On Ed Bok Lee’s Poem, "The Schooner Bar"
May 20, 2015
The Schooner Bar
By Ed Bok Lee
Farther inside this long bar near Lake and Hiawatha, they burn
Over beers in the dark, these men and two women, creaking
Fatigue on stools, dead drunk. It is summer. The sun a cancer.
The God of Silence today has called a quorum of minor gods who have created
And destroyed whole voices and lives. Where else to go
If all you want is to drink to the sound of clearing throats?
The verdict is in. Men of Hope shall be resigned to steal quiet turns vomiting.
Stunned prairie horse spirits surviving civilization.
Some come with money to grin through a second happy hour.
Others doze after one shot like a bullet from behind. Teetering
Faded tattoos over silver threads of drool. The bartender
Collects a pile of quarters and dimes, picks out the lint.
Sally, an old white lady with a pink mohawk, cackles. Sometimes
Life splatters like an artist with no training or vision.
Imagine stick figures walking through a world of rich, seeping colors.
Smiling, they inhabit donated, baggy denim and flannel. One fermenting soul gets stabbed
For singing another’s karaoke song. One human being in red sparkly pumps
Gets attacked then imprisoned for being too male or female for another’s liking.
Meth once in the popcorn machine. Pull tabs rigged. Meat raffle rigged.
Every bar at 3 pm is a ship just after the storm.
You’re alive is enough cause for celebration!
I could tell you I drank there because
The attic I lived in had no air-conditioner. I could say
It was a period when I was unemployed; or lived only two blocks away; my father took his life;
I just liked fruit flies. I remember a novel-in-progress about space garbage.
And on the 4th of July and Super Sunday, they put out celery and pizzas for free
On the duct-taped pinball machine.
But, really, it was the water lilies—how they’d reappear and disappear
In the stiff, late-night breeze, buzzing
Above crushed cans and condoms in wet leaves, on each slow stumble home.
One, a fuzzy planet. Another, a troubled century.
A third, just a lazy-eyed junkie on the block named LeNay.
A man steps into a bar, takes a seat between an old Norwegian, a Somali,
And an Indian. There is no punch line.
Instead, it’s like anti-church. Or descending the Grand Canyon.
Only at bedrock, can you look up
And witness all the lavish gradations of loss. The world
Is full of missionaries. Only the Angel of Death
Can kiss and hand you the knife
You’ll need to carve out your own capacity to be happy.
So I did.
Ed, thanks for the poem. I’m going to write here a response. A personal, subjective response. I understand it might deviate in some ways from your own intentions for and reading of this poem, and readers should be aware of that.
That said, I chose to write on this poem for several reasons: Because it celebrates a place even few Minnesotans know or have been to, and in your poem, you bring a humanity to the bar and its patrons that isn’t there either in the picture of our state or our society at large. Because it’s a so-called “dive bar,” nothing fancy or unique, the décor and premises worn out as some of the people drinking inside it. Because it’s near the Little Earth urban housing complex for Native Americans, but doesn’t have any definitive ethnic makeup, though the demographics are, like with any bar, not simply an accident. Because it’s a bar where “Sally, an old white lady with a pink mohawk, cackles” as she sits before her drink. Because there’s a lazy-eyed junkie “named LeNay,” the verb “named” implying that the person’s name is and is not important, may or may not be their real name, that the person’s name is, in a way, arbitrary and tells us nothing about their life story, just as the stereotypes we all have running around in our heads about class and gender and orientation and ethnicity and race tell us nothing about the individuals who are part of those groups.
To name can be to obscure and denigrate. To name can celebrate and see. It depends upon your vision, your vantage. And what is the vantage point of the poem? It’s written by a man who also comes to this bar, who frequents this bar for reasons he can name and reasons he can’t. Because he’s unemployed; because the bar’s near his apartment; because his father just took his life. It’s because he’s a poet, the type of poet who’s not comfortable in places where people take their own worth for granted, who, to use Baldwin’s phrase, “know they are splendid and flaunt it day by day.”
In Baldwin’s contrast between the splendid and the wretched, this is a bar for the “wretched,” for those without power, for those meant by Fanon’s title of his book on the colonial revolutions, The Wretched of the Earth. The poet is someone who may or not feel strongly about the political implications of the adjective “wretched” and Fanon’s book; the reader of only this poem wouldn’t know. But you’ve probably read Fanon’s book about colonial revolutions, as well as his brilliant and still useful analysis of the psychology of race in France and the French colonies, Black Skin, White Masks (more on this later). And so, I think for you, this is not just a poem about class; it’s also about race. And this bar has a unique place in the constellations of bars and nightclubs in the Twin Cities, each with their own demographics, and in terms of race, this bar is not a white hipster bar that’s in Uptown or a white ethnic bar that’s in Northeast; it’s not a black bar of the North side and it’s not a Hmong bar of East St. Paul and it’s not the Blue Nile with its mainly Somali and East African patrons, and it’s not a white suburban sports bar, and it’s not an Indian bar like the old Mr. Arthur’s on Franklin, where an Indian woman took me years ago, telling me she wanted to show me “her people.” No, this is a bar where there is no racial majority. This is a bar where a Korean American man walks in and sits down beside an old Norwegian, a Somali and an Indian, and certain readers may expect a joke here about ethnicity or race, but the poem eschews the joke and takes up prayer.
