Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia. His father had been a personal physician of Mao Zedong, the Communist dictator of the People’s Republic of China, but escaped to Indonesia with his family when Mao turned against him. When Lee was one year old, his father was imprisoned in Indonesia when that country turned against ethnic Chinese, such as the Lees. One year later, after his father’s release from prison, Lee’s family escaped and traveled through Asia, finally coming to the United States in 1964. Lee grew up in the Chicago area, where he also married his American wife Donna, with whom he has two sons. Many of the traumatic events of his childhood provide a background for Lee’s poetry.
Li-Young Lee’s Book of My Nights is his fourth book of poetry and continues to concern itself with issues important to the poet’s strong and original imagination. Even though Li-Young Lee has consistently downplayed the influence of his personal life on his poetry, a reader may feel that many of his poems draw strength from their author’s careful observation of his family life. This, in turn, leads him to a larger reflection on humanity’s fate in a vast universe where “there are stars we haven’t heard from yet” because their light has not yet reached Earth (“The Hammock”). The interplay between the intensely personal and the universally human has been one characteristic element of Lee’s poetry, and is found again in the poems collected here.
What unifies Book of My Nights is that every poem takes place during the night, when the poet’s persona reflects on things large and small. Sitting at the window and gazing into the darkness outside, the persona feels that answers to his life’s question are within his reach, yet require careful work in order to be coaxed into an understandable form. The dark vastness beyond his room is both awesome and comforting, as described in “Night Mirror:”
Li-Young, don’t feel lonely
when you look up
into great night . . .
. . . All that space
the nighthawk plunges through,
what is it but your own infinity.
Here, the universe outside is somewhat forbidding in its largeness, yet also filled with life. Once the persona understands that his own life is as abundant and full of infinite possibilities as is the night, he can find comfort in this connection with life and nature outside his own body, and his loneliness disappears. This connection of the personal to the carefully observed life around him is a central thread running through many of Lee’s fine poems.
With its silence and relative absence of domestic activity, the night also serves as an ideal trigger for the persona’s personal memories and recollections. The night offers special insights to the persona, who articulates them and the processes by which they come into existence in a language full of intricately constructed metaphors and finely woven poetic images and allusions. In “Pillow,” the “night is a river bridging/ the speaking and the listening banks,” connecting the acts of collecting memories and their retelling. Thus, “night begins when my mother’s fingers/ let go of the thread” of her daily activities, and “Night is the shadow of my father’s hands/ setting the clock for resurrection,” an allusion to his late father’s work as a Christian minister trying to save souls.
While Books of My Nights is both intensely personal and yet strives for the universal, the poet’s persona also encourages readers to let the night inspire them. In Lee’s hauntingly beautiful “A Table in the Wilderness,” he says that “You’ll have to find your own/ pictures, whoever you are,/ whatever your need.”
For the poet, the night yields many personal images carrying special messages, and poem after poem works hard to extricate that meaning and articulate it in a way that satisfies the persona’s hunger for understanding his place in life, and the cycle of human generations from the father to the son, who becomes father to another son.
Reflections on this passing of generations are a recurrent theme in Li-Young Lee’s poetry. Remembering his childhood among his siblings and parents leads the poet to thoughts about his...
(The entire section is 1752 words.)