“Scapegoat” by T. K. Lee

There’s something wonderfully fresh and energetic in T. K. Lee’s innovative second poetry collection, Scapegoat (2022). Intricately layered, these poems are like looking through a kaleidoscope so that with each new viewing, something different and intriguing emerges from the words, images, and structures. These poems vibrate with words that dance about on the visual page with unique placements as well convey their own meanings in a linguistic sense. Often bitingly stunning, sometimes tinged with loss, bold with conflict, but always creative, these poems have a vitality that shines.

Love, with all its nuances and often vexing complexities in relationships, is an abiding and central theme in this collection. The nephew and uncle in “Hospitality,” the poignant opening poem, are an excellent example:

Besides, what he knows of

loving now’s scheduled appointments, scheduling appointments, a

landline in the waiting room,

a nurse’s name, another nurse’s name, another nurse’s name, another—

enough to keep each man make-believing that soon:


They’ll be back to the coast, this summer? Come fall, back to the

             mountains, camera in hand:

Collect a leaf as it turns when we go.


This opening poem also introduces what will become an underlying and powerful theme in the collection. Beyond the nature of the nephew-uncle relationship, this poem and others look for a way of knowing how to be and how people might find their way in the world. As in “Hospitality,” the nephew and uncle are “two men thrown a life of never quite / knowing his place.” And explicitly, in “Neck and Neck,” the speaker notes he is “Concerned with / when to stand, to sit, to speak, to think.” Not just that, but also “I stay bothered by how much I worried that / I would not be like you.”

Other poems also address the issue of how to be in this world—or in some cases, not fitting into this world. In “Native,” addressed to the late poet Sylvia Plath directly, the narrator speaks of a new jacket and a trip to the zoo on his birthday: “I laughed at myself. Everyone else seemed bothered by that.” In “Full Love,” the poet can’t even tell a joke because “I laugh in the wrong places.”  In “The Accident of a Civilized Man,” the subject closes himself up:

he monks along

a kitchen window

devoted to

making a habit

of curtains drawn…

The poem “Sapelo” works as a gorgeous tribute to both the people who still live on that Georgia barrier island and to its landscape. Lee effectively uses natural images such as “behind the crown / of saw palmetto / …the fiddle-crabs come out…/ to play their one-armed music…” Such vibrant images, combined with a revealing look at a mysterious “Josephine,” create an evocative poem with a haunting tinge of sadness:

against the driftwood

she would, in a moment,

lean far enough over—

her onyx midriff large,

curves of deep lines

trenched for miles

of a lived-in back,

of squatted shoulders

that circle and circle

her, a familiar shape

of a story, of an old-time

religion, sanded down

by years of looking

at things leaving,

at loose children

tied to the always-wind…


Lee, in “Imitatio,” an ekphrastic poem replying to Brueghel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” shows a cleverness of insight and wording, observing that “If what goes up must come down, then falling isn’t failing. It’s / another way of flying.” In this poem, Lee also begins to more freely use strike-through markings in the construction of his poems. “But of indifference, wasn’t he no?”

When asked about his use of strike-outs, footnotes, and odd formatting white spaces, what he calls the “draft look,” Lee answered that Scapegoat attempts to examine love:

Love,” in all its various, and at times, its unattractive and raw, second-guessed, shapes: parental, familial, sexual, social, etc. … As a first try with this book, I chose to leave the strike-outs, etc. in place because I feel, to a serviceable extent, that seeing them on the page assists in the reading of the work—the places where such experimentation is utilized speaks not only specifically to the poem but also in the larger context of how impossible Love is, at times, to understand, how uncomfortable it is to find a place for it, and not the least of which when we come to the hard reality that regardless of how much we may try to rewrite those bitter moments we live through (i.e., a broken heart), we have to accept the fact that it will nevertheless become an indelible part of our stories, and in this way, it cannot be erased.

The central and longest poem at sixteen pages in the collection, “Scapegoat,” makes extensive use of what Lee called the “draft look,” with multiple strike-outs. One whole named segment, “If Made to Bear the Blame,” is crossed-out. The effect is dramatic and adds a complexity that will land differently with various readers. A few readers might merely be annoyed or confused. Some might wonder if they received an incomplete draft, not a final. However, most will no doubt, as Lee hopes, reach to “understand” no matter how much we might wish to strike-out and rewrite those “bitter moments we live through,” they—like the words under the strike-outs—“will nevertheless become an indelible part of our stories…and cannot be erased.”

Eloquent, thoughtful, evocative, and beautifully eccentric, Scapegoat is a worthy book of poetry by a promising young poet and playwright. Poetry and literature readers should keep an eye on T. K. Lee. He is an award-winning member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the Society for Stage Directors and Choreographers, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, among others. In addition to poetry and drama, he has also crafted prize-winning short fiction and is core faculty in the nationally ranked MFA programs in Creative Writing, as well as in Theatre Education, at the historic Mississippi University for Women, the nation’s first public academic institution for women, in Columbus, Mississippi.




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