Today I am participating in Serena Agusto-Cox’s Poetic Book Tours hoopla for Sherry Quan Lee’s new poetry collection Septuagenarian. The title is not a word I am familiar with, but I looked it up and it means a person who is from 70-79 years old. How many times have you heard a collection “boast” that the poet is an older person, especially a woman? Not very darn often.
The summary provided by the poet gives a good idea of her focus in the book: “Septuagenarian: love is what happens when I die is a memoir in poetic form. It is the author’s journey from being a mixed-race girl who passed for white to being a woman in her seventies who understands and accepts her complex intersectional identity; and no longer has to imagine love. It is a follow-up to the author’s previous memoir (prose), Love Imagined: a mixed-race memoir, A Minnesota Book Award finalist.”
In the case of Sherry Quan lee, the term “mixed-race” means that her father was Chinese and her mother was African-American or, more accurately, 3/4 AA and 1/4 white. Quan Lee’s mother preferred to pass as white, and she tried to get her children to do so as well. This wasn’t always easy because it created secrets and lies “Mama said, / cover yourself with lies“), such as seen in the poem “Silence”:
one of us had thick curly hair like Mother’s, one of us
had silky straight hair like Father’s; and, yes, one was
beauty and one shame/hotcombs and gas flames and
it was complicated pretending
Quan Lee’s father also wanted to be white, she asserts. Sadly, her father abandoned the family when Quan Lee was five years old.
One of the most poignant poems is “Mother’s and Mine,” which writes about bruising from 28 different perspectives. Tellingly, she writes in #19, “When I stopped wanting what I couldn’t have, I bruised less often.”
This book appears to have been written during the pandemic. It contains some pieces from previous work published by the poet, as well as new work responding to a “woke” perspective. (In fact, she uses that expression to describe how she has learned from living to be 72 in the poem “I Woke to This Place”). It’s sort of a cobbling together of her past with her now-experienced outlook. I love that she included photographs, especially her adorable cover photos, as well as her birth certificate. It really adds to the authenticity by helping document what Sherry Quan Lee’s life has been like. Reading the experiences of a woman who has gone through life differently than myself was fascinating. Because the poetic style is more literal and less figurative than I usually choose to read, I read this book more as an engaging and inspirational memoir than a poetry collection. Sherry Quan Lee’s story needed to be documented and shared, and I am so blessed that I was asked to read her book.
||Modern History Press
||Sherry Quan Lee
||PB 978-1-61599-568-4 / HC 978-1-61599-569-1 / eBook 978-1-61599-570-7
||PB $ 17.95 / HC $ 25.95 / eBook $ 4.95
||6 x 9 (100 pp)
||Social Science/Ethnic Studies/Asian American Studies