Li-Young Lee’s “Early in the Morning,” was published in The American Poetry Review and later included in Lee’s first collection of poems, Rose (1986). It is a four-stanza, free-verse poem written from the point of view of an adult looking back on his adolescence or late childhood and, like many of the collection’s poems, reflects on Lee’s complex relationship with his parents and his past. It is the sixth poem in the collection, coming right after “Dreaming of Hair,” and contains many subjects and images typical of Lee’s poetry, such as parentchild relationships, the importance of food, family rituals, and the act of watching. Like many of Lee’s poems, it is told in the first person. Although the first two stanzas of the poem describe Lee’s mother’s ritual of combing her hair, in the second two stanzas the speaker zeroes in on the significance of the act to his father. Lee’s father, a powerful, authoritarian, emotionally distant, and, at times, tender man, died in 1980, and Lee’s early poems can be seen as an attempt to come to peace with his memories of him. Lee’s voice is soft, almost sad, and his language direct and accessible. This poem serves as a useful introduction to Lee’s work, as it describes an experience with which most people are familiar: watching and learning from their parents.
Lee uses the title as the setting of the poem, the first stanza of “Early in the Morning” describing what happens at that time of day. He is very precise in locating the time when his mother combs her hair. It is “while the ‘long grain’ is softening” but “before / the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced.” The “long grain” is most likely rice, a breakfast staple for many Asian cultures. It softens when cooked. The winter vegetable could possibly be a cucumber or a pickled whole radish with garlic. These are often heavily salted and served in a kind of gruel called congee. This is very early morning, as it is also “before the birds” appear. The precision with which Lee details when his mother combs her hair suggests an organized and efficiently run household, one in which such simple rituals carry meaning beyond their appearance. The fact that she uses a comb made of ivory, an expensive material, adds symbolic weight to the act and also provides visual contrast to the mother’s black hair.
Lee uses a simile when he describes his mother’s hair as “heavy / and black as calligrapher’s ink.” Similes are comparisons using “like” or “as” to underscore similarities between dissimilar things. Calligraphy refers to stylized writing or lettering, and Chinese calligraphy is comparable to painting in its ability to evoke emotion through a rich variety of form and design. It is both abstract art and, from a practical point of view, written language. By comparing his mother’s hair to “calligrapher’s ink,” Lee evokes his knowledge and love of Chinese culture.
In this stanza, Lee locates his mother in space. The speaker not only watches his mother but his father as well, who is also watching the mother. The boy’s attention now is on the father’s observation of the hair-combing ritual. The boy watches his father watching. The sound of the combing is so beautiful that the speaker imagines it is “music” to his father’s ears. Such subtle music could not be heard, however, without utter silence, and it is this silence that pervades this poem and acts as backdrop to the speaker’s observations and thoughts.
In this stanza, the speaker...
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