Li-Young Lee Lee, Li-Young (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Li-Young Lee 1957-

Indonesian-born American poet and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Lee's career through 2001.

Though born in Indonesia, Lee is reckoned among America's most promising contemporary poets for his multicultural blending of literary motifs. Lee has written only a handful of award-winning poetry collections, yet he has engaged readers with his musings on childhood and alienation as well as his explorations of family relationships, particularly those between father and son. Widely praised by critics for their gentle tone, humble voice, and lyrical form, Lee's poems have often been stylistically and thematically compared to a diverse range of poetry in the Asian, European, and American literary traditions.

Biographical Information

Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 19, 1957, the son of a former personal physician to Chinese chairman Mao Tsetung. In Jakarta, Lee's father also helped to found Gamaliel University where he taught English and philosophy until 1958, when he was arrested during a period of intense anti-Chinese sentiment. Shortly reunited, Lee and his family later fled Indonesia in 1959, traveling through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan until 1964, when they finally settled in the United States. Eventually declaring American citizenship, Lee attended high school in Pennsylvania and later enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, where he received a B.A. degree in 1979. He subsequently attended both the University of Arizona and State University of New York at Brockport and later lectured at several American universities, including Northwestern and the University of Iowa. In 1986, Lee published his first book of poetry, Rose, which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. In 1989, Lee was featured on Bill Moyer's Public Broadcast System (PBS) series The Power of the Word; he also received a fellowship from the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation. The City in Which I Love You, Lee's second poetry collection, appeared in 1990 and was selected by the Academy of American Poets for its Lamont Poetry prize. In 1995, Lee published the autobiographical The Winged Seed. Since then, Lee has written a third collection of poems entitled Book of My Nights (2001).

Major Works

Drawing upon a range of lyrical conventions from classical Chinese poetry and Biblical palmistry to nineteenth-century Romanticism, the recurrent themes of Lee's poetry generally include his perceptions of the Chinese diaspora, his understanding and acceptance of his own father, and his identity as formed in relation to his native and adopted languages. The poems of Rose center on Lee's painful memories of his family's emigration from Indonesia and question his relationship to the past and with his family, particularly with his father. “The Gift,” for example, recalls the time when Lee's father cut a metal splinter from Lee's hand as a child. During the painful procedure, his father tells him a story to keep his mind off the knife and the pain. Later in the poem, while he removes a splinter form his wife's hand, an adult Lee remembers his father's earlier care and tenderness. In another poem, “Rain Diary,” Lee recounts his father's struggling and bravery in the face of political upheaval in Indonesia. Themes of loss, exile, and dispossession mark the content of both Rose and The City in Which I Love You, Lee's second collection. “The Interrogation,” for instance, relates images of political turmoil and violence from Lee's childhood in Jakarta. Other poems in this collection meditate on feelings of cultural alienation or marginalization experienced by Lee in “foreign” societies, as an exile. Suffused with “unorthodox” imagery and pervaded by unsettling dark visions, most of the poems of The City in Which I Love You deal with Lee's love for his wife and son, but some are also colored by the poet's memories of past times with his father, with whom the poet here strongly identifies. Romantic in tone and lyrical in style, the autobiographical The Winged Seed recounts the events of Lee's constantly interrupted childhood in Indonesia, Macao, Japan, and the United States. The title of Lee's memoirs alludes to his father's incessant habit of carrying a pocketful of seeds wherever he went, as a kind of remembrance. Book of My Nights again returns to issues surrounding Lee's Asian heritage and family, his sense of cultural alienation as a Chinese exile living in America, and his doubts about adequately perceiving his own cross-cultural identity.

Critical Reception

Most critics have praised Lee's intimate poetry for its tender tone, elegant form, and poignant memories, although others have also discussed the role of “memory” and “family” in his verse, focusing on Lee's turbulent childhood and his life as an American citizen and artist. Many reviewers have labeled Lee as a “Chinese-American” poet, maintaining that his experiences as an Asian èmigrè to the United States inform much of his work, but some scholars have asserted that Lee's thematic concerns are universal, resisting the conventional urge to confine readings of his poetry to an ethnocentric context. Nonetheless, most commentators have situated his works within the cultural context of other Asian-American poets, such as Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, and David Mura, detecting similar thematic and stylistic concerns. Acknowledging Lee's poetic voice and unique vision, however, most critics have agreed that Lee's contributions have invigorated the first-person, “confessional” poetry of self-examination that has characterized much contemporary American poetry since the 1960s.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rose (poetry) 1986

The City in Which I Love You (poetry) 1990

The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (memoir) 1995

Book of My Nights (poetry) 2001

Frederick Smock (review date March-April 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smock, Frederick. “So Close to the Bone.” American Book Review 10, no. 1 (March-April 1988): 7, 14.

[In the following review, Smock analyzes the style of Rose.]

