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Two Poems
Jeffrey Lee

is proud to present two selections from the CD "Identity Papers," a poem for two voices, Hsiao-Ming (Early Morning Light) and Hong (Phoenix), by Jeffrey Ethan Lee.

"I was inspired to write identity papers after a young assailant tried to kill me with a hammer at a subway station in Brooklyn in August, 1994, while I was finishing a Ph.D. at NYU. This poem comes from the tradition of saying the hard truth in the most direct way possible (I think of Etheridge Knight and Ralph Ellison as models). But our society has grown even more vexing. I have tried to capture how it is in language that is lyrical yet visceral, intellectual yet brutal. I sought to span the language from the gutter to the research library, and to speak about race and violence in what is, above all, an honest account."

- Jeffrey Ethan Lee

For more information, or to purchase the identity papers CD, visit

dedicated to Hsiao-Ming.
Jeffrey Ethan Lee: voice
Lori-Nan Engler: voice
Toshi Makihara: percussion
copyright 2002 Drimala Records.



selection #1

The narrator wants to call his partner but has been restrained, making it harder to get to the phone. Meanwhile, another voice [sotto voce] gives the definition of identity. Then he calls his friend Rob a few blocks away and then calls his partner. Then he has problems with the ER guards; an Asian-American nurse vouches for him. He starts another dialogue with Rob in the ER; meanwhile, part of his mind starts to dissociate into a homicidal rage. He has problems with a bitter physician, and Rob intervenes. Rob and the narrator joke around, in the end.

ER Entries: feeling funked up takes the definitions of identity from The Oxford English Dictionary as well as others. It alludes to the image of Dr. Frankenstein's Creation, and the monster from Hollywood. Later there is a reference to Jurgen Habermas, the German philosopher and social theorist. There is also a joking allusion to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. In the last section there is a mention of 4th Avenue where the 4th Avenue and Union Street subway station is. Hamburger Hill was the name of the site of the famously futile battle during the Vietnam War.


ER Entries: feeling funked up

[11:03 p.m.]

[sotto voce]
I plead with an attendant to call you;
he promises but leaves
without asking
[etymology uncertain —
for any number...
idem ‘sameness,’ and identidem
I lurch at Blurred White, "Hey — where’s the phone?"
over and over again.’

[11:19 p.m.]

"Why — have I been restrained?"
from idem and entitas
A black smirk: "You the perpetrator?"
‘that being.’]

A white blurt: "Stop touching it.
Someone’ll take care of it don’t worry."
The state or

[11:42 p.m.]

quality of
But my bandages bleed
being identical,
and each inhale aches —
or the condition of being
and my heart flowers into fire
the same
and a monster created out of me
in substance, composition,
groans alive,
rips velcro restraints,
tugs tape free,
paws off glue,
clutches the aluminum bed on wheels,
elevates a spastic torso
(amusement for some jeering patients)
under consideration;
slaps stilt limbs to the floor,
staggers past mannequin guards
into the red-alarmed eyes in the lobby —
o those poor waiting people
fill the Creation with homicide —

[11:45 p.m.]

The phone’s so far away —
2. The sameness of
   time itself slides elastic,
a person or thing
the longer each second stretches
at all times or
   the stiffer each gets,
in all circumstances;
and the fluorescent lights
the condition
   and the orange scoop chairs
or fact
and the chrome coin slot
   of the black pay phone all glare
a person or thing
like broken glass is
is itself
   under blinding magnesium flares
and not
and the half-snuffed relatives waiting for
something else;
   doused patients stare at me
and fear —

Wait — what’ll this cost me?
Personal identity (in Psychology)
What if the authentic self can only be
condition or fact of remaining the same person
recovered through authentic loss —
throughout the various phases of existence;
What else do I have to lose?
continuity of the

[11:58 p.m.]
                Blocks away, my friend Rob answers his phone:
            "Hey, how are you?"
            "I got attacked."
            "What hospital are you in?"
He’s already coming: "Good. That’s in the neighborhood..."
I know he will — but still I ask, "Can you come?"
                "Of course I’ll come. I’ll be right over."
                "Thanks," a stranger thanks Rob.
                "Well, actually, now that you mention it, I was going to do my hair tonight..."

