In the essay “Learning the Epistolary Poem,” Hannah Brooks-Motl says that “letters are vehicles for our truest selves, but they’re also a space in which we construct those selves.” This statement speaks about the act of letter writing as a world and character-building endeavor where the writer creates an experience that is meant to be reinvented by the recipient of the letter. Brooks-Motl addresses letter poems in particular, emphasizing that “epistolary verse is one of poetry’s oldest forms.” However, given that poems—as literary artifacts—are widely circulated and read, it follows that the relationship between the writer and the original recipient of the letter poem transforms as the text is read within the public sphere.
These reflections on the shifting nature of letter poems are evident in Ae Hee Lee’s dear bear, a series of fragmented, fictional prose poem letters addressed to “bear,” after a natural disaster destroys the speaker’s world—“In the beginning, there was a flood”—and they find themselves adrift and uprooted. The poems act as guides that take the reader into a forest where plants, animals, and a character named “the huntsman” have settled, and where the speaker wanders and wonders about this new reality that also embodies a new way of looking at love:
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.
The speaker uses rich and vivid language to convey sensory details and images that weave the physical and tangible with their inner world and the turmoil of emotions they experience as they shed their skin and let the sounds and sights and smells lull them into a sense of safety shadowed by the figure of the “huntsman,” who is always close by, searching,
This home, this forest, is at
the border of every ruin, of every past home. From
here, we barely hear the echoes of the huntsman who
roams for us. But we choose to forget the spectacle
that’s our history, because here, the only blood we
witness is from the berries we burst inside our mouths
and let slide down our fingers.
While the book begins as a letter addressed to “bear,” it is also a reflection on the creative act, both in terms of the writing itself, but also the process of rebuilding the world and reimagining love. Interestingly, the letters are written “in the innermost layer of [bear’s] heart” and the speaker claims that “having written them / myself, I won’t survive them either.” The letters then, act as both erasure—of the speaker—and archive, by serving as a chronicle of the relationship between the speaker and bear, but also of the new world with its pleasures and dangers.
Throughout the book, the speaker makes an effort to put an end to what came before and to avoid talking about it, “I peeled my past like a tangerine and ate it because I / feared I would turn into a pillar of salt.” The use of a biblical reference—of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt during the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah—here intentionally brings in a controversial female character whose disobedience of a divine mandate ended her life. However, the speaker challenges the original narrative by acting with agency and consuming the past before it can harm her. Therefore, it is recycled and repurposed into something that is strange and comforting at the same time, because whatever the speaker encounters in this new world looks and sounds familiar.
In the forest, the tree is not a tree, it’s lightning that split
itself into black needles. In the forest, lightning is not
lightning, it’s a blue neuron that sends hunger pangs all
over the body. In the forest, the neuron is not a neuron,
it’s a divine aorta branching out into a thousand
translucent blood vessels.
In using negative definitions, the speaker contends with the limited capabilities of language. The world can be re-made, but how to name what is born anew? How can expression be reinvented and reshaped? Can it? There is no easy answer to this other than what the speaker has already expressed at the beginning, that “the cosmos is inside of us,” so even if the world is destroyed and remade, even when the speaker eats their past, it is still a part of them and becomes also a part of the present.
Perhaps the answers can be found in what is omitted from the narrative, the absences—“I knew this the moment I put my arms around / your ribs. My fingertips cried absence”—and the fact that what the speaker has built in these letters is not just the world, but also the relationship with bear. This relationship transforms as we read, from something pleasurable and tangible—the berries they eat, kisses, the feeling of bear’s fur, a nibble in the ear—to a longing for what is not possible (“my fingers run through the abstract fur of your body”), and what is left is “a pocket of synapses you don’t intend to fill.” And that is what the poems do: they fill the gaps in between so that the speaker can leave a living trace—in the beloved’s heart—one last time.