Behind My Eyes
Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to parents of Chinese heritage. Before leaving China in 1949 after the Communists took control, his father had served as Mao Zedong’s personal physician. Life in Indonesia was extremely difficult for the Lee family. Because of Sukarno’s oppressive regime, the family suffered at the hands of the authorities and were forced to escape from the country. After living for short periods of time in Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, the family finally settled in the United States in 1964. In each of his volumes of poetry, Lee has tapped into the experiences of exile, loss, and strength of family in order to add weight to his poetry. Lee published his first book of poetry, Rose, in 1986. Since then, he has published two highly regarded poetry volumes and a memoir. Behind My Eyes is his fourth collection of poetry and a worthy addition to his oeuvre. Since each collection is a labor of love, there have been significant gaps of time between each book of poetry. The first was published in 1986, the second, The City in Which I Love You, was published four years later in 1990, and the third, Book of My Nights, was not published until 2001. Since each of Lee’s volumes were highly praised, his fourth collection was eagerly awaited. Over the years, he has gained a rather large readership. It is rare for a book of poetry to sell in the many thousands, but Lee’s third volume sold more than ten thousand copies. In addition to his reputation as a fine poet, he published a powerful memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance, in 1995. The memoir touches on what life was like for the Lee family in Indonesia, the years they spent in one place after another, and the struggles they had in adjusting to life in a small town in Pennsylvania. The family endured every hardship with love and perseverance. The Before Columbus Foundation honored this extraordinary book with an American Book Award.
Just as Lee’s poetry, his memoir is rooted in the past. In addition to his own personal past, he has inherited his family’s past. The past has so many metaphysical and magical layers. For anyone, the past can be a burden that stifles a person’s ability to move forward. For Lee, it was necessary for him to expose what lives in memory, what festers in the past. He knew that he had to use the tools of the poet in order to become the master of his collective past. Over the years, he has learned that it is a never-ending process. As soon as one layer is exposed, it is discovered that there is so much more that needs to be faced.
Lee’s father casts a huge shadow on everything around him. Larger-than-life, he was a physician in China, a political prisoner in Indonesia, an evangelical minister in Hong Kong, andeventuallya minister in a Pennsylvania Presbyterian church. The struggle to survive as an outcast, refugee Chinese immigrant was always paramount. There was no way to escape oneself. The poet son has learned this, realizing that it is best to confront his identity. In most of what Lee has written, he revisits the bonds that hold a family together, the love that helps members of a family to survive against terrible trials, and the way that memory connects people to the past and to one another. Through close observation of his father, Lee struck a universal chord in his first volume of poetry. The struggles of his father become the struggles of every father who attempts to hold his family together against the powers of tyranny. For his second collection, Lee turned the spotlight onto himself, onto his own identity as a Chinese American. Lee is concerned with how the individual fits into the whole, into the world around him, and into the world of his ancestors. While the past runs through all of Lee’s volumes, he turned inward more deeply in his 2001 collection. This introspection led the poet to a heightened sense of self. Like a restless spirit, Lee looks into the face of mortality. In Behind My Eyes, his fourth collection, the poet expands on the themes that have been grandly illuminated in his previous volumes. Exile, sacrifice, mortality, loyalty, and the power of the past pervade the new collection with a...
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