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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...

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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

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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)

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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 of his craft. Here, for example, is “Eating Together,” a short poem with several subjects, one of them grief—

In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.

Most of his poems are about family, and many of these are about his father, who evidently led a rare life—personal physician to Mao Tse-Tung, medical advisor to Sukarno, political prisoner in Indonesia, and finally Presbyterian minister in a small town in western Pennsylvania. But you don't find much of that in these poems. What you do find—what the poet is searching for—is the man who braided his wife's hair in the morning. The man who painted persimmons on cloth after going blind. Who stooped to show his son a wind-fallen pear with a hornet glazed in its nectar. Who tenderly cut a splinter from his hand. Maybe all poets are searching for their dead fathers, but I can appreciate Lee's search for its openness and resolve. He is often frustrated, in one poem mistaking a shovel in deep shade, “leaning where I had / left it,” for his father waving to him from the trees. In another, he acknowledges that “I've not seen my father / since he died, and, no, the dead / do not walk arm in arm with me.” In a poem called “Rain Diary,” he asks, “Where does the rain go? Where are my dead?”

Rain knocks at my door and
I open. No one
is there, and the rain marching in place.

I'm intrigued by the way many of the poems about his father combine the real (the domestic, the mundane) and the surreal. Often it is the character Rain that insinuates itself into the moment of grieving—or reflection, or even hope—an ethereal yet insistent presence.

However omnipresent the rain, or the father's spirit, the dominant image here is the rose. At the center of this collection [Rose] is a long poem, “Always A Rose,” and in fact the “rose” of this poem is not only an image, or series of images, it is a language. And in the language of the rose, the poet is able to give a unity to family and personal history, from the black Chinese roses that his grandmother ate when she was a girl to the “worm-eaten rose” of one brother's brain. The language of the rose best describes the differences between them—given a live rose among dead,

Of my brothers
one would have ignored it,
another ravished it, the third
would have pinned it to his chest and swaggered home.
My sister would rival its beauty,
my mother bow before it, then bear it
to my father's grave …

—while at the same time, of course, connecting them all, like a stem.

One of the remarkable things about his poems is how they unfold, like a rose, seemingly without effort. And yet effortlessness is not achieved without great talent and diligence. Lee is a natural poet, one whose growth will be a thing of beauty.

Edward Nobles (review date spring 1988)

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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 damp pewter days slip around without warning
and we cross over one year and one year.

The poems are invocations, full of doubts, questionings, hopes, dreams, despairs; they stop, start, weave, sweep outward in great rushes of emotion. The poems work in phrases and coagulations of images. In “Dreaming of Hair,” the hair weaves the images, building powerfully in emotion as the poem moves from place to place, through time and the imagination.

Ivy ties the cellar door
in autumn, in summer morning glory
wraps the ribs of a mouse.
Love binds me to the one
whose hair I've found in my mouth,
whose sleeping head I kiss,
wondering is it death?
beauty? this dark
star spreading in every direction from the crown of her head.

Lee's poems are intriguing in part because obsessed. As Gerald Stern notes in his introduction to the book, Lee's poems are predominantly a search for the father, a search to understand his relationship to his father and the inheritance his father has left him: his spirit, his family, his struggle. The opening section of the book centers around Lee's spiritual and personal life before the father's death; the closing section concentrates on the son and family after the father's death; and the middle section is a provocative and elegant poem entitled “Always a Rose.”

This central poem of 272 lines addresses the rose as ancient symbol and living spirit. This spiritual relationship allows the speaker transcendence into a state of mind necessary to deal with the father's death and the fragility of the surviving self and family which the death illuminates.

It was I who saw you withered and discarded,
I, who taught my father patience, and dulled the blade of his anger,
who eat you now, before morning,
when you must climb your ladder of thorns and grow to death.
I, middle stone in the row of stones
on my mother's ring. I,
the flawed stone, saw you dying
and revived you.

Lee's poems are not without flawed moments (occasional weak diction or oversimplicity), but the book's accomplishments far outweigh any faults. The poems are ecstatic, but not dogmatic or sweetened with easy solutions. They are tender poems that rise above sentimentality because they ring with authenticity, mystery, and a quiet mastery of language.

A rain has begun.
It is moving toward me all my life.
Perhaps I shall know it.
Perhaps it is my father, arriving
on legs of rain, arriving
this dream, the rain, my father.

Judith Kitchen (review date summer 1988)

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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 like Neruda—the Neruda in love with the sensory experiences of the world, the Neruda of the wide associative leaps that make sense only through feeling. What we have here is a fine lyric voice, singing from the very first lines:

Of wisdom, splendid columns of light
waking sweet foreheads,
I know nothing
but what I've glimpsed in my most hopeful of daydreams.
Of a world without end,
I know nothing,
but what I sang of once with others,
all of us standing in the vaulted room.

(from “Epistle”)

Rose chronicles (though not in any direct narrative) a family exodus from China to Indonesia to America. The figure of the father haunts the book—a father both severe and tender, a father idealized in death and yet made human in living memory. In Stern's words, “… the poet's job becomes not to benignly or tenderly forgive him, but to withstand him and comprehend him. …” The quest for the father may be the underpinning for these poems, but what shapes them is a sensibility unafraid of risk, exploring its complete range of feeling—even the sentimental.

The vision in Rose is both personal and collective. It encompasses a sense of family and generation and connectedness that is almost unknown to contemporary American poets. The history of Rose is the history of a culture, and it is Lee's sense of continuation that allows for a poem like “Dreaming of Hair,” in which the speaker binds himself imaginatively to the earth, stitched in place by his dead father's hair as it rises from the grave. His father's hair, his brother's, his wife's, the ivy that “ties the cellar door”—all are celebrated, and finally fused, in the dream that can contain more than a lifetime.

Water (and the crossing of water) becomes one of the book's dominant strains (it would be wrong to call anything in this book a “theme”). One poem, “Water,” has a visionary quality, moving from the “oldest sound” of the amniotic fluid, the first sound we forget, to the water that will eventually fill his father's lungs in congestive heart failure. As the speaker washes his father's feet, he moves into his father's memories—torture and escape and the journey to America—and then outward to the world and the sound of rain that “outlives us.” This poem, in turn, illuminates “Rain Diary” where water has seeped into his father's grave and has roused boyhood memories, leading him to say, “I remember my father of rain.” The imagery follows its own convoluted logic with such lines as “I searched the hours, perforated by rain,” and “I looked in the billowing curtains, / they were haunted by rain,” and “I want to be broken, / to be eaten by the anonymous mouths, / to be eroded like minutes and seconds, / to be reduced to water / and a little light.” The poem culminates in a language that is nearly biblical:

Rain falls and does not
break. Neither does it stop,
but just pulls up
the gangplank and is gone.
It stands before me,
beside me, lies down
beneath me. How shall I praise it?
Rain knocks at my door and
I open. No one
is there, and the rain marching in place.

The language is the vehicle for the vision that, in the case of “Rain Diary,” ends with “Perhaps it is my father, arriving / on legs of rain, arriving / this dream, the rain, my father.”

The visionary aspect of the book is seen best in the long central poem, “Always a Rose,” where Lee follows a path of association, allowing the rose to surface in memory and to fill his mouth with its bitter, medicinal taste. He takes it in, transforms it into symbol, then moves in a state of ecstasy to where he can make it wholly his by naming it: “Cup of Blood, Old Wrath, Heart O' Mine, Ancient of Days, / Whorl, World, Word.” And then he makes it real again, a flower in a glass of water, taking an impossibly long time to die. “I named you each day you remained: / Scorn, Banish, Grieve, Forgive, Love.” Although lines like these might suggest that Lee's poems are preoccupied with abstraction, this is not the case. For all their intensity, they have a sincerity that derives, in part, from a precision of detail. He can move us with simple moments, as when in “Eating Alone” he describes his meal: “White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas / fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame / oil and garlic. And my own loneliness. / What more could I, a young man, want.” (I think here of Neruda's Odas Elementales.)

Rose, which was awarded the Delmore Schwartz prize in 1987, contains only twenty-five poems but many of them extend to three or four pages, sustaining an intricacy of thought and rising, at times, to a joy so close to despair that the two are inextricable:

O weepers, stone
girls weeping stone tears,
will you never recover?
Were it not for the rain, I'd linger
and maybe I'd weep.
But I'll do neither today, while someone
waits for me, and the rain
touches me, touches us
over and over, changes each of us,
shoulders and lips, roses and stones,
my love and the world,
all things which fit well.