The first poem by Li-Young Lee I ever read, in The American Poetry Review, was called “The Gift,” about a father cutting a metal splinter from his son's hand—how the father told a story throughout so the boy would watch him and not the blade. How the father's tenderness so impressed the boy that, when it was over, he “did what a child does / when he's given something to keep. / I kissed my father.” And how the boy, now grown up, is bending over a splinter in his wife's hand and (presumably) distracting her with this story about his father.

The poem never really left me. Since that time I have been alert to Lee's poems wherever they might appear, and I have appreciated them for their beauty, simplicity, intimacy. Here, for example, is “I Ask My Mother To Sing”:

She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.
I've never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.
But I love to hear it sung:
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.
Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.

The mother and daughter singing and crying, the rain falling. The father swaying, the waterlilies rocking back and forth. The lost China, the China that survives. Each is a picture of the other, very sad and lovely.

It would be deceiving to discuss the style of these poems if style is interpreted to mean artifice, because these poems are shaved so close to the bone. Artfulness would be a better word, given Lee's mastery of tone, his graceful layering of short declarative phrases, and his unerring sense of the right word to use. Or magic: emotion is somehow passed whole—like a plum—through the needle's eye...

(The entire section is 936 words.)

Edward Nobles (review date spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Nobles, Edward. Review of Rose, by Li-Young Lee. Southern Humanities Review 22, no. 2 (spring 1988): 200-01.

[In the following review, Nobles assesses the themes and imagery of Rose.]

Winner of the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award, Li-Young Lee's first book, Rose, is an accomplishment and an inspiration. The best poems here are willing to aspire, to be emotional, to risk failure in an attempt to grapple with those large (though too often trivialized) issues: religion, inheritance, love, death, the passage of time.

Love, how the hours accumulate. Uncountable.
The trees grow tall, some people walk away
and diminish forever.

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Judith Kitchen (review date summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. “Speaking Passions.” Georgia Review 42, no. 2 (summer 1988): 407-22.

[In the following excerpt, Kitchen describes the themes and style of Rose, examining their relationship to the imagery.]

When a poem raises a lump in the throat time after time, it must either be terribly bad or terribly good. In the case of a young Chinese-American poet, Li-Young Lee, there is very little question as to how good these poems [in Rose] are. It's how they are good that is hard to define—a question Gerald Stern tackles, but does not answer, in his introduction to Rose. Stern compares Lee to Keats and Rilke, but I feel he is most...

(The entire section is 1136 words.)

Liam Rector (review date summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rector, Liam. “The Documentary of What Is.” Hudson Review 41, no. 2 (summer 1988): 393-400.

[In the following excerpt, Rector examines the lyrical structure and sense of character that mark Rose, comparing Lee's work to Rainer Maria Rilke's.]

Much of the recent chatter about poetry has centered upon “form” as it exists solely in the prosodic, technical sense, and the debate between the “new formalists” (nothing new there, really?) and “free verse” hounds us into the present. In a truly amusing inversion, it's now the formalists lobbing grenades into the foxholes of the free verse status quo. Oh, the pendulum … and beneath it, or...

(The entire section is 1487 words.)

Carol Muske (review date 27 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Muske, Carol. “Sons, Lovers, Immigrant Souls.” New York Times Book Review 96 (27 January 1991): 20-21.

[In the following excerpt, Muske comments on the various literary traditions that inform The City in Which I Love You.]

The 1990 Lamont Selection is The City in Which I Love You by Li-Young Lee, who was born in Jakarta. In the 1950's, his father was a political prisoner for a time. The family fled Indonesia and Mr. Lee traveled through Hong Kong, Macau and Japan before coming to the United States when the poet was a child. His poems are explosive and earthy, and in “The City in Which I Love You” he has come into his own:


(The entire section is 578 words.)

Sam Hamill (review date March-April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hamill, Sam. “A Fool's Paradise.” American Poetry Review, 20, no. 2 (March-April 1991): 33-40.

[In the following excerpt, Hamill discusses the themes, styles, and poetic forms of The City in Which I Love You, explicating Lee's meanings.]

In the third book of The Dunciad, Alexander Pope has his Goddess of Dulness transport the King to her temple where she curtains him with “Vapours blue” and prepares him to listen to Oracles and talk with Gods:

Hence the Fool's Paradise, the Statesman's Scheme,
The air-built Castle, and the golden Dream,
The Maid's romantic wish, the Chemist's flame,
And Poet's vision of eternal Fame....

(The entire section is 1243 words.)

David Baker (review date June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Baker, David. “Culture, Inclusion, Craft.” Poetry 158, no. 3 (June 1991): 158-75.

[In the following excerpt, Baker assesses the representation of the “foreign” or “other” in The City in Which I Love You.]

Li-Young Lee's second collection, The City in Which I Love You, is the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection, and follows his award-winning Rose. Like Jane Kenyon [in Let Evening Come], Lee is a poet of the plain style, but where she holds her poems with a tight, spare rein, Lee writes with a loose, relaxed, open plainness. His work depends very greatly on the charms of character, as does the work of his presiding influence, Gerald...

(The entire section is 813 words.)

Edgar C. Knowlton, Jr. (review date autumn 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knowlton, Edgar C., Jr. Review of The City in Which I Love You, by Li-Young Lee. World Literature Today 65, no. 4 (autumn 1991): 771-72.

[In the following review, Knowlton highlights the autobiographical significance of The City in Which I Love You.]

The City in Which I Love You is the second book of poems by Li-Young Lee, an American poet of Chinese ancestry born in Indonesia, and is the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. An earlier volume, Rose, published in 1986, earned him New York University's Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. The artistic cover, designed by Daphne Poulin, contains a reproduction of a...

(The entire section is 541 words.)

Marilyn Nelson Waniek (review date fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Waniek, Marilyn Nelson. “A Multitude of Dreams.” Kenyon Review 13, no. 4 (fall 1991): 214-26.

[In the following excerpt, Waniek considers the autobiographical, historical, and emotional implications ofThe City in Which I Love You.]

As I write, the troops of the Federation are crushing the Klingon horde, and here in the world every other tree wears a yellow ribbon. Even the Pope is not a pacifist. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of graves twelve inches deep in the desert sand, and nowhere a truly reasonable and realistic argument against a necessary war. Auden was damn straight: poetry don't make nothin' happen. Yet, as he argues in “In Memory of W. B....

(The entire section is 1183 words.)

Molly McQuade (review date 23 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McQuade, Molly. “A Pair of Poets Remember in Prose.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 April 1995): sec. 14, p. 6.

[In the following excerpt, McQuade describes the lyrical quality of The Winged Seed, underscoring its significance with respect to autobiography.]

We don't remember the past in an inverted pyramid style. Instead, memory is shaggy, grand, a mess. It tells us what to do, what to feel. We are at its beck.

So when an autobiography follows right angles too much, trying to corner or control the past, or when the memoirist is too much of a rationalist, memory suffers, losing its power and its life. Better that memory should take...

(The entire section is 664 words.)

Tim Engles (essay date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Engles, Tim. “Lee's ‘Persimmons’.” Explicator 54, no. 3 (spring 1996): 191-92.

[In the following essay, Engles explains the thematic significance of the words “persimmon” and “precision” in “Persimmons.”]

Li-Young Lee's “Persimmons” [in Rose] presents a second-generation Asian American's quiet analysis of his own experience between two cultures. The adult speaker returns, with gentle persistence throughout, to two words, “persimmon” and “precision,” and by poem's end, these two words resonate with representative significance for a son who has managed to recover specific values from his fading heritage.


(The entire section is 808 words.)

Mary Slowik (essay date fall-winter 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Slowik, Mary. “Beyond Lot's Wife: The Immigration Poems of Marilyn Chin, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and David Mura.” MELUS 25, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 2000): 221-42.

[In the following essay, Slowik compares and contrasts Lee's treatment of immigrant themes to those of Asian-American poets Garrett Hongo, Marilyn Chin, and David Mura, demonstrating the ways each “broadens and complicates the first person, meditative poetry of self-examination that dominates American writing today.”]

When God tells Lot to flee Soddam and Gomorrah, he cautions him not to look back. Lot's wife cannot resist the temptation and, as they rush from the great fire storm erupting...

(The entire section is 8153 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 9 July 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Book of My Nights, by Li-Young Lee. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 28 (9 July 2001): 63.

[In the following review, the critic focuses on questions of origins raised by Book of My Nights.]

Passionate and profound, Lee's long-awaited third collection [Book of My Nights] charts the mid-life ontological crisis of a speaker who “can't tell what my father said about the sea … from the sea itself,” and finds himself unmoored without that strong male voice. Lee's father was a personal physician to Mao Zedong, who took the family to Jakarta (where Lee was born) in the '50s. As Indonesia began persecuting Chinese citizens and his father was...

(The entire section is 288 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Boruch, Marianne. “Comment/Memory Theater.” American Poetry Review, 16, no. 2 (March-April 1987): 22-23.

Boruch provides a favorable assessment of Rose.

Flamm, Matthew. “Facing up to the Deadly Ordinary.” New York Times Book Review (4 October 1987): 24.

Flamm lauds the sincerity and modesty of Lee's poetry in Rose.

Greenbaum, Jessica. “Memory's Citizen.” Nation 253, no. 11 (7 October 1991): 416-18.

Greenbaum surveys Lee's poetic development in Rose and The City in Which I Love You.

McGovern, Martin. “Recent Poetry...

(The entire section is 140 words.)