The poem says there are the formal churches, the churches based on history and ethnicity and class and country and race, and there are the churches no one sees are churches, places where holiness enters each night and where damnation is always present, as a basic condition of our humanity, and so redemption, the possibility of redemption is always present, if seldom given. It’s a place where mortality is not denied by the post-modern décor or the expensive dress of the patrons; it’s a bar where death is present in each sip, and is recognized, and of course, denied with each sip. It’s a bar where the Angel of Death is the presiding angel, is the spirit of comfort, and she or he can hand you the knife you need at any moment, so perhaps you don’t need to grab that knife right now, thinking you may never get another chance, even though that’s what your father did, and you can’t help thinking of your father and mother who came here and raised you in North Dakota, in a predominantly white working-class neighborhood located between the River River and a trailer park.
So you’re not one of those Asian American kids who grow up in the suburb and know they are destined for some elite school, even if you did eventually get your MFA from Brown, you had no idea of what it was like to be one of those kids, you would never be quite comfortable in their world as they would never be comfortable in yours, even if the average white person or black person or even Latino or Native or Asian American might see the two of us walking down the street, and think of us somehow as part of the model minority, those grade grubbing, mechanical Asians who ruin the curve and grew up in comforts other people of color do not experience. But I’m the one who grew up in a white middle-class Jewish suburb, I’m the one whose father was a Vice President at Blue Shield, and who placed me at the Jewish school because, he said, “where there are Jews, there’s going to be good schools.” So you and I come from different worlds, and perhaps that’s why you can write about the Schooner bar with a feeling of closeness that I could not, and perhaps part of the closeness I can’t understand stems from how I so want to read your lines in the light of alienation and racial anger (and not just the class anger), how I keep thinking if you’re the wrong body walking into the wrong bar, the question that will greet you in wordless ways and not so wordless ways is: What the hell are you doing here?
What the hell are you doing here? For the denizens of The Schooner, there are so many places in Minnesota, so many establishments, where that is the greeting they receive at the door. The men and women drinking in The Schooner know where they are not wanted, and they know they are not actually wanted here, in The Schooner, because really, in a sense, there is no place in the society that wants them, that really wants them. So they come here because this is the place where people who have heard “What the hell are you doing here?” too many times come to drink. But it’s also the bar for those who might ostensibly have a bar to go to, the old Norwegian, the Somali, but, at least on this night, the old Norwegian knows somehow that that white ethnic bar in the Northeast or the white American legion bar in Apple Valley aren’t really where this old Norwegian feels home or a part of, just as the Somali chooses to come here and not to the Blue Nile because the latter implies he belongs to a community he may not quite feel a part of, for whatever reasons in his personal history. And of course, you, the second generation Korean American from North Dakota, what bar could you go to in the Twin Cities—or indeed the world--enter and say, “These are my people”?
But in a way these are your people, and you have painted them here with your words in all their beauty, in all their stunning ability to survive their own version of the American nightmare. You have seen in them the struggles that you too have gone through, the existential questions that arise when you’re drinking in a bar at 3pm in the afternoon or late at night just before closing. That place where there is freedom from the need to belong, from any kind of belonging. Where the questions of failed love or a lost job or the death of someone close to you are kept at bay and yet still sit beside you quietly contemplating their own thoughts, their own drink, their own “lavish gradations of loss.”
And that, among many reasons, is why I love this poem.
Once, back in my twenties, a few decades ago, I asked myself certain essential existential questions, and some of those arose from Fanon, from Baldwin, from Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and from Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston, and from Edward Said and bell hooks. Back in my twenties, the questions were much are simpler then, and I was much more lost. But one day I picked Black Skin White Masks, where Fanon asks: What happens when the Black school child in the colonial French West Indies reads about our ancestors the Gauls, reads how the great white explorers went into Africa to civilize the savages? What is that child learning? And Fanon’s answer: Self- alienation, self-hatred, an identification with their colonial rulers.
And I read that and thought, Oh shit, that’s what I’ve been doing.
That, I like to think, was the first exam I took in seeking a way to enter the Schooner bar. Not graduate level, but a start. There were other more difficult exams to come.
For once I stopped wanting to be white—part of the prerequisite we know for being a model minority—once I discovered I was a Sansei, a third generation Japanese American, a person of color; once I declared myself to be a race man to my white artist friends, I was kicked out of their bar, kicked out with vehemence and various notes letting me know not to let the door hit me on the way out.
Back then, I did my own wanderings through the bars of the Twin Cities, my own version of those nights in your twenties when you’re out looking for what you think is an answer and I can tell you, Ed, there were no bars then where I found many Asian faces, and fewer male than female, and perhaps the world has changed some since then, but I don’t feel that change most times when I’m in a bar or a club even now, though perhaps your experiences may be different from mine.
For me, there is no bar or nightclub in the Twin Cities where I would feel any more comfortable, any more accepted, any more at home, no bar where I am ever greeted with a nod that says, You’re one of us.
I am never “one of us.” For me, it is always, What the hell are you doing here?
So even if I was greeted at The Schooner with a “what the hell are you doing here?” stare, it wouldn’t be filled with the same hostility or sense of privilege or power—however chimerical—that greets me in other bars and nightclubs I go to. The stare would imply that I was uppity, I was the one whom society had given the upper-hand to; I am the one who would most likely look down on the bar’s patrons and not vice versa. I might say upon entering, What the hell am I doing here?
To be a true patron of The Schooner, one has to feel the holiness of the place in one’s bones. You, Ed, feel that, and you have the language to describe that holiness. And though I too feel the holiness of this bar, it’s not in my bones the way it is in yours.
But perhaps I’m wrong about that. Perhaps the Schooner is a spirit anyone can enter, even if you don’t love pull tabs or meat raffles, even if you’re not high on something other than booze or want to get high on something other booze. If you believe enough in the anti-church, in the Angel of Death, in the sharpness of the blade she hands you. You have to hold that blade in your palm and make it yours, and whether you can carve out your own happiness with it is a question that’s always here, and you managed to do that, despite all the questions that brought you here, despite the losses, despite your thirst.
I know for you, this poem probably isn’t as much about race as I feel it, just as it isn’t as much about sexual alienation or being an Asian American male, though that is the song in me that responds to your lines. Harold Bloom, that great white Nobodaddy, made a school and a canon based on misreadings. That, he said, is what strong poets do.
Or stupid ones. Or ones who haven’t healed.
Two Asian men walk into bar….Why do I keep hearing that too as a joke? In an earlier version of this essay, I took it more toward a sexual direction, because for me that has always been a note present in any bar or club. It’s one of those songs I constantly hear as I try to make my way through the world, and it’s a song I hear my body singing whether I am welcomed or not.
But maybe for you, this poem isn’t about sex. Maybe this poem is an act of self healing, a moment when things turned, a grappling not for an answer but for a way of looking into and beyond the world, beyond whatever our bodies tell us we are.
But for me, in my personal misreading, this poem is about the body, our alien bodies.
And perhaps in doing so, I’ve just succumbed, I’ve neglected our minds. You’ve traveled over the globe, you’ve seen Korean communities from Kazakhstan to Mexico. You’ve lived in Seoul and the Korean countryside, and you know the history of that small nation; and of course, we know what happens to small nations and what subjugations they are often forced to endure and what happens to the psyche and souls of the people who endure those subjugations and forced exiles and emigrations, and that too is part of what you find here in this bar of exiles and immigrants, in this bar of no nation but those who come here and do not call it home.
There I go again: Defiance is not a note that is easy to sing, neither is hope. And if you don’t want easy answers, where do you go?
I can’t help but think about how for some Asian Americans, there are easier answers. Some pretend they’re white, and if they’re with a group of white friends, they can be buoyed up by being part of that white crowd. But there’s a certain cadence that goes with assimilating, with ignoring race as some Asian Americans do. Among white friends, you have to assent to their privilege, you have to pretend as if race is, at best, a minor matter, you have to keep silent about the differences between your experience and theirs. More specifically you have to swallow your anger about those differences and the larger structural inequalities that spawn them, about any stupid and racist remarks your white friends might make, you have to know if you speak up, you’ll be told you’re being overly sensitive, “not everything is about race,” you can’t take a joke, the joke about the man stepping into a bar and taking a seat “between old Norwegian, a Somali,/ And an Indian.” No, you have to take those insults and slights and smile as if the joke was on someone else not you, and you have to tell yourself, yes, the joke is on someone else, you’re not like those other Asian Americans, who just hang around with themselves, who won’t mingle with white people, who are afraid of white people, you’re not one of those other Asian Americans who are always so hung up about our race, so the joke is on those people and not on you, you’re not one of those people.
An Asian American like that? They’d never enter the Schooner.
But perhaps you might say here: David, this isn’t really a poem about race. It’s not about being an Asian American man or really anything Asian American at all. It’s about clearing your throat, about slaking your thirst, about a place to sit to contemplate the water lilies and the late night breeze as you stumble home on this fuzzy planet, underneath the stars that you may or may not look up to see. It’s about learning how large the universe is, how small your troubles. It’s about the possibilities in questions, about dancing on a blade. It’s about my love for my father and all the wrongs and wonders of his life. It’s about life, David. Why not celebrate that?
Ed Bok Lee is the author of Whorled, winner of an American Book Award and a Minnesota Book Award, and Real Karaoke People, winner of a PEN/Open Book Award. Lee is the son of Korean immigrants—his mother originally from what is now North Korea, his father from South Korea. "The Schooner” was sonically (only) inspired by found-text (in Swedish, which Lee does not know) in an unpublished diary by Swedish immigrant, Mathilda Benson, whose journal from over a century ago is one of thousands of documents archived at the American Swedish Institute. For more information on Lee’s Metatranslations Project, please visit: Metatranslations: Ed Bok Lee's Intervention in ASI's Library & Archives | American Swedish Institute