Lee, Li-Young (Poetry Criticism)
Li-Young Lee 1957–
American poet and autobiographer.
Lee is the author of two acclaimed collections of poetry, Rose (1986), which won New York University's Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award, and The City in Which I Love You, which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Deeply personal, Lee's poetry explores identity, particularly his sense of being part of a vast, global Chinese diaspora.
Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to parents who had been exiled from China. His maternal grandfather had been the first president of the Republic of China, and his father had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong in China before leaving for Indonesia. In Jakarta Lee's father helped found Gamaliel University, where he taught English and philosophy. In 1959 the family fled from anti-Chinese persecution in Indonesia, embarking on a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, arriving finally in the United States in 1964. After studying theology in Pittsburgh, Lee's father became a Presbyterian minister in a small town in Pennsylvania where Lee attended high school. Lee continued his studies at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Arizona, and State University of New York. He has taught at Northwestern and the University of Iowa.
Lee's background and upbringing are reflected in several issues that recur in his poetry, which explores the question of individual identity in a world where people have been uprooted from traditional cultures, but have not found complete acceptance in their adopted lands. His desire to understand and accept his father, whom he both loves and fears, is the central motif of Rose, while the nature of his own identity dominates his second collection, The City in Which I Love You. Lee records his experiences with great detail, often connecting seemingly disparate and occasionally abstract thoughts with a single image, such as a rose, persimmon, or cleaver.
Lee's poetry, particularly those poems in his second collection, has been lauded for its emotional depth and skilled use of language. Many critics have sought out Lee's poetic influences, noting Walt Whitman in particular, although the majority agree that his finest poems, such as "The Cleaving," depart from American poetic tradition. Several scholars have focused on the significance of Lee's Chinese heritage, which has sparked some critical debate. Zhou Xiaojing has responded by claiming that such readings "are not only misleading, but also reductive of the rich cross-cultural sources of influence on Lee's work and the creative experiment in his poetry." Zhou added, "Li-Young Lee's poems enact and embody the process of poetic innovation and identity invention beyond the boundaries of any single cultural heritage or ethnic identity."
Roger Mitchell (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: A review of Rose, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 63, No 3, Fall 1989, pp. 135-37.
[Mitchell names "tenderness " as the most salient quality of Lee's poetry and judges this a shortcoming in Rose.]
Rose, Li-Young Lee's first book, begins the career of a promising poet. Lee is one of a rising number of Asian-American writers, though in Rose that background is not an issue. One line refers to someone "exiled from one republic and daily defeated in another." Two other lines recall someone "who was driven from the foreign school-yards / by fists and yelling, who trembled in anger in each retelling." There is a poem, too, about relatives singing and remembering China. But Lee does not dwell on grievances. He recreates, instead, "immedicable woes" (Frost's term) about his love for his father. I don't think Lee set out to write a book about the loss of his father, … but the dead father enters almost all of these poems like a half-bidden ghost. So close is the father that Lee asks at the end of "Ash, Snow or Moonlight," "Is this my father's life or mine?"
In a book that records many gifts, small and large, intended and unintended, "The Gift" describes the son's principal debt to his father. In taking a metal splinter from his son's hand years before, his father recited a story in a low voice. Years later the son performs a similar service for his wife.
I can't remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face.
The point is not just that his father taught him something about love, but...
(The entire section is 736 words.)
Judith Kitchen (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Auditory Imaginations: The Sense of Sound," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLV, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 154-69.
[In the following review of The City in Which I Love You, Kitchen extols Lee's "verbal and visionary imagination."]
Li-Young Lee's second book, The City in Which I Love You, is the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets. This is a work of remarkable scope—musically as well as thematically—offering a sweeping perspective of history from the viewpoint of the émigré. He speaks for the disenfranchised, but from the particular voice of a late-twentieth-century Chinese-American trying to make sense of both his heritage and his inheritance. Positioning himself as father and son, Chinese and American, exile and citizen, Lee finds himself on the cusp of history; his duty, as he sees it, is to "tell my human / tale, tell it against / the current of that vaster, that / inhuman telling."
