MN Poetry: Ed Bok Lee’s “If in America”

Sometimes a poem stops you in your tracks. Today I had that experience while reading Ed Bok Lee’s new collection Whorled.

Lee was raised in South Korea, North Dakota and Minnesota. He’s been everything from a bartender to a phys ed instructor, to a journalist and a translator. Lee’s first book Real Karaoke People was the winner of an Asian American Literary Award and the PEN Open Book Award.

Usually I only post poems here that are relatively short, and have no profanity in them. Lee’s poem “If in America” made me break both those rules.

If in America

Hmong Hunter Charged With 6 Murders

Is Said to Be a Shaman–New York Times

If a tree falls in a forest,

does it make a sound?

If a rifle fires a shot in the woods,

whose body first hits the ground?

If a group of angry hunters

surrounds, curses at, and accosts you

for wandering onto their land

If you apologize for being lost,

inform you saw no posted signs, swallow

their chinks this and gooks taking over that;

are walking away over mud and fallen leaves when a loud

crack far behind you kicks up black earth

If your father was conscripted to fight

on the side of the United States

for the CIA during the war in Vietnam

If he, your mother, you–the oldest son–

and all your younger siblings were later abandoned

in the hills of Laos as targets for genocide by the Viet Cong

If after five years in a Thai refugee camp,

you come to this land as a teen, a casualty

of history and time, then receive three years

of training to become a sharpshooter

in the u.s. military

If you spent your adolescence watching blacks,

Asians, Latinos, and whites watching one

another watch each other for weakness and flaws

If, after this first blast, you wheel

around in a bright orange vest; glimpse

in that split second an angry, possibly

inebriated man lowering or resighting his rifle

If, in that icy moment, you recall

the Native friend you used to collect cans with;

once watched his three-hundred-pound father

unload himself from a Chevy Impala and chase

the boy down University with a ball-peen hammer

If, of your own children, your quietest

son lately lacks the wherewithal at school

to defend himself; and your oldest daughter

has always been for some inexplicable reason

ashamed of you

If hunting for you is not just a sport;

never a time to drink beers

with friends in a cabin, but rather

is a factor in considering your family’s winter protein consumption

If you believe in God, but not the good in everyone

If you hate to think about this s***, because

why the f*** is it always on you

to preprove your loyalty and innocence?

If–frightened for your life and

the livelihood of your immediate and extended

family–in that split second, you reel

and train your own gun back at the far face

of that vapory barrel now aiming at your own

If, yes, you are sometimes angry and so look forward

to escaping your truck driver’s life on certain

designated dates, on certain designated

lands, not always clearly demarcated, but always clearly stolen

from the ancestors of fat drunk red men

so confused they chase their own firey songs

in the form of their sons

Stolen from generations of skewed black backs,

hunched your whole life on street corners laughing

and picking their bones

Stolen from the paychecks of your brown coworker

social security ghosts

Stolen like your own people

from mountains in one land

only to be resettled and resented here

in projects and tenements

If you barely finished high school, but you know

from all you’ve ever seen of this system

Might Makes Right,

and excuses, treaties, and cover-ups

appear the only true code inscribed on most white men’s souls

If, after such slurs, pushes, and threats in these woods

it is now also on you to assess

if that far rifle still locked on your face

just issued a mistake, a warning

shot, or murderous attempt–

and the answer is:

your military muscle fibers


If you then spot three four five six seven? other

hunters now scattering for their ATVs

and, of course–if a gook,

don’t be a dumb one–

scattering now also for their weapons

If you are alone in this land,

on foot, in miles of coming snow, wind, and branches

and don’t even know

in which direction you’d run

If from birth you’ve seen

what men with guns, knives,

and bombs are capable of doing

for reasons you never wanted to understand

If in this very same county’s court of all-white

witnesses, counsel, judge, and jurors

it will forever be your word against theirs

because there was no forensic testimony

over who shot first

If, yes, sometimes you can hear voices,

not because you’re insane, but

in your culture

you are a shaman, a spiritual healer,

though in this very different land

of goods and fears, your only true worth

seems to be as a delivery man and soldier

If, upon that first fateful exchange in these woods,

your instinct, pushing pin to

balloon, were to tell you it’s now

either you and your fatherless family of fourteen,

or all of them

Would you set your rifle down;

hope the right, the decent,

the fair thing on this buried American soil

will happen?

Or would you stay low,

one knee cold, and do

precisely as your whole life

and history have trained?

And if you did,

would anyone even care

what really happened

that afternoon

eight bodies plummeted

to earth like deer?

– “If in America” by Ed Bok Lee, from his collection of poetry Whorled, published by Coffee House Press. Reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

FYI, Coffee House Press is celebrating the release of both Whorled and Bao Phi’s collection Sông I Sing on September 24 at the Minneapolis Central Library. That day happens to mark “100 Poets for Change,” an international celebration of poetry to promote serious social, environmental, and political change.