[11:59 p.m.]
                Punching in our number
is the most violent act of all, to me,
fearing for our lives’ story
whose hand-sewn signatures
may sliver apart
when I wound our pages.
How will you ever read again
alone through the nights waiting up for me —
you’re already scared:
                "Where are you?"
                "A hospital — I got attacked but I’ll. B — be okay."
                "What happened to you?"
                "I got attacked by some guy, but I’ll be okay."

[12:04 a.m.]
The guards challenge me re-entering ER:
                "Hey where ya think you’re going?"
                "Who the hell ya think you are?"
What kind of morons work here?
                "You cant go in there!" one actually yells.
The clowns start to reach —
I’m thinking throat, temple, neck –
if — if it wouldn’t hurt my hands so much
      to kill them.
The only nurse who taped me up,
an asian-american, vouches:
                "He’s a patient."
                "Do you have any I.D?"
                "He’s a patient."

[12:13 a.m.]
Slumped into an orange glare, I confide:
                "Rob — you know,
                every time someone resembles him
                I want to kill him —
                but everyone resembles him.
                Half the guys in these chairs are him —
                even the little kids...
                I can’t help it...
                I want to kill every single one of them."

                "That must be hard for you..."

Without a pause
meanwhile, part of
I go on:
my mind drifts
"Habermas has this idea
back outside
that middle-class individuals
seeing canals of sky
lost hold of the public sphere
between black buildings,
hundreds of years ago —
and everyone’s white,
and corporate bodies
black or hispanic
have no conscience,
— I’m the sole asian —
their interests
are so inept,the cops
like aristocracies
are so entrenched,
my attacker’s friend,
so veiled,
never even getting
there’s no hope
his name
for this whole generation
though he saw it all.
being trashed;
But they took
they have nothing,
my name
know nothing,
though I was
hate everything —
their world’s
by pain.
such a prison
I want to kill
prisons are their shelters.
all of them.
But not hating them
is hard, now."


[1:27 a.m.]
The bitter physician avers:
                "It might save your life, but it’s expensive...
                                                            So, it’s up to you."
I laugh — but laughing really hurts.
                "What would Heidegger do?" Rob jokes.
I nod, "He’d get the X-rays to rule out the brain hemorrhage."
                "Well, then, you should too."
                "So, how long will it take?"
Bitter explodes into close-up focus:
                                                            "I told you what would happen.
                Weren’t you listening? I’m not going to tell you again!"

Rob intervenes, he even steps half-between: "I’m sorry.
            My friend means no harm, but he isn't as clear as usual
                because of his – head injuries. He can’t remember
                you said the x-rays would mean another hour of waiting.
                Is there any way we could expedite this?"

Biting back his anger,
Bitten softens into a poof of smock,
blows down-hall and leaves us in peace.

[1:52 a.m.]
               "I don’t wanna find out 4th Avenue’s nick-name is Hamburger Hill..."
               "Man, didn’t I tell you not to gather material like this?"
               "Laughing hurts, Rob. Stop. Please."
He presents all my poems (a surprise), then says deadpan:
               "Hey sign this — in case you don’t make it out of here,
I want the death-bed edition. It could be worth something years from now."

                        It hurts so much worse when I laugh
               but I want to —
I want to feel hurt the way humans can.



selection #2

The narrator describes the city at night as seen from the perspective of one crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge. "She" is the spirit of the city but also "the light in the darkness" that becomes Early Morning Light.

crossing walt whitman bridge (westbound toward Philadelphia) alludes to Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower."


crossing walt whitman bridge (westbound toward philadelphia)

                            the city rises all night
       like a galaxy poised
burning throngs of strung lights
  with streaking traffic reds —
                              but O so much more beautiful

She touches me
  and I am by my own hands amended.
She rivers over my rage
  hot as glasphalt bleeding tar
and breaks my parched husk
  to raise me in love’s shower,
    and no harm can come to me —
She is in each thing that touches me
  and in my roots’ genealogy,
one with the wilding city
  even dressed in derelicts and addicts
with gasoline-flaming orange hair
  by polished brass poles
and youths decked out in grunge,
  yet this is all I want —
She pours electric lights across
  the wide and winding rivers
    overflowing with liquid neon —
She nestles in the soft halogen fog
  of her scraped — but no purer — skies
by towers straight as search lights rise —
  She holds my veins’ mortal wishes
    in her serpentine coilings
        and desires deeper than soil is —
She is the light in the darkness
  the beacon
        still unbroken
                      but O so much more beautiful


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