphors in language and the simple aesthetic of the titles—Connotary is just as beautiful in physical design as the words itself. The final poem of the collection, “Sijo :: Genealogy” matches the core of the book, with the sentiment concluding with the speaker becoming “the daughter of a bridge,” meaning someone who is a connection between two sides, one who leads as a joint on a journey— kindred of crossing to new places, just as the earlier themes and forms suggested. A meeting of two languages in the titles of the poems, or the journey of navigating a relationship or location. The speaker has become the daughter of the exact sentiment Connotary explores, which only contributes to the brilliance and organization of this chapbook.
Ryleigh Wann (she/her/hers) is an MFA poetry candidate at UNC Wilmington where she teaches poetry and is the comics editor for Ecotone. Her writing can be found in Rejection Letters, Flypaper Lit, and Kissing Dynamite Poetry, among others.
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