Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1752
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 current life situation as a father and husband himself. In “Nativity,” the persona feels that the key to understanding life may lie in the past, when his sister, brother, and mother each came up with a different answer to the enigmatic question, “What is the world?” While his sister thought of it as “An unfinished wing of heaven,” his more down-to-earth brother came up with “A house within a house.”In the gently ironic closing line of the poem’s first stanza, where this troubling question is introduced, it is left to their pragmatic and loving mother to provide closure to the children’s inquiries by fondly telling them, “One more song, then you go to sleep.”From this memory, which comes to him while characteristically lying awake at night remembering the childhood conversations of another night long passed, the adult persona arrives at the poem’s conclusion:
each must make a safe place of his heart,/ before so strange and wild a guest/ as God approaches.
Thus, it is up to each human being, whether father, son, mother, or sister, to create a loving life if they want to have any chance to be ready to welcome the divine in their life. This connection of life to a divine presence is another trademark of Lee’s poetry, who assures the reader that God can be experienced if one makes ready for Him.
Just as many of Lee’s poem celebrate life well lived, death is another crucial topic. In the world of Book of My Nights, both his father and brother have died by the time the adult persona gazes into the night. Their deaths are remembered often, and also serve as a reminder of human mortality, including that of the persona. Within Lee’s poetry, there is a strict logic leading to this conclusion, for just as he himself has become a father, so he, too, must eventually share his father’s death.
The certainty of death leads Lee back to the topic of remembering. Very often, his poems gently suggest that perhaps some sort of eternity can be found when grown children remember their deceased parents, keeping alive their memory. Through that act, the persona hopes, a glimpse of the dead person is seen, who has not left this world without any trace if he or she can still be remembered. Yet this process is seen as fragile and uncertain. “Do the years spell a path to later/ be remembered? Who’s there to read them back?” are anxious lines which express the worry that memory may fail, after all, in “Little Round.”
The unifying symbol employed by Li-Young Lee to capture the essence of human life, as the persona comes to see it, is the falling fruit. This sustained image runs through many of his poems and always carries the same message. From his observation of nature, Lee sees in the fruit a mirror of human existence. Just like the flower, once it has been pollinated, withers away and its petals fall to the ground, the growing fruit really exists only because of the seed it bears inside. In order for the seed to germinate and grow into a new tree, the fruit has to fall from the tree. In falling thus, the fruit enables life to continue with the next generation. New life springs from a seed successfully implanted in the earth, which must be the final destination and resting place of the fruit.
For Lee, the same applies to the cycle of human generations, where parents will conceive and bear children, whom they nurture and raise, while they themselves have to move towards their inevitable death. This connection is made explicit in “The Sleepless,” which opens with the persona’s self-awareness of being part of this cycle of birth and death. “Like any ready fruit, I woke/ falling toward beginning . . .” is the realization of this fate. While the parents, like all life, have to approach death as they age, they give a new beginning to life through their children. In Book of My Nights, this is indeed a universal condition of life, which “each falling thing endures” (“Lullaby”).
Yet while everything alive must fall towards death, there are moments of grace in this falling. For Lee, the most beautiful aspects of life are when memories of a fond family life bring back the past, support the present, and offer hope for the persona’s own future. In “Black Petal,” the persona’s dead brother voices this idea: “He says an apple’s most secret cargo/ is the enduring odor of a human childhood.” Here, memories sustain life and give hope in the face of an untimely death. The persona’s brother has not lived his short life in vain if he is lovingly remembered by his surviving siblings. This expression of hope is characteristic for Lee’s poetry, which consistently refuses to give in to pessimism. Hope and the cycle of generations are what make the nights of the persona endurable and give meaning to fragile life.
In the end, the night reveals to the persona the message that even though birth and death remain mysterious, life is very much worth living. In “The Hammock,” the persona states it thus:
Between two unknowns, I live my life.// Is it a door, and good-bye on either side?/ A window, and eternity on either side?/ Yes, and a little singing between two great rests.
This careful confidence that life can bring happiness if it is well lived is Lee’s enduring belief which shines through the poems of Book of My Nights.
Li-Young Lee’s ambitious project to presents poems written entirely at night offers the perceptive reader a wonderful collection of positive inspiration, while at the same time confronting the pain of death, and living. Gazing out from his window, the persona feels that “all the nights are one/ night, a book” open to all those who dare read along with Lee, as expressed in his poem “A Dove! I Said.” His poems are direct and rewarding, and his fourth collection of poetry solidifies Lee’s status as a major contemporary poet.
Sources for Further Study
The Boston Globe, October 15, 2001, p. B8.
Publishers Weekly 248 (July 9, 2001): 63.