(Poets and Poetry in America)

Li-Young Lee’s poetry draws on his memories of the refugee experience and stories recounted by family members. He explores the question of individual identity in a world where people have been uprooted from their culture and have not found acceptance in their new land. Many immigrants remain silent about their past lives, and their silence adds to the confusion and loss of identity that characterize the immigrant experience. Lee faces the complex issues of displacement as he seeks to understand earlier generations of his family. Fragmented memories of traumatic events haunt his life.

Lee uses the free-verse style and writes in the present tense as he fuses present experience with images from the past. The clarity and simplicity of his poems allow the reader to see ordinary scenes in a different way. His poems usually focus on a situation or character that sets the stage for his musings on love, friendship, and the meaning of life.

In the foreword to Rose, Stern wrote that “understanding, even accepting, the father is the critical event, the critical ’myth’ in Lee’s poetry.” His father’s life is so entwined with his own that at times he seems to become his father. For example, at the end of the poem “Ash, Snow, or Moonlight,” he asks “is this the first half of the century or the last?/ Is this my father’s life or mine?” Lee’s poems show his reverence for both of his parents, but it is his loving but fearful father that he seeks to understand.

History is always present, coloring the way Lee sees his life. The gaps in his history haunt him, causing him to seek answers to his questions about the violent events that took place in Indonesia when he was a small child. He remembers images and scenes of terror, but he does not fully understand what happened.

“The Gift”

As the narrator of “The Gift” (from Rose) removes a metal splinter from his wife’s hand, he recalls the scene when he was a boy of seven and his father removed a splinter from his palm. To distract the boy, the father told a story in a low and reassuring voice. The poem ends with the boy kissing his father as he holds up the splinter. In describing this ordinary scene, Lee reflects on the complex relationship that exists between father and son. Although the son does not remember the story, he can “hear his voice still, a well/ of dark water, a prayer.” He recalls his father’s tenderness as he laid his hands against his face, but he also remembers “the flames of discipline/ he raised above my head.” The hands that cared for him were the same hands that beat him.

Lee addresses the reader directly as he says “Had you entered that afternoon/ you would have thought you saw a man,/ planting something in a boy’s palm.” The reader would have witnessed an ordinary scene between a man and his son, but “Had you followed that boy/ you would have arrived here,/ where I bend over my wife’s right hand.” In performing this simple act, the father taught the son something about love, and the son reflects on the ways in which his father has influenced his life.


“Persimmons” (from Rose) recalls an incident from the sixth grade, when Lee was slapped by his teacher for confusing the word “persimmon” with the word “precision” and made to stand in the corner. Other words that caused him trouble were “fight” and “fright.” Making a connection between the words, he thinks that “Fight was what I did when I was frightened/ fright was what I felt when I was fighting.” In these lines, Lee shows the confusion and fear that were part of the experience of learning to survive in a new culture.

When the teacher brings a persimmon to class, Lee knows that it is not ripe and does not join his classmates in eating a piece of the fruit. He then describes the ripe persimmons that he gave to his father. Now, years later “in the muddy lighting/ of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking/ for something I lost.” He finds a picture that his father had painted of the persimmons and takes the picture to his father. Now blind, his father says that he painted the persimmons so many times that he could paint them from memory. Lee reflects on the precision in his father’s wrist as he painted the persimmons and makes the connection between his childhood experience and his father’s precision as an artist. At the end of the poem, the son sees that “Some things never leave a person:/ scent of the hair of one you love,/ the texture of persimmons.” Although he faced difficulties in school as a child of another culture, his heritage has endowed him with specific values.

“Furious Versions”

“Furious Versions” (from The City in Which I Love You) is a seven-part account of Lee’s family’s years of exile. The poem is filled with images of the family’s hardships. As he tells his family history, he is urged on by his father’s words, “Don’t forget any of this.” He feels responsible for recording the family’s experiences because, as he says, “I’m the only one/ who’s lived to tell it,/ and I confuse/ the details.” As he strives to reconstruct the events, his own viewpoint is confused with that of his father, causing him to ask,

Will I rise and goout into an American city?Or walk down to the wilderness sea?I might run with wife and children to the docksto bribe an officer for our livesand perilous passage.

He provides this image to show his confusion:

And did I standon the train from Chicago to Pittsburghso my fevered son could sleep? Or did Iopen my eyesand see my father’s closed facerocking above me?

Some images stick in his mind as he recalls

and everywhere, fire,corridors of...

(The entire section is 2590 words.)