(“The Weepers”)

In an age when poetry is cautious, poems like Lee's move beyond the pale. And it is in the realm where they are most incautious, even excessive, that they reach for greatness. Sensuous and alive, they celebrate innocence and achieve the wisdom that the first poem claims to know nothing of. Of a “world without end”—who knows? But Lee discovers meaning in the world, in the lived experience and in the imaginative connections. Certainly the father's life is not in vain as the poet tenderly soothes his own sons. And even more certainly, the world is not ending as he watches blossom become peach and concludes:

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

(“From Blossoms”)

Liam Rector (review date summer 1988)

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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 to the side of it, real history. Whether one is working in received patterns which exist a priori to the composition of a poem, forms which are then adhered to, expanded upon, corrupted, tricked-out, or reinvented, or whether one composes “by field” in an “organic” grid of free verse “discoveries,” what's most left out of this action and discussion is any sense of form as it exists in the dramatic movements of a given poem, as it exists in the subtext of form where words and their meanings move rhetorically, dramatically, as this might be discussed by novelists, playwrights, scriptwriters—dramatists of all stripes—in delineating the rise and fall of meaning as a matter of form.

As Donald Hall has contended, there will always be the debate between the constructivist and the expressionist modes of creating. It's borne out in Death in Venice as the argument between mathematics and passion, and most artists will shake down, fall at some point to one side or the other. And in terms of dramatic form (the classical arc of desire, complication, rising action, climax, and denouement, as one example) there will also be a necessary tension between the narrative and the lyric. Whether we are talking about narrative on one hand (the bone and movement of sequence, or what Seamus Heaney has called “the music of what happens”) or lyric on the other (the sustained yelp occurring in one moment, looking to speak for All Moments, and in most cases engaging a dramatic form), in our best poems both narrative and lyric drives will push each other to their outermost limits, creating that third thing—the poem itself. Four Quartets is a superb example of this. Narrative takes many forms; our response to both the truth and the lie of “story” has made an elliptical narrative almost a precondition of our modernity, a physics of our perceptions, and it is in fact difficult not to engage narrative, where one word follows another. Lyricism, where it is also the relation between words in a poem, words bereft even of their meaning, is the necessary lifeblood flowing through the circulatory system of any sequential movement, where any engagement with the materials (language) is at hand. In between the narrative and the lyric falls, to corrupt Heaney, the documentary of what is.

What everyone is after here, as both writers and readers, is the powerful poem of truth, however it might be wrested down or received. I'm making no liberal plea for tolerance here, urging that we “celebrate” the “diversity” and give equal weight and honor to every aesthetic that happens to toddle down the pike, but I am suggesting that the best poems being written now engage form in a much wider synthesis than our current discussion and its cloistered terms allow for. “ Let the dialectic be written in blood,” said Trotsky, and I'll go along with that where the trench warfare, the mustard gas of contending aesthetics take their stand, but what's at stake here is the difference between the major poem that defines a time and the second order of stylists who hover about that poem, falling to one side or the other of it. Meanwhile a vast portion of the intelligent reading public takes a hike away from the shoptalk, in a dither of indifference …

Allen Ginsberg has argued that ours is now a time of revision rather than vision, as vision and prophecy were undoubtedly enacted in the “Howl” of the 1950s, and there's more than a grain of truth to that. The generation of poets now in their thirties, careening currently not so much towards the bop apocalypse as towards the vast revisions of middle age within an historical moment which is itself an impasse, cut their postwar teeth on the debate between formalism and free verse, and the books of poems I'll discuss here both profit and suffer from the revisions of the hysterical and extreme dramatic forms (God bless them) it has been our lot to inherit and move on with.

. … Rose, a first book by Li-Young Lee, is … a book obsessed with family and the realities of emigration, of being between two cultures and between tongues in a manner which makes memory simultaneous with the present and the passage of time. Lee's structure in Rose is not narrative, but a tale does emerge from the raw repetition by which Lee builds discrete poems and then melds, hurtles one into the one following it. Each poem and the entire book exist in and are held up to an endless instant I associate with the structure of a lyric, and it's more a sense of character (and all that character bespeaks of intelligence, wisdom, authority), rather than a story, that marks this book. Unlike Miller's book, this one is absolutely pared down, and a dramatic structure does emerge in book form.

There are many children of Rilke at the moment, many for whom his work is a presiding spirit, and Lee is one of those who honors Rilke's high lyricism best. Lee has appropriated the idiom of Romanticism but practices a tone all his own. With the clean, taut free verse line Lee most often employs, he has also fashioned rhetorical forms within that form which trade often on repetition and parallelism and their hypnotic advancing and returning powers.

Not for the golden pears, rotten on the ground—
their sweetness their secret—not for the scent
of their dying did I go back to my father's house.
          Not for the grass
grown wild as his beard in his last months,
nor for the hard, little apples that littered the yard,
and vines, rampant on the porch, tying the door shut,
did I stand there, late, rain arriving.
The rain came. And where there is rain
there is time, and memory, and sometimes sweetness.
Where there is a son there is a father.
And if there is love there is
no forgetting, but regret rending
two shaggy hearts.

The way Lee gathers a poem and the syntactical twists he often employs (as with “rain arriving”) are akin to the best weaves spun by a poet like Michael Burkard. Like Baca, Lee manages to take very personal materials and rend them into individuated yet generalized, even mythic themes. Lee's characters of mother and father in these poems are defined and known by details of their histories and relations, but everywhere we feel pressing down upon us the force of mother, father, in their originating and motivating incarnations. The father, especially, is a rueful presence in Rose, an Oedipal titan there to be overcome, supplanted, forgiven possibly. But he is also, as Gerald Stern points out in his introduction, a godlike figure to be comprehended, withstood, while we fear and love him. As Stern also says,

The ‘father’ in contemporary poetry tends to be either a pathetic soul or a bungler or a sweet loser, overwhelmed by the demands of family and culture and workplace. At very best he is a small hero who died early or escaped west or found the bottle and whom the poet, in his or her poem, is forgiving.

Lee's meditations upon the father, the father who is both inspiring and spanking, are rueful in their own right, rueful so that we can see the father within the son, the poker within the fire, the myth as it moves from soul to soul. Lee chronicles this passage with a tenderness and empathy which always threaten to fall into bathos but seldom do. I would quarrel, on occasion, with Lee's use of the word human. Like Stern when Stern lapses, Lee uses the term as if it signified all that is sweet, tender, oh-so-warm, when in fact as a synonym for Homo sapiens it often means just the opposite. Let's face it—if the term is to maintain any meaning at all we must also admit that Hitler and his cronies were “deeply human,” and where we mean humane let's get the record straight. Otherwise this book is signed by its considerable authority over any number of words as they cover and recover each other in what reads like one long poem. The book has both the ambition and audacity we'd expect in a Hart Crane, simmered down into the Rilkean lyric.

Carol Muske (review date 27 January 1991)

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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:

He gossips like my grandmother, this man
with my face, and I could stand
amused all afternoon
in the Hon Kee Grocery,
amid hanging meats he
chops: roast pork cut
from a hog hung
by the nose and shoulders.
her entire skin burnt
crisp, flesh I know
to be sweet,
her shining
face grinning
up at ducks
dangling single file,
each pierced by black
hooks through breast, bill … I step to the counter,
and he, without even slightly
varying the rhythm of his current confession or harangue,
scribbles my order on a greasy receipt,
and chops it up quick.

Like a pairing of Walt Whitman with the great Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu, Li-Young Lee emerges as an audacious and passionate poet-traveler. In the manner of Tang poetry, he speaks colloquially but metaphysically; he meditates, but always allows the noises of the world to enter. He is best when he courts understatement (for at times the Whitman influence seems too heavy-handed for his fine perceptions):

What I thought were the arms
aching cleave, were the knees trembling leave.
What I thought were the muscles
insisting resist, persist, exist,
were the pores
hissing mist and waste.
What I thought was the body humming reside, re-
was the body sighing revise, revise

Not bad advice. Still, if Mr. Lee's sins are those of excess, they are almost always forgivable in the ambitious context of his book. He takes chances many others in our timid, cool, self-conscious age would not:

That I negotiate fog, bituminous
rain ringing like teeth into the beggar's tin,
or two men jachaling a third in some alley
weirdly lit by a couch on fire, that I
drag my extinction in search of you. …

The chugging, rugged roll is topped by a surreal density of image and an odd contrapuntal music that speaks, at times, of an influence beyond Whitman and the Bible—Hart Crane clearly had a hand in some of this sculpting.

In his desire to find the immigrant soul and sense of identity (one of the recurring themes of this book) Mr. Lee ransacks many literary traditions. The result is an odd variety, an astonishing emotional virtuosity:

Once, while I walked
with my father, a man
reached out, touched his arm, said Kuo Yuan?
The way he stared and spoke my father's name.
I thought he meant to ask. Are you a dream?
Here was the sadness of ten thousand miles,
of an abandoned house in Nan Jing.
where my father helped a blind man
wash his wife's newly dead body,
then bury it, while bombs
fell, and trees raised
charred arms and burned.
Here was a man who remembered
the sound of another's footfalls
so well as to call to him
after twenty years
on a sidewalk in America.

