Sweet Spot by Kenneth Lee

Author Kenneth Lee
Author photo: Kathleen Lee  
In Sweet Spot, his second collection of poems, Kenneth Lee rings all the changes life has to offer. We are presented with a salmagundi from a life richly lived: a childhood many of us can only envy, a long and delighted marriage, a rewarding work life. But here too is the violence of war (Lee served as a fighter pilot); the sadness of life’s inevitable endings; a grandfather’s realization that youth must inevitably, even if nicely, say “move over” to its elders; and the medical realities faced by the poet in his role as a doctor specializing in pathology.

Front cover photograph by David Mason,
courtesy of Getty Images
(Photographer’s Choice RF)

 

In the end, however, joy triumphs. Lee's poems often touch on what makes life such a sacrament; he leads us to relish the epiphanies that can grace a dying day, epiphanies such as “the fox / perched on the fender of a pickup truck, / visible in fleeting glimpses / between the veils of snow.” In Sweet Spot, writes Jim Moore, the author has articulated “a complex and mature vision, a vision which includes family, friends, the past, and an often wry sense of what it means to be a ‘citizen,’ both of the United States and of the world. These poems both challenge and inspire. What a pleasure to have them gathered together in one book.” Tom Daley adds this: “With the same intensely human scrutiny he turns on the tissue slides he evaluates as a pathologist, Kenneth Lee appraises the narrative of his life in these expertly crafted poems. He delivers his verdict on the strange and wonderful chemistry of memory and experience, and the prognosis is hopeful and exhilarating.”

Kenneth Lee was born in Teaneck, New Jersey. He served as a pilot flying RF-4C aircraft in Vietnam and elsewhere. Currently he is a pathologist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Associate Professor of Pathology at Harvard Medical School. He is the co-author, along with Christopher Crum and Marisa Nucci, of a popular textbook, Diagnostic Gynecologic and Obstetric Pathology. He lives with his wife, Kathleen, in Boston, Massachusetts.

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BOOK STATISTICS

ISBN 978-1-936482-22-1

Copyright © 2012 by Kenneth Lee

6" x 9" paperback, 88 pages

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SAMPLE POEMS

GROUND RULE TRIPLE

That summer saw the end of pick-up stickball;
chasing flies thenceforth was supervised.

So I learned to fear the flubbing of a grounder,
flailed at laughing fast-balls flying past.

But once one came in fat and I connected,
met it in the sweet spot, sent it a mile.

It bounced into the woods (we didn’t have a fence)
and they gave me a ground rule triple.

Today, that tenth of a second when the ball
and the bat and my hands and my arms were one

is as long as my entire childhood.

 

FLY BOY

1964, USAF Pilot Training,
Craig Field, Selma, AL


First flight:
the eastern sill unsheathes a thin red streak.
We don our chutes, grab helmets, checklists, charts.
I copy his insouciant swagger
to our shrill T-37 Tweety Bird.

The cockpit ritual: we stagger
the twenty-two chants—thumbs out.
The crew-chief chucks the chocks—we roll.
Warlock one-four, you’re cleared.

I mash the throttles full.
Like a hound cut loose, the Tweet leaps out.
An angling angel tugs
and frees us from earth’s easy pull.

A tiny bubble rises in the sea.
Abeam the Selma drive-in
he cranks on the horizon
and yanks the nose around.

I’m sucked into my seat,
sweat pours into my mask.
“OK, it’s your turn now.”
I fumble for the mix
of throttle and rudder and stick.
“It’s an airplane, man—it’s not a plow!”
Tombigbee River bend:
he hauls us up—a stall!
“You got it—recover!” he spits.
I nose ’er down, she sways and sags,
I grab my bag
and dump those eggs and grits.

 

EMPTYING THE ROOM

First the sunken yellow couch,
its molded hollows
holding you a place.
The wobbly night stand next,
support for your whole universe
as darkness closed.

But the hardest leavings attach
to the parts of dying
you actually seemed to enjoy—
the large enameled delftware bowl
for baths: equestrian St. George.

An undulating dragon guards the rim,
the matching pitcher:
tandem beast and knight eternally confront.
The TV too (so not to squander consciousness
when books became too hard).

Your handbell by the intercom—
I try its mild tinkle,
loosen long-sequestered tears.
The table lamp from Sears:
its cream-white bulbous base
you only had to touch to turn it off.

 

PROTOCOL

I process them
according to established protocol:
a tiny foot, a hand
suspended in the purple slush,
placental villi,
lovely
all those once-ardent strivings
waving like anemones
anxious that I detect
that they had come at least this far.

 

CHAOS THEORY

Because a butterfly in Bolivia fluttered its left wing,
I entered the revolving door a step behind you.
Because in Zanzibar a zebra stubbed its foot,

I dropped behind another step and caught my foot
As the spinning door brought forth its rearward wing
Jamming its momentum just as you

Attempted to emerge. Because I smiled at you
In a way you found disarming, you waited at the escalator’s foot
To ask directions to the Monet wing.

Because I walked there with you,
Tonight the coast of France slides underneath our wing.

 

LONG-TERM PROSPECTIVE CLINICAL TRIAL

Do you remember the night we got engaged?
Hardly more than strangers really:
New Year’s Eve, a couple of drinks,
each reaching for a railing to hold onto
in the middle of that swaying ballroom
careening through the universe.

Too soon they brought us down
with their ropes and hooks.
Two starry-eyed white mice,
we must have looked like perfect candidates
to test their controversial theory
that a single dose of weightlessness sufficed
to seal for life an embryonic love.

Their method: time.
Materials included: five serial injections
of well-past-midnight screaming infants,
followed up with booster shots
of stitches, braces, tantrums, teachers,
phone calls, football, boyfriends, girlfriends, cops.

Today we hugged our youngest, drove away.
Tonight, from behind your book
I feel your furtive glance across the room:
we’re down to two adults and they’ve come back
with clipboards and white coats, accruing data
crucial to the ultimate results.

I TURN FIFTY, I TURN SIXTY

My grandson is a one-year-old today.
He took three wobbly steps before he fell.
I did the same thing I did yesterday.

He saw a star. Though it was far away,
He kept it close inside a little cell.
My grandson is a three-year-old today.

A pony ride, some squeals, a sprinkler spray,
Blew out five birthday candles. Me? Well,
Pretty much what I did yesterday.

His first grade play: portrayed a manta ray.
A brand new bike with racing stripes, a bell.
My grandson’s seventh birthday is today.

His Dad took him to see the Yankees play
When he turned nine. As near as I can tell,
I did whatever I did yesterday.

A tremor when he glanced at Barbara Gray,
A strange new note, a pulse, a surge, a swell.
My grandson passed eleven years today.
I don’t recall what I did yesterday.

 

FIFTIETH HIGH SCHOOL REUNION

A bolus of war babies rolling through the system,
in fifty-five, they funneled us
inside that giant Skinner Box and through a maze
of happy, wretched, fleeting, endless days.

Until the one when they hooked up the Hoover,
sucked us out of the corridors
and blew us around in a bag for fifty years.
Till finally tonight they dump us out
at the River Vale Country Club door.

Where we amble into a swarming foyer
full of geeks and jocks and beauty queens
shuffling around like arthritic flamingoes,
each canting a half-full glass of Chardonnay.

So we sidle up beside some dried-up bird,
lean in to catch its name tag, then shriek
to realize it’s Late-for-Homeroom Jones
still goofing off inside those rheumy eyes.

Oh Time! Your maps are all inaccurate.
You’ve wormed inside our yearbook:
you’ve drawn in all those rivers,
put deserts where the forests used to be,
moved all the mountains south.

Nevertheless, we sit down at our tables
with some Florentine chicken alfredo and more wine,
trying without much success
to channel our rambunctious ancestors.

But wait. Our emcee’s organizing games:
Form two lines, boys versus girls:
Who’s first to sing the entire alma mater,
recite the names of all the Mouseketeers,
match the years with every Elvis hit?

It works!
Soon we’re shaking out of our rumpled skins
to piped-in fifties oldies. We’re back in the gym
among the only bunch who’ve ever really known us
and glad they’ve come to see us home again.

 

AT DOLLY’S DINER

I was taking a break from writing
over a cup of coffee in a booth
at Dolly’s Diner out on 59,
the February afternoon fading
with my spirits,
wondering if there really was
such a thing as inspiration.
That’s when I saw it in the parking lot:
the fox
perched on the fender of a pickup truck,
visible in fleeting glimpses
between the veils of snow.

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