The City in Which I Love You picks up where Lee's first book, Rose, left off. The opening poem, "Furious Versions," is a long, seven-part account of his family's exile. Fueled with the sense that he is the only one who has lived to tell it, Lee recounts his father's fractured life and the loss of his brother. The effect is more than personal; it is admonitory—as if to warn us that we cannot face the "next nervous one hundred human years" without a knowledge of what his past represents. But whereas the central figure in Rose is the father, here the "furious versions" belong to the son—because his "memory's flaw / isn't in retention but organization." This long poem seems to fill in some gaps left by the previous book, but its language is angrier, less elegiac:
It was a tropical night.
It was half a year of sweat and fatal memory.
It was one year of fire
out of the world's diary of fires,
flesh-laced, mid-century fire,
teeth and hair infested,
napalm-dressed and skull-hung fire,
and imminent fire, an elected
fire come to rob me
of my own death, my damp bed
in the noisy earth,
my rocking toward a hymn-like night.
Although the story is personal and unique, the poems are declamatory, public even in their intimacy. They have as two of their sources Whitman and the Bible, and they have as their intention a passionate need to synthesize and instruct. They challenge us with their heightened rhetoric, exhibiting the dangers (as well as the glories) of eloquence. Lee's very strengths are his potential weaknesses. The echo of Whitman may need to be muted; even Lee's own tremendous verbal resources may demand modulation in order to achieve their finest realization. One more adjective, one more item in a list, and the poem could tip over into excess.
The ambitious title poem, 166 lines in the middle of the book, marks a turning point where the experience of exile is no longer the speaker's alone. "The City in Which I Love You" is a collage of twentieth-century horror rendered in an onrush of fragments, some evoking the nightly news, others surrealistic nightmare. In a devastated cityscape, the "I" of the poem...
(The entire section is 1360 words.)
Jessica Greenbaum (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Memory's Citizen," in The Nation, October 7, 1991, pp. 416-18.
[In the following essay, Greenbaum offers a favorable evaluation of both Rose and The City in Which I Love You.]
Sometimes poets seem like the orators at Speakers' Corner—I can see them now, stacking their well-built stanzas like orange crates, stepping to the top with a deep breath and saying what they have to say. Readers, meanwhile, mill about the edges of the literary park, hoping to be caught by a poet's music or gossip, by the telescopic insinuation of worlds or by the expansive description of them. Sometimes a poet's voice distinguishes itself by carrying authority and by addressing...
(The entire section is 1423 words.)
Zhou Xiaojing (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: "Inheritance and Invention in Li-Young Lee's Poetry," in MELUS, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 113-32.
[In the essay below, Zhou contends that "Li-Young Lee's poems enact and embody the processes of poetic innovation and identity invention beyond the boundaries of any single cultural heritage or ethnic identity."]
Li-Young Lee's two prize-winning books of poetry, Rose (1986) and The City in Which I Love You (1990), contain processes of self-exploration and self-invention through memories of life in exile and experiences of disconnection, dispossession, and alienation. While providing him with a frame of reference to explore the self,...
(The entire section is 6458 words.)
Baker, David. "Culture, Inclusion, Craft." Poetry CLVIII, No. 3 (June 1991): 158-75.
Includes commentary on The City in Which I Love You. Baker states: "I have to admit that I admire the desires this book expresses more often than I am able to admire the writing."
McDowell, Robert. "Li-Young Lee." In Contemporary Poets, Sixth Edition, ed. Thomas Riggs. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996.
Biographical and critical survey of the poet.
Miller, Matt. "Darkness Visible." Far Eastern Economic Review 159, No. 22 (May 30, 1996): 34-6.
(The entire section is 271 words.)