Sam Hamill (review date March-April 1991)

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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.

Pope's wit here is about as gentle, about as subtle, as it gets. He likes these people, not despite their folly, but perhaps because of it. They are a people who prefer surface to interior. But, perhaps because of their earnestness, he offers a wry view, saving his more caustic wit for others. He makes an almost parallel image in his Essay of Man:

See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing,
The sot a hero, lunatic a king;
The starving chemist in his golden views
Supremely blest, the poet in his Muse.

For all its parallels, this quatrain is interesting for its contrasts. Its people are doers, not dreamers, they are people who have gone beyond the mere surface, beyond the superficial, into lunacy, dance, starvation, into the most meaningful visionary expressions of being. A late twentieth-century reading of Pope's lines invites a comparison with the naked jig of Dr. Williams, alone in his room, his dance and his poem and his breath and heart all pounding out the same tune.

The poem begins and ends in the body. The poet is a midwife, the critic is a coroner. Seen from the outside, the poet is a daydreamer with visions of superlatives dancing gracefully through his or her otherwise empty noggin. Examined from the inside, the fully fleshed dynamics of living language incorporating heartbeat and breath becomes the measure of the poem: the poem, in order to exist, must make human noises. If the poet is a midwife, the body of the poet becomes pregnant with meaning; the voice itself becomes the body of the poem as it is delivered. …

The poems gathered in Rose are autobiographical, thoughtful, and wonderfully engaging. His father is a dominating figure, and Lee struggles with his memory of that strict, almost forbidding figure of a minister. In a beautiful poem, “Eating Alone,” the poet has pulled the last of his onions from his garden, washed them, and remembers his father and a particular silence:

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.
White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

James Wright struggled for years before he learned to get his poems this direct, this plain, and this true. It's not merely the poignancy of Lee's poem, but what lies behind it: to be young in America is to fear loneliness above all else. Lee not only embraces his loneliness, he welcomes it, and, with it, that hard-earned wisdom most poets gain, if at all, only in middle or late career.

Born in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1957, Lee fled with his family to escape Sukarno's prisons, living in Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan before coming to the U.S. To his credit, his worldliness is far more intimately felt than advertised in his poems, although they do celebrate his ethnicity, often using anecdotes to illustrate family relationships. His maturity as a poet is simply astonishing. In “Mnemonic,” he offers a kind of ars poetica

I was tired. So I lay down.
My lids grew heavy. So I slept.
Slender memory, stay with me.
I was cold once. So my father took off his blue sweater.
He wrapped me in it, and I never gave it back.
It is the sweater he wore to America,
this one, which I've grown into, whose sleeves are too long,
whose elbows have thinned, who outlives its rightful owner.
Flamboyant blue in daylight, poor blue by daylight,
it is black in the folds.
A serious man who devised complex systems of numbers and rhymes
to aid him in remembering, a man who forgot nothing, my father
would be ashamed of me.
Not because I'm forgetful,
but because there is no order
to my memory, a heap
of details, uncatalogued, illogical.
For instance:
God was lonely. So he made me.
My father loved me. So he spanked me.
It hurt him to do so. He did it daily.
The earth is flat. Those who fall off don't return.
The earth is round. All things reveal themselves to men only gradually.
I won't last. Memory is sweet.
Even when it's painful, memory is sweet.
Once, I was cold. So my father took off his blue sweater.

If [Mary Jo] Salter's is the voice of the status quo [in Unfinished Painting], if she is the embodiment of complacency, Lee goes quietly, methodically, about the business of stripping away layers of the psyche, digging into the deepest interior to reveal his soul. In his familial poems, Lee risks sounding like all the many thousands of MFA poets remembering their own vanished youth; but he doesn't. His humility is rare and refreshing. His voice and his people are particular, each unique, and he has none of the complacency—which is, after all, a form of cowardice—of so many of his contemporaries. His poems are made from his life with his life, his poems are earned. He dares to be simple. And he is surely among the finest young poets alive. Lee's second book, The City in Which I Love You, is the most recent Lamont Selection, and as such redeems the Academy of American Poets. If his more recent poems retain a kind of raggedness, it is a lack of polish well-suited to rough-hewn craft. Perhaps his recent popular success has distracted him, but The City in Which I Love You also seems more wordy, more casual than the poems of Rose. City is, nonetheless, a powerful and engaging book.

Assuming that the best way to make a poem is to place perfect words in perfect order, the next question is, “Shall we place more importance on getting at some greater truth or upon making a beautiful object?” This is the basic argument between open and closed forms. The predetermined form sometimes, perhaps even often, forces the poet to see things from a fresh perspective; but it also presents times when certain kinds of truths become modified in order to accommodate a syllabic count or a rhyme. The closed form works wonderfully within a narrative frame, or in traditional song. The open form, revealed only as the poem reveals itself, cannot be separated from the poem, and admits a grander variety and places greater emphasis upon a poet's vision. Open forms also tend to conceal the weaknesses of those who remain relatively unskilled either in versification or in the use of poetic energy. What makes “regular meter” interesting is the way our language bucks against regularity; nothing would be duller than a perfect iambic. Our best poets draw strengths from both traditions.

David Baker (review date June 1991)

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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 Stern. But where Stern is our most powerfully ecstatic poet, whose skill seems to reside in sheer will and exuberant directness (“Today I am letting two old roses stand for everything I believe in”), Lee is more an ironist, a poet of doubleness and wariness (“After all, it was only our / life, our life and its forgetting”). Even in lines that directly pay homage to or borrow from Stern, Lee shows his occasional tendency toward flatness or dissipation:

                              I am letting this room
                              and everything in it
                              stand for my ideas about love
                              and its difficulties.

I have to admit that I admire the desires this book expresses more often than I am able to admire the writing.

The City in Which I Love You is predominantly concerned with two impulses—to document the collisions and possible resolutions of Asian and American culture as enacted by an immigrant population, and to trace that evolution personally through Lee's changing relationship with paternity. The repeated mournings of the loss of the father, I think, also bespeak the grief and dissociation resulting from a loss of Asia:

                                                  I wander
a house I thought I knew;
I walk the halls as if the halls
of that other
mansion, my father's heart. …
While a rose
rattles at my ear, Where
is your father?
And the silent house
booms, Gone. Long gone.

Here in “Furious Versions,” the speaker mourns that “memory revises me”; but he will learn to carry his loss into the future—as story and as the desire to become himself a father. In the first half of the book, this loss of the father is a loss of homeland and a loss or probing of faith—faith both familial and Christian; in the second half, his making of a new home through marriage and fatherhood, and his growing enculturation as an Asian-American, provide the speaker with the means to renew his faith and to restore his past. By “The Cleaving,” the book's finest and final poem, he has learned to embrace severing and doubling as the paradox of his existence:

I thought the soul an airy thing.
I did not know the soul
is cleaved so that the soul might be restored. …
No easy thing, violence.
One of its names? Change. Change
resides in the embrace
of the effaced and the effacer. …

Lee's finest achievement as a poet, in fact, is his persistent blending of cultural politics and personal desire, a doubled subject that seems to me essential to American poetry, given America's admirable but troubled character as a culture comprised largely of immigrants:

                                                                                … this dark
dancer, this Jew, this Asian, this one
with the Cambodian face, Vietnamese face, this Chinese
I daily face,
this immigrant.

Where Albert Goldbarth [in Popular Culture] can make an art form of the lumpy and inclusive, Lee hasn't yet mastered his craft sufficiently to fully support his large embrace. The importance of his double theme notwithstanding, his poems are too loose and tend to dissipate. Even in his longest poems, Lee typically eschews a narrative stance in behalf of a lyric or meditative one, and therefore seldom provides a sufficient chronological or dramatic intensity to drive what instead tends to become reverie. For instance, again in “Furious Versions,” a poem of seven sections, the very powerful opening sections decay into redundancy and hesitation in the poem's sixth:

It goes on and it goes on,
the ceaseless invention, incessant
constructions and deconstructions
of shadows over black grass,
while, overhead, poplars
rock and nod,
wrestle Yes and No, contend
moon, no moon. …

The problem is that Lee doesn't always muster a powerful enough rhetorical voice to convey his imagery. Further, he prefers a very loose, usually irregular stanza and ragged line, suggesting that material presides over structure. At its best here, this technique is effectively humble, a rhetoric of prose-like informality, a democratic or popular site-of-oration. But Lee allows the open-endedness of his technique to seem like unendedness or helplessness; he gives himself few reasons to close or control a line (or stanza or poem) besides his energy, his breathiness. Too often in The City in Which I Love You, my energy and interest to finish simply deplete before his do.

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

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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 map of Rome from an item in the Musée Condé, Château de Chantilly, and is tastefully placed. The back cover includes a portrait of the author by Paul Elledge.

On the last page of the book appears a biographical sketch of Lee. His poems sound autobiographical, but it is clear that it would be a mistake to interpret them as such in the strict sense. The sketch indicates that he was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1957. However, on the first page of the poems we read, “That means I was born in Bandung, 1958.” The poems are dedicated “to Donna, again,” and the poet's wife is named Donna. There is no real harm in viewing the poetry as related to fact, though not necessarily prosaic fact. Lee has stated,

It [memory] changes whatever it touches. It's never that accurate. As a result, I end up modifying and revising my own experiences. It's myth-making. I don't mean I'm telling lies so much as I am telling stories. And that becomes my life. I am the stories that I tell.

In another poem an old acquaintance recognizes the poet's father after not having seen him in twenty years and asks in something akin to disbelief if he is indeed Kuo Yuan. For our part, we wonder if Kuo Yuan is myth or fact.

Knowledge of Chinese poetry is part of Lee's heritage, and he refers here to the three hundred poems of the T'ang and to Li Bai (Li Po) and Du Fu (Tu Fu). It is, however, as an American immigrant that his persona moves us, rather than as a Chinese or Indonesian writing in English. The poet's English, though highly individual, presents no barrier to ready understanding and reveals full mastery. A passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson's notebook number 18 (dated 6 April 1824) becomes part of a poem by Lee with minor changes. Emerson had compared the Chinese Empire's reputation to that of a mummy. Lee quotes from Emerson on the Chinese as follows: “this race that according to Emerson / managed to preserve to a hair / for three or four thousand years / the ugliest features in the world” (my emphasis).

The often simple verses evince depth of feeling. One example is the short poem “A Final Thing,” wherein the poet overhears his wife telling their son a story and comments: “I am simply the last / in my house / to waken, and the first / sound I hear / is the voice of one I love / speaking to one we love. / I hear it through the bedroom wall.” The one-line conclusion reads: “something, someday, I'll close my eyes to recall.”

Marilyn Nelson Waniek (review date fall 1991)

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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. Yeats,” poetry does more than make something happen: it is itself a way of happening; it is a voice. I'm inclined to believe that the way of poetry is the way of deep interior affirmation, as useless and as essential as prayer. Which also makes nothing happen.

The five books here under review, written by poets who belong to the dispossessed, make nothing happen. They are high rope bridges over poverty, diaspora, and cultural despair. …

Li-Young Lee's The City in Which I Love You, the Lamont selection for 1990, is more than interesting. One or two of its poems are, in my opinion, necessary. Elegant, delicate, and reticent, they achieve in graceful form the fulfillment of Lee's remarkable childhood history. A biographical note provides the outline of his story: he was born in Djakarta of Chinese parents; his physician father, after spending a year as a political prisoner, fled with the family; between 1959 and 1964 they moved from Hong Kong, to Macau, to Japan, to the United States, where his father was the minister of a church. “Which house did we flee by night? Which house did we flee by day?” (33) asks Lee in “The Interrogation”; “Who rowed the boat when our father tired?” (34)

The meditative use to which Lee puts this history can be recognized in even such a relatively short poem as “Arise, Go Down.” Here, Lee closes his eyes

not to contemplate how this century
ends and the next begins with no one
I know having seen God, but to wonder
why I get through most days unscathed, though I
live in a time when it might be otherwise,
and I grow more fatherless each day.


To ask why is, of course, to ponder the meaning of history. Lee describes our world as a rose garden in which “what punctures outnumbers what / consoles” (37). His father's heroic, self-sacrificing love is helpless against the looming, human shadows of “distance, time, war.”

I didn't make the world I leave you with,
he said, and then, being poor, he left me
only this world, in which there is always
a family waiting in terror
before they're rendered …


Though he declares himself “through with memory,” Lee sifts his memory for a clear sense of self. In “Furious Versions” he tries out different versions of his history, wearing sometimes his father's face, sometimes his own. “Memory revises me,” he says; his father says, “Don't forget any of this” (18). Memory:

Once, while I walked
with my father, a man
reached out, touched his arm, said, Kuo Yuan?
The way he stared and spoke my father's name,
I thought he meant to ask, Are you a dream?
Here was the sadness of ten thousand miles,
of an abandoned house in Nan Jing,
where my father helped a blind man
wash his wife's newly dead body,
then bury it, while bombs
fell, and trees raised
charred arms and burned.
Here was a man who remembered
the sound of another's footfalls
so well as to call to him
after twenty years
on a sidewalk in America.


This story of grief and love is, as Lee says, “a human story, / whose very telling / remarks loss” (26). Yet Lee insists there is another story as well:

… it
ties our human telling
to its course
by momentum, and ours
is merely part
of its unbroken
stream, the human
and otherwise simultaneously
told. The past
doesn't fall away, the past
joins the greater telling, and is.


Because of his sense of the greater telling, Lee's homage to his extraordinary father also pays homage to his wife and son, to this flawed nation, and finally to God.

The title poem of this collection borrows its epigram from the Song of Songs, the Bride's song of longing for the Beloved, which describes the soul's longing for God: “I will arise now, and go / about the city … I will seek … whom my soul loveth.” Lee describes a search through a city we recognize:

… two men jackaling a third in some alley
weirdly lit by a couch on fire …
… the guarded schoolyards, the boarded-up churches, swastikaed
synagogues, defended houses of worship, past
newspapered windows of tenements, among the violated,
the prosecuted citizenry, throughout this
storied, buttressed, scavenged, policed
city I call home …


How find God, how love a God whose existence history seems so clearly to disprove? Yet, aching, Lee confesses himself “vexed to love you.” Lee describes his longing in the language of physical passion:

no finger touches me secretly, no mouth
tastes my flawless salt,
no one wakens the honey in the cells, finding the humming
in the ribs, the rich business in the recesses …


Surrounded by scenes of human cruelty and suffering, “famished / for meaning,” he finds

… your otherness is perfect as my death.
Your otherness exhausts me,
like looking suddenly up from here
to impossible stars fading.
Everything is punished by your absence.
Is prayer, then, the proper attitude
for the mind that longs to be freely blown,
but which gets snagged on the barb
called world, that
tooth-ache, the actual?


Like Thylias Moss, Lee recognizes faith to be not satisfaction, but hunger:

Between brick walls, in a space no wider than my face,
a leafless sapling stands in mud.
In its branches, a nest of raw mouths
gaping and cheeping, scrawny fires that must eat.
My hunger for you is no less than theirs.


“The City in Which I Love You” is any city, for Lee speaks as an exile, “my birthplace vanished, my citizenship earned,” (57). God's silence roars in cities all over the world; in “The woman who is slapped, the man who is kicked, / the ones who don't survive …” (54). Certainly faith must be achieved “without … help from history” (57). Yet the refrain of this remarkable poem persistently repeats the poem's title, and the poem ends with a cautious affirmation:

… I've never believed that the multitude
of dreams and many words were vain.


I wish I'd written this poem. And I thank the stars above that I haven't been given the experience necessary for it.

(In the meantime, the war is over. Our streets are paved with yellow ribbon. I read in the Times today that tourism in Nepal has so raised the standard of living that the children there now have cavities in their teeth from eating too much candy.)

Jean Cocteau is supposed to have said, “I know that poetry is indispensable, but to what I could not say.” I agree one hundred percent. And then some.

Molly McQuade (review date 23 April 1995)

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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 language in hand and insist that an autobiographer's story expand to fill the interstices of a new and less-standard form—a form invented as the writer works, at memory's behest.

That principle informs two new memoirs by poets—Melissa Green's Color Is the Suffering of Light and Li-Young Lee's The Winged Seed—and it's tempting to conjecture that poetry is responsible for the distinction of each. For though these book are prose, it's a prose unfamiliarly rich in tone, detail, structure and rhythm. Both Lee and Green write with an attentiveness to language that the author of an inverted pyramid memoir might not possess. And though they concern themselves with facts, the facts shape their books more than the other way around.

Memory descends on the reader like an independent music in Lee's The Winged Seed, at times sweeping away storytelling's conventions. And Green, in her Color Is the Suffering of Light, seeks to douse us with words much as she was magically doused while a child. Lee, a Chicago resident whose books of poems are Rose and The City in Which I Love You, explores the emotional and political truths of his family's exile from Asia in the United States. Green, whose poems can be found in her The Sqaunicook Eclogues, contemplates the writer's internal exile from within an unhappy New England family. But in each of these memoirs, it is language that remains primary.

As one might expect in prose books by poets, lyricism is a creed in both Seed and Color and both writers find imagery and metaphor to be important means of remembering. Lee's title, for example, comes from his father's habit of carrying “at all times in his right suit-pocket a scarce handful of seeds. Remembrance, was his sole answer when I asked him why. He was pithy.”

A political martyr from a distinguished family who left China in the 1950s after serving as Mao's physician, the elder Lee was persecuted and jailed in Indonesia, fled to Hong Kong, where he became a popular and powerful preacher, and then went to the U.S., eventually working as a minister in a Presbyterian church in a small Pennsylvania town. The father found the strength to persevere after losing nearly everything, like a seed that travels with its most essential resources inside it. Thus the image of the winged seed suggests the miraculous course of moral survival in general as well as the movement of this book in particular.

Lee's impressionistic story is punctuated with rhapsodic pauses and perorations that give it a highly romantic feel. The book also is imbued with ecstatic Christian emotion, one source of which being Lee's father's “sermon on the seed,” delivered during a Pennsylvania snowstorm: “He leaned across a table and said that the hour had come for us to put an ear to the seed, to hear the lightning scratched there, late news of our human spring.”

Though his journey through memory includes outposts of misery, Lee is listening—and asking us to listen—to the spring of that seed. …

After reading these books, one knows what it is like to be in the grip of Memory with a capital “m.” This is not the same memory that reminds us where we live when we need to go home; it is the kind that can change a life.

Tim Engles (essay date spring 1996)

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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 speaker begins with the painful memory of being “slapped” by his sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Walker, and told to stand in the corner “for not knowing the difference / between persimmon and precision.” But the reader understands that the sixth grader's misperception has as much to do with pronunciation as denotation; the boy can handle the difference in meaning between these two words quite nimbly: “How to choose / persimmons. This is precision.” Lee then describes precisely how to choose, peel, and cut the perfect persimmon, then “eat / the meat of the fruit, / so sweet, / all of it, to the heart.”

This careful, respectful treatment of the fruit and its connection to “the heart” are echoed later in the speaker's loving evocation of his parents and in the repeated association of them with a rich warmth perceived in persimmons. The speaker first suggests, perhaps shamefacedly, his detachment from his parents and their culture by embodying the source of his distraction in the figure of Donna, a white girl (or woman), with whom he lies naked in the grass. The speaker's faltering attempts to teach Donna Chinese hint at the fading power of his parents' culture and its values. Lee suggests in this scene that the speaker's attraction to white America has involved a prostitution of sorts of his heritage; as he “part(s) her legs,” he further exoticizes himself by “remember(ing) to tell her / that she is as beautiful as the moon.”

The speaker's early struggles with similar sounding words (“fright and fight, wren and yarn”) continue to suggest his childhood difficulties: “Fight was what I did when I was frightened, / fright was what I felt when I was fighting.” The distinction between wren and yarn leads by association to a warm memory, that of watching his mother tying yarn into “a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.” Precision is the focus here; the mother's precise handiwork immediately contrasts with another description of the insensitive Mrs. Walker, who clearly did not know how to choose persimmons precisely.

The speaker remembers the day Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class, and instead of peeling it, “cut it up / so everyone could taste / a Chinese apple.” Aside from the impropriety of using a knife, Mrs. Walker was also imprecise in her choice of an unripe persimmon, and in calling it a “Chinese apple.” In giving it this name, she also committed the insensitive blunder of connecting the odd fruit with the speaker, the Chinese boy in class. The scene expands into the image of an Asian American child who declined the offered fruit because he knew “it wasn't ripe or sweet,” and “watched the other faces.” Unripe persimmons are extremely sour and astringent, and Lee has sketched in enough of the scene to suggest those childish faces scrunching up and turning to the quiet Chinese boy who eats such strange, terrible food at home.

Ripe persimmons continue to gain positive associations as the speaker next recalls his mother's observation that “every persimmon has a sun / inside, something golden, glowing, / warm as my face.” The fruit forms a link with his father when the speaker gives him two “forgotten” persimmons, “swelled, heavy as sadness, / and sweet as love.” In the “muddy lighting” of his parents' cellar, with his father sitting on the stairs, the adult speaker's search throughout the poem for something meaningful from his past is more overtly suggested: “I rummage, looking / for something I lost.” He finds three rolled-up paintings by his now blind father. As the father reaches to touch a rendering of “Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth,” he remembers “the strength, the tense / precision in the wrist” required to paint them. For both speaker and reader the search has ended. The speaker has recovered two qualities embodied in and demonstrated by his parents that he has found so lacking in American culture: the rich, full warmth of his parents' love, figured in persimmons, and their precise, caring ways, represented by their respective crafts. The poem ends with the father's remark that “some things never leave a person,” and indeed, as in so much of Lee's loving, precisely crafted poetry, this work reaches into the murky depths of memory to salvage cherishable characteristics of his parents and their culture.

Works Cited

Lee, Li-Young. “Persimmons.” Rose: Poems. Brockport: BOA Editions, 1986.

Mary Slowik (essay date fall-winter 2000)

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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 behind them, she does look back and is immediately turned into a pillar of salt. The fear of looking back and yet the compulsion to look back at the country that one has left behind infuses much cross-cultural writing in the United States today. The experience of immigration is a central fact in the lives of Asian, Hispanic, Mid-Eastern, Slavic, Irish, and Italian families in America. Even when the immigration is several generations removed, cross-cultural writers searching for their roots must in one way or another grapple with the event itself.

For many families, immigration is a traumatic experience. Expelled out of their homelands, immigrants must suffer the treacherous journey to America and then survive in a different and frequently hostile host culture. Families do not easily talk about these experiences. Migrations are frequently shrouded in silence and an unspoken prohibition not to look back. For Asian immigrants in America, the subject of this [essay] silence about origins in Japan or China has been a necessary course as they have attempted to assimilate into a dangerous, frequently racist environment. During the era of the Exclusion Acts and the internment camps of World War II, having Asian origins and cultural identity incurred enormous penalties: job and home loss, deportation, even imprisonment and death.

The writers whom I am discussing in this [essay] however, suggest that there are even more painful and damaging silences than those required by survival in a hostile environment. There are the silences families demand of their own members, both out of cultural tradition and also out of profound and unexamined ambivalence about cultural identity. Such silence passed on from one generation to the next robs sons and daughters of a knowledge of their own history and origins. It also places families in a void between cultures, where they can feel paralyzed by an inexplicable shame and guilt. It is the failure to look back, these sons and daughters claim, that turns one into a deathly statue. Lot and their own families may have the curse wrong. One has to look back in order to look forward. It is only by looking back that one escapes death.

Garrett Hongo, Marilyn Chin, David Mura, and Li-Young Lee came of age in the 1960s and 70s and gained literary recognition in the 1980s. One of their central projects, both as poets and as Asian American children of immigrants, is to confront the silence of their families head-on. In doing so, they write an intense and innovative lyric poetry that in complex ways broadens and complicates the first person, meditative poetry of self-examination that dominates American writing today.

Life, these writers insist, does not begin when an immigrant steps on the shore of America. Life does not start with the first sighting of the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge. Rather, immigrants take the history and culture of their country of origin with them and, whether they intend to or not, pass it on to their children who then live in a fragmentary world which speaks always of some other place, some other culture no longer fully realized or acknowledged. “The migrant voice tells us what it is like to feel a stranger and yet at home, to live simultaneously inside and outside one's immediate situation” (King xv).

The dislocation that the children of immigration suffer is not rooted solely in the break-up of personality, examined so fully by American first-person poetry. It also resides in the break-up of history and geography occasioned by abrupt cross-cultural flight. The landscape of immigrant families is strewn not only with personal symbols that are difficult to decipher but also with public symbols wrested out of a larger cultural context that would give them meaning.

The poetry of immigration also pushes beyond the time-span of a single existence. Immigrants see their lives as chapters in a larger family narrative that precedes and follows their own. The task of emigration and assimilation is frequently not completed in one generation: parents and grandparents pass the torch to succeeding generations. Garrett Hongo, Marilyn Chin, David Mura, and Li-Young Lee have taken up the torch, even if ultimately they will douse its flames. Thus, the meaning of their individual lives does not reside in the single span of their own lifetimes as is the case with most confessional poets. Meaning also resides within the earlier generations of their families and in the generations to follow. The poets of immigration are entangled in the obligation of familial respect and in the obligation to interpret and pass on family history and family story. As part of a larger history of emigration and assimilation, they acknowledge their responsibility to complete an immigration narrative that their parents and grandparents have started, not in an isolated voice but a family's voice discovering its own expression.

The silences these poets face are complex. There is no established tradition of Asian American poetry of immigration to draw on. Immigration itself is surrounded by a disturbing literary silence. There is very little formal writing by actual immigrants about their experience. Many immigrants came out of an oral tradition which expressed itself in stories and songs which were not recorded, and the stress of migration and the demands of mere survival precluded extensive written first-hand history (See Lim). There are efforts to recover Asian American folk and oral traditions by Marlon K. Hom, Robert Lee, and in the collection of Angel Island poems in Island, but, as Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong admits in An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature, “the oral tradition among Chinese Americans is, by and large, under-researched and ill-understood” (42-43).

For the poets I am concerned with here, the more troubling silence originates in the fear and cultural shame of their own families. The sense of displacement is particularly exacerbated by the “cultural amnesia” fostered by their parents. King-Kok Cheung, in “Reviewing Asian American Literary Studies,” uses the narrator of Maxine Hong King's China Men to pose the central question these poets ask their families: “Do you mean to give us a chance at being real Americans by forgetting the Chinese past?” (6).

For the Japanese-Americans, whose first migration experiences were repeated during the forced removal to internment camps during World War II, the silence crosses several generations: “Although most sansei [third-generation Japanese-Americans] were not yet born at the time of internment,” Stan Yogi writes, “the event has marked the third generation psychically, mainly through the silence issei [first-generation] and nisei [second-generation] maintained about the complexities and traumas of the war years” (126). As opposed to the insistence of more recent Asian American writers on diaspora, that is, the scattering of people away from a homeland to which they never quite lose allegiance, or on the cultivation of a state of permanent exile (See preface in King) or on the scenario of immigration and return-to-homeland envisioned by many nineteenth and early twentieth century immigrants (See Kelen and Stone), the poets of my paper are caught within a family culture that takes the American mainstream at its most prosperous as its point of reference. It is the country of destination not the country of origin,—America, not Asia,—that is the family's main concern. For Garrett Hongo, Marilyn Chin, David Mura, and Li-Young Lee, however, American culture does not hold the promise it is supposed to have or, if it does, its promise exacts a terrible price from immigrant families. Their poetry puts an ironic twist on their families' immigrant dreams.

My study does not intend to be exhaustive either concerning the poetry of immigration or of Asian American writing. The experience of immigration is complex, and the writing that comes out of this experience has not yet been systematically studied. Also, the flowering of Asian American writing in the last twenty years has been so rich and diverse and relatively new that I do not claim that the small handful of poems I discuss in this paper represent the entire movement. Furthermore, the poets I have chosen are not meant to represent the entire Asian American community, which is not homogeneous but is composed of many different ethnic groups and is criss-crossed with class and generational divides representing profoundly different attitudes toward America and Asia. I do think, however, that the issues of immigration history and poetic form that these poems address must be faced in one way or another by all Asian American writers who take up the immigration experience of their families.

The four poets I examine have written extensively about migration. David Mura is a third-generation Japanese-American. Garrett Hongo is a fourth-generation Japanese-American born in Hawaii. Both write about the internment of the Japanese during World War II in their poetry but have also written longer prose works inspired by reverse migration, that is, their temporary return to their families' homelands, Mura in Turning Japanese, Hongo in Volcano, Li-Young Lee's central concern in almost all of his early poetry is his relationship to his father, an eminent Chinese intellectual who fled China with his family and came to America in the 1950s by way of Indonesia. Marilyn Chin is also a first-generation Chinese-American born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon. She dedicates the book from which I draw the poems for this essay The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, to her mother, who was born in China of “strong Southern Cantonese peasant stock,” the family that constitutes the subject of many of the book's poems.

Chin, Lee, Hongo, and Mura write a carefully honed and focused poetry that has won them recognition in the American mainstream. Although less experimental and overtly political than some of their contemporaries, the four poets more insistently than others address their own family's silences and their own obligations of familial respect. It is the complex inter-family relations in the face of migration and its effect on poetic form that is the subject of this paper.

A boldness, even a brashness, characterizes the immigration poems of Hongo, Chin, Mura, and Lee. They announce in their poetry that no matter what gaps there are in their histories, no matter what silences suffered, the poets will talk anyway. Theirs is a poetry of assertive statement and declarative force. With Maxine Hong Kingston, they challenge their elders: “I'll tell you what I suppose from your silences and few words, and you can tell me that I'm mistaken. You'll just have to speak up with the real stories if I've got you wrong” (10).

With a declarative force, Garrett Hongo makes a call to witness, a call to public attention and testimony. He commands in “Stepchild”: “Is it the Sacramento? / It doesn't matter / Go out there anyway. / The noises you hear / are the footsteps / of a thousand families / raining on the planks / of the bridge” (51, this and all subsequent Hongo quotes are from Yellow Light, 1982, unless otherwise noted). As stubbornly, as intractably, David Mura recounts family history over family objection. Mura's family, however, protests more vocally than Hongo's. Notice, again, the declarative and documentary force of Mura's language:

Near Rose's Chop Suey and Jino Suke's grocery,
the temple where incense hovered and inspired
dense evening chants (prayers for Buddha's mercy
colorless and deep), that day he was fired …
No, no, no, she tells me. Why bring it back?
The camps are over. (Also overly dramatic)
Forget shoyu-stained furoshiki, mochi on a stick:
You're like a terrier, David, gnawing a bone,
                                        an old, old trick. …

(After We Lost 10, italics are Mura's)

Marilyn Chin's language is tense, accusatory, bristling with irony. When she is reconstructing the family experience preceding the flight from China, she is assertive, probing, tending toward the imperative: “Do you remember / the shantytowns,” she asks and demands of her grandfather in “The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty.” “Do you remember / mother's first lover … Do you know the stare / of a dead man?” she asks her relatives. “Open the gate,” she commands them, “Open / the gilded facade / of restaurant ‘Double Happiness.’ / The man crouched / on the dirty linoleum / fingering dice / is my father” (48-49, this and all subsequent Chin quotes are from The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty, unless otherwise noted).

Her commands, however, are countered by the determination of a family to survive and move inexorably forward in time and history: “Upon entering the world— / there would be no return. / Upon treading the path— / there would be no detours. / When one plum ripens— / the others will follow” (72), she writes of the family philosophy in “Ode to Prized Koi and Baby Finches.” But against this march of fate which forbids looking backward, Chin does just that, boldly naming everything she has lost: “Please forgive my arrogance,” she writes to the koi and finches, “but to be human means to never look back. / The lost country of my birth, / the forbidden lovers in the moon, / the broken promises in my heart / give me a sadness that you would never know / being merely, happily, fish and fowl” (73).

Li-Young Lee is more reverent towards his parents, but not any less persistent, even brash, in evoking his father's life as a way of understanding his own. His writing is insistently in the present tense, where past experience and future promise are fused in the confusion of the present moment, intensely and immediately experienced. Note again the terseness, the declarative and documentary force of Lee's voice. Like David Mura, Lee meets a wall of silence when he asks one of his relatives questions. “Which house did we flee by night? Which house did we flee by day? he probes in “Interrogation” (City [The City in Which I Love You] 33). “Don't ask me,” she replies. He persists: “We stood and watched one burn; from one we ran way.” She answers: “I'm neatly folding / the nights and days, notes / to be forgotten” (33). By the end of the poem, she is chanting, “I'm through with memory. … I'm through with memory,” though the last line suggests that the event will not be evaded: “Can't you still smell,” she says, “the smoke on my body?” (34).

Yet, in the face of such family resistance, the poems of Hongo, Chin, Mura, and Lee reconstruct the migration experience with an intense omniscience. The speakers in the poems are hyper-observant, pointing out seemingly trivial physical details which attain an eerie significance against the stark background of people fleeing their own countries. Hongo and Chin in their migration poems position themselves high above the scene. Hongo does a wide-angle take of the bridge across which the Japanese-Americans flee in “Stepchild” (Yellow Light 51). Chin's narrator hides in the moon that shines over the fields at the moment the Chinese woman decides to leave her home and begin her journey in “Exile's Letter: after the failed revolution” (Phoenix Gone 15). Mura in the voice of an epic documentary evokes heaven and earth: “In 1918, as the sea sparkled like the last tear God / shed before giving up on the world, women / … lined the ship's rail like / the horizon of a planet with dozens of moons” (11). While Lee places himself within the scene, a baby held in his fleeing father's arms, the child's innocent point of view and intense sensory awareness give such poems as “Furious Versions,” “The Interrogation,” “This House and What Is Dead,” “Arise, Go Down,” and “For a New Citizen of the United States,” the same kind of almost preternatural perception of the other migration poems: “We were diminished,” he declares in “The Interrogation” (City 33). “We were not spared. There was no pity. … There were fires in the streets. We stood among men, at the level / of their hands, all those wrists, dead or soon to die.”

What the poets notice are the mundane details of ordinary life suddenly and haphazardly wrenched from the ordinary and gaining a terrible significance as people decide which few things they can take with them as they plunge out of one life and into another, the decisions made in haste. The result is a fractured sense of culture, a being on the outside among fragments of an unknown whole. Thus, Mura notices temple incense and Buddhist chants and shoyu-stained furoshiki, mochi on a stick, and tins of utskemono and eel hidden beneath the bed when he recalls his family's flight from their home in California to an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Hongo notes the heavy clothes, the bundles of kitchenware, a jewel box, “maybe some blankets / wrapped in huge purple / and scarlet pillowcases” (Phoenix Gone 51) or “furoshiki,” as he refers to them later. And then, in order to call attention to the haste of the departure and the respectability of the people who have been turned out of their homes, he points to the mother dressed in evening clothes, a long black gown, the flat-topped round hat, “the white fin of a baggage tag / pinwheeling like a kite on her breast” (Phoenix Gone 52). Chin's exile in “Exile's Letter: after the failed revolution,” departs a more exotic world, of threshed wheat and silk forced from mulberries (15). She dreams of gazebos and vistas, as abruptly renounced as noticed in the poem when she recognizes they are “not hers, as she walks into exile vowing no return.” Li-Young Lee notes clothes hastily patched, the question a guard asks, “politely deferring to class,” before pistol whipping his father: “What color suit, Professor, would you like to be buried in? Brown or blue?” (City 18).

“Migrant literature reflects but also may exaggerate or even invert the social experience that drives it. We may be surprised, and hence illuminated, by the migrant's feel for the quotidian and commonplace, and by migrant perceptions of the odd and the exotic” (King xv). The sense of the quotidian and the odd in the poets we are examining, however, does not in the end surprise or illuminate. The effect of the omniscient point of view firmly placed on the outside of the experience underscores how fractured the experience is, how, as Chin so frequently images it, culture for the immigrant's children is a kind of empty casing of patched-together fragments with a whole that can only be guessed at, but no longer fully lived, an empty turtle shell, she calls it in “Turtle Soup,” “bearing humanity's strange inscriptions” (Phoenix Gone 24).

The poets seem to be ethnographers, slightly out of joint. Like ethnographers, they deal with single, sometimes seemingly disconnected artifacts pulled out of a cultural group's everyday life. They invest these artifacts with cultural significance, but then their power falls short. Ethnographers attempt to uncover the fabric of the culture taken as some kind of whole. Not so, with the poetry we have been discussing. The ethnographer's sensibility may be present in the attention given to the details of everyday life, but ultimately significance is no longer clearly present even though the artifacts retain their cultural force. Thus, the poets we are discussing continuously bring a symbolic reading to the worlds their elders have given them. Things brought from the old country have a peculiar though unexplained force on life. The old world and the new world exist side by side without clear bridges between them: Neither culture is secure in the moorings of a larger, fully realized society or history.

In Marilyn Chin's “Altar,” a neglected statue of a household god also represents a long silent and neglected grandmother:

I tell her she has outlived her usefulness.
I point to the corner where dust gathers,
where light has never touched. But there she sits,
a thousand years, hands folded, in a tattered armchair,
with yesterday's news, “the Golden Mountain Edition.”

(Phoenix Gone 29)

The speaker is situated at the other end of a religious, historical, and family dream gone wrong. The altar conflates a grandmother who can no longer pass on a living or a vibrant tradition, a religious icon gathering dust for lack of use, an historical figure still holding the local Chinese language newspaper named for the old immigrant dream of America: the gold mountain, the land of promise and plenty. Not only is the meaning sustained by religious or cultural observance dead, but the hope itself is doomed. Above the altar a dead moth hangs in a spider web:

She, who was attracted to that bare bulb,
who danced around that immigrant dream,
will find her end here, this corner,
this solemn altar.

(Phoenix Gone 29)

For Chin, the fragments of Chinese culture become persistent omens of doom infiltrating her American experience. “Altar” emphasizes not only their uselessness, but in the presence of immigrant hope, their power to attract and then kill all who take refuge in them.

In “The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty” (46-51), Chin gives the cultural fragments even broader powers. The American speaker, while visiting a Chinese garden, seems to be inhabited by the spirit of an ancestor, “who in the netherworld” the ancestor asks, “walks on my soles as I walk?” (46). In the presence of this unnamed spirit, the poem becomes a dialogue with several spirits, the speaker's father, grandfather, grandmother, and Aunt, who together recall their suffering and ruin in China at the hands of the Japanese, the Nationalists, and the Communists. Their voices overwhelm the speaker with despair: “When you pray to your ancestor,” they counsel her, “You are praying / to his [her father's] hollowness” (50). At the end of the poem, they accompany her to an American garden where she is secretly meeting her boyfriend. They are quick to point out all the bad omens in the garden. The moon looks like a severed ear or a snake biting her tail, “eating herself into extinction” (51). The poem ends like a confused fairy tale; the voice of the speaker is crying out like a doomed princess, “Oh dead prince, oh hateful love / shall we meet again / on the bridge of the magpies” (51).

In “The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty,” the poet herself takes on the double vision of a second-generation American and a native Chinese woman, where physical reality, even the mundane details of an American courtship, are filled with omens foretelling doom. The poem resonates not only with personal foreboding but also with the weight of a violent history and with the threat of the continued violence visited on women. The place of tender kissing “where the arch meets toe meets ankle” is also “where dried blood warbles” (51).

David Mura's Japanese-American grandparents in After We Lost Our Way also live in two worlds, understanding the details of their harsh life in the internment camps against the narrative of their old life in Asia. The symbols of security and prosperity from their old life, the “ancient shrines” (12) and “emperor's food” (6), are ironically turned into the deadly icons of the American internment camps: “And then its Pearl, Heart mountain, mornings / when rifle towers, like ancient shrines / obscure the horizon (12) … [the] putrid gray beans … put my stomach / in a permanent revolt shouting no emperor / would ever feed his people so harshly” (6). Most eerie and disturbing is Mura's great-aunt's premonition of the bombing of Japan: “[her dream] came across seas / and the mountains. / it smelled of ash, a gasless flame” (7). The premonition, however, is spliced into the mundane events of the day: “bending to / the tomatoes, in line to mess / trudging through the desert dust … I heard them again. The cries” (8). The intensity of this symbolic perception leads to the poem's final confusion: “please / tell me what country I'm in” (9).

In many of his poems, Mura takes on the double vision of his grandparents. The bi-lingualisms, “teriyaki,” “sake,” “otoo-san,” “okaa-san,” suggest that the most intimate worlds of food and affection are not shared with an English-speaking world (3). In “A Nisei Picnic: From an Album” (14), Mura images his family in both traditional Asian and contemporary American ways: an uncle with a rice ball in his mouth eventually “ballooning like a Buddha.” There is a worldly aunt who took Mura to “the zoo, movies,” gave him “candy,” and his father who “worked too hard to be white.” The poem ends with the same confusion expressed by the grandparents. He notes “the bewilderment of their eyes.” In later poems he expresses the same perplexity: “[my grandchildren] won't know how bewildered I was / how alone. They'll think I felt American. I was always at home” (20). For Mura, the confusion in identity is realized in intense self-loathing which is reversed only when he examines the dual history he outlines in these early poems. Eventually, he learns, particularly through undergoing and writing about a “reverse migration” back to Japan in Turning Japanese, which parts of both traditions he can reject, which he can claim for his own.

Garrett Hongo, also Japanese-American, subscribes to a double vision very early in his poetry. After a visit to Japan, he writes in “Roots” (48-51), “I learned there was a signature to all things / the same as my own, and that my own sight / sanctified streetlights and stalled cars / the same as ceremonies in solitude” (48). The poem is about the practice of a religious discipline to strengthen and clarify this ability to read the surroundings symbolically. There is the tutelage of a dream mentor, an old man who ultimately in a mystical moment of ritual and song passes to Hongo an Asian cultural and religious inheritance where “heritage will be an ancient flute / throbbing from its place in my heart / where his heart has found its roots” (50).

In America, however, the heritage is fragmented, broken, silenced. The pieces are too disjointed to easily “sing” into some kind of whole, and the history too silenced for a Japanese-American son to claim for his own. Against the myth of assimilation where Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) supposedly emerge “full grown Americans at birth,” Hongo wants to place the as-yet-untold bitter half of the story, the tales of flight and survival and, with them, the larger narratives that give significance. “Where are the histories / our tragedies, our books / of fact and fiction?” he asks at the end of “Stepchild.” “Where are the legends … where are the myths, the tales?” (58-59).

If Hongo wants to reroot Asian culture in America, he first must discover the missing American story. His growing awareness of the suppressed American history leads him to an angry outburst against both his Japanese family and the Anglo culture that has so injured them: “The Dragon wants me to scream,” he writes towards the end of “Stepchild,” “to swear at my father / for burying anger / in the red dirt. … The Shark wants me to kill / to tear at the throats / of white children” (After We Lost 61). If he is under the influence of Japanese gods in his anger, ironically Hongo is also controlled by the equally powerful influence of the pacifist actions of his American wife “who nursed the sick / at Manzanar, / who comforted the crying / at Gila River” (61). The poem ends with the speaker gripped in an impasse, alert to his American surroundings but unable to act within them: “I think about nothing / for a change. … And the sun blonds nothing / but the sands outside my window / and melons ripening on the sill, / the yellow ones we call bitter” (63).

For Li-Young Lee, a first-generation Chinese immigrant, it is the subjective presence, the “I” of the poem that slips elusively across the competing cultural fragments of history. In The City in Which I Love You, the speaking self can assume any version of the past. It can become the “I” that “will rise and go / out into an American city” (13), or the one that “might run with wife and children to the docks / to bribe an officer … for perilous passage” (13), or the self that will go to his father's “snowbound church to dust the pews” (13). But beneath such free choice of histories is a self profoundly threatened by oblivion. “Furious Versions” (13-29) is an act of recovery of this slippery self that requires holding firmly to the horrific physical details of the flight from Indonesia: the pistol blow to the father's head, the drifting boat and bodies in the harbor, the “flesh-laced, mid-century fire / teeth and hair infested / napalm-dressed and skull-hung fire” (18). Lee melds these memories to the immediate perception of an American world, in this case, the presence of three flowers that the poet notices in the dark and the flowers' suggestion of the symbolic possibilities of the Paul's Scarlet rose his father nurtured at their house in Pennsylvania.

The poem seems a strange reversal of the problem of partial meaning that we have been discussing. For Lee, there are continuities in the physical world that the self, so aware of its own dissolution, cannot grasp. The problem is not with the discontinuities imposed by immigration, but with the fragmentation of the self caused by the brutality and horrors of the flight itself. In fact, the American landscape occasionally yields surprising revelations of continuity. Once when Lee and his father are out walking in America, a blind man on the street recognizes his father's voice. Years ago, in Asia, the father helped the man bury his wife “ten thousand miles away / [in] an abandoned house in Nan Jing.” “Here was a man,” Lee claims, “who remembered / the sound of another's footfalls / so well as to call to him / after 20 years / on a sidewalk in America” (23). Lee also comes across Li Bai and Du Fu “on the corner of Argyle and Broadway … sending folded paper boats down the gutter: Gold-toothed, cigarettes rolled in their sleeves / they noted my dumb surprise: / What did you expect? Where else should we be?” (23-24, italics are Lee's).

Yet Lee makes no easy act of faith in the surprising continuity immigrants sometimes discover on this shore. “All of my visions and interpretation,” Lee writes, “depend on what I see and between my eyes is always the rain, the migrant rain” (Rose 68-69). He insists on the immanence of his vision: history is not a narrative sequence moving from past-present-to future, nor is it a sequence of cause-and-effect events, but rather history is an insistent present which keeps revising our most immediate perception of where and who we are. Always spliced into Lee's immediate experiences are the re-lived experience of the terrifying flight from Asia: “How, then, may I / speak of flowers, here,” he asks in “Furious Version” as he meditates on the flowers in his garden and the remembered flower in his father's garden: “where / a world of forms convulses, / here / amidst / drafts—yet / these are not drafts / toward a future form, but / furious versions / of the here and now” (City 18-19).

If immigration is seen as a three-part sequence—the expulsion from home, the journey where one's identity is on hold, and the survival in the host country—then the poems we have been discussing suggest that no matter how distant the first immigration from Asia to America, the poets still feel themselves “in the “middle,” not having fully left Asia, not having fully embraced America. In part, their displacement is reinforced by the fact that immigration is not a one-time event in their family histories. Asians have repeatedly been uprooted from their homes in America. The Exclusion Laws, enacted immediately after the transcontinental railroad was built and renewed through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, refused citizenship to Asians, particularly the Chinese, who were hounded out of American communities and sent on many cross-country migrations. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were forcefully uprooted from their homes, their property and assets impounded and frequently lost, and the people placed in internment camps.

Thus, while the “original” immigration to the United States from Asia may have taken place several generations before the generation of the writers we are discussing here, the terrible disruption of migration has re-occurred for their parents and grandparents. There is a sense in their poetry that each migration repeats the drama of the first immigration, intensifying the experience and making it accessible across time to the present generation. Garrett Hongo, for instance, does not feel he has to discriminate between bridges in the opening of “Stepchild”: “Go out to the bridge over the river / Is it the Sacramento? / It doesn't matter. / Go out there anyway. / The noises you hear / are the footsteps / of a thousand families / raining on the planks / of the bridge” (51). The bridge could be any number of bridges in the United States or Asia.

Marilyn Chin embraces the “Road of Regret” with her ancestor in China. The ancestor addresses her directly and includes her on the journey of exile. Whatever distinction is made between them at the beginning of “Exile's Letter: after the failed revolution” disappears at the end. “Dear Cousin,” the ancestor addresses her directly, “do not mourn me or this empty sky, / for the sky is limitless. Ah yet, there is a limit / to even ‘sky.’ Like you we are fallow deer, / on Regret Road we must not tarry” (15). Much of Chin's poetry is written from the Road of Regret, out of a sense of loss, displacement, and grief.

There are four migrations in David Mura's “Suite for Grandfather and Grandmother Uyemura: Relocation” (After the Lost 11-13): the arrival of the arranged brides from Japan in 1918, the flight to the relocation camps during World War II, the exile to Chicago after internment where the grandmother dies, and the grandfather's return to Japan to remarry. The poem ends in painful and sardonic understatement. The grandfather writes about his life: “bonsai tree like me you are useless and a little sad (After We Lost 13, italics are Mura's).

We have already seen how immediate a memory immigration is for Li-Young Lee. Images slide one beneath the other so that the “napalm-dressed and skull hung fire” intrudes on the peace of a later night, but also cuts into the act of writing itself, the pun on the word “draft” intended: “here, where / a world of forms convulses, / here, amidst / drafts—yet / these are not drafts / toward a future form, but / furious versions / of the here and now” (City 18-19).

Past immigrations slide over each other and intensify the sense of cultural dislocation. Sons and daughters re-suffer the immigration with their parents and grandparents. Li-Young Lee and Marilyn Chin vividly recall and interpret the immigration made while they were young children, a traumatic event that continues to haunt their own lives. David Mura and Garrett Hongo place the fragments of family stories into the contexts of the repeated immigrations suffered in America. All four poets articulate their own cultural dislocation in terms of the ongoing alienation of families uprooted from whatever real or metaphoric place they call home.

As a repeated event, immigration is vivid in family memory and, while the poets of my study are more insistent about revealing family history than other family members, by virtue of their reimagining immigration in their own poems, they share a common suffering with earlier generations. Ultimately, their poems win from their families an authorization to speak, to break the silence. But it is not simply that the repetitions make immigration an experience available to the poets. More importantly it is the dialogic form they develop within their poetry that makes room for the voices of those earlier generations expressed without antagonism.

While framing their poems in an intimate first-person lyric voice, Hongo, Chin, Mura, and Lee also write out of an oral tradition which is essentially dialogic in nature. Thus their poems are not dramatic monologues or first-person confessions. Nor are they documentaries or exposés. Rather, their poetry is based on the give-and-take of conversation. They embody intimate revelations made between family members through letter and prayer, through a family's story-telling and religious ritual. The poems revere these connections and are not intended to destroy them. The poems are acts of love and family obligation, which ultimately carry the authority of the older generation but also allow the younger generation to develop family voices freed from shame. In the process, the poets develop a complex dialogic poetic form where the voice in the poem is not wholly the poet's own but shifts between family members and moves across time.

The speaker/writer of David Mura's “Letters from Poston Relocation Camp” (After We Lost 6-9), for instance, is a Japanese man in a World War II American internment camp sending letters to his wife outside the camp. In the letters, he juxtaposes the starkness of the camp with his perceptions of beauty in those around him: “our beauty,” he calls it, “the way we carry the land / and the life, of plants inside us” (6). At the center of the poem, there is the terrible premonition of the bombing of Japan, felt by the letter-writer with the same sensuous intensity that he feels the desert dust and the tomato plants in the prison garden. He ends the letter with an apology for the premonition: “Forