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A Review of Jeffrey Ethan Lee’s Identity Papers.

In a New York subway in the mid-1990s, Jeffrey Ethan Lee was attacked and almost killed in a hate crime motivated assault in a New York Subway. That experience is the foundation for Identity Papers, a moving and elegiac poetry collection that appears to a be a long meditation on the loss and reconstruction of self. In particular, Lee (or the speaker of the poetry collection) must attend to the not-so politically correct questions of investigators who attempt to discern the motivations for the attack and even think that he may have had something to do with what occurred. He must also investigate how rage and physical violence completely transform his understanding of the world around him both at the moment of the attack and afterward as he sits recuperating in the hospital. The interesting aspect of this narrative is that Lee himself offers that he is attempting to place a “memoir” voice directly into poetry, dismantling the often heralded boundary between speaking subject and the author. One of the most interesting sentiments in the poetry collection is the speaker’s encounter with his own rage at almost being killed. The speaker states:

Yet just when I think it is over
I still think in weaponries
and nothing can save me from this knowledge,
this pain that recurs eternal as the throb of blood
in every brazen day.
A fierceness roars almost like a voice that cries:
I want to kill him again and again (38).

What is immediately intriguing in this passage is the way that the speaker is split off from his “pain.” The pain is what exudes the fierceness and the voice, rather than the speaking subject, seemingly drawing from the ways in which trauma splits and fragments the self. The speaker must confront a very base response to violence, the kill-or-be-killed response. What shakes the speaker to the core is that he has never had to deal with it in such a way and this fact ultimately unmakes his world.

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