THE BEES MAKE MONEY IN THE LION
Lo Kwa Mei-en

Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2016

The poems in Lo Kwa Mei-en’s second collection, The Bees Make Money in the Lion, contain distinctly recognizable images and ideas that are twisted via feverish diction into surreal narratives and hyperdynamic forms. Her play with and reinvention of traditional forms such as sonnets and abcedarian poems mirror the arc of a book where constraint and liberation are not abstractions but have profound emotional and moral consequences. Even when the poems do not use received forms, they have the gravity, tension, and density of well-wrought texts.

In “Aubade for Non-Citizens,” an early poem in a section titled “The Colonists,” Mei-en examines all that historically came with (and continues to come with) the twin fears of being an outsider and of being a citizen. The poem gives instructions for using a lens to zoom in and out of the scene: “Zoom out—the atomic story is smooth / in places if no one is protagonist but particle in motion or minor / residue of emotion’s creation myth.” In a zoomed-out perspective, individuals fit and the whole coheres. Zoomed in, it becomes clear that people are weirdly shaped individuals. Mei-en uses labels like “Citizen” and “Alien” to make a stark political point: People get names; things get labels. But the political ideals are not offered only as a polemic; the reader witnesses a rich, strange performance of the sensations of the “alien” moving toward—and resisting—assimilation.

Eight poems, threaded throughout the book, form a sonnet crown titled “The Alien Crown.” In one sonnet,

Toddlers fumble thru
veni / vidi / verify but can recite my name / number / allegiance
except on multi-colonial awareness day, a false password we live.

With righteous anger, the collective voice of the aliens proposes to “climb back on the boat” and “aim it to a future minus a canon the color of quartz—” But as the sequence progresses, citizenhood approaches, “its honorary white law // xenocratic in fair weather, its war undoing the stars.” In the final sonnet, the speaker seems to reject the Citizen / Alien distinction entirely, rising to “peel off the bloom of disguise like a woman from a tomb,” in order to move forward into a freer psychic space:

                                                            Call it home, a fable with no phobia

at all, where no house can keep us,

               the dripping, golden hand that flies to the door
               for birthright, this bliss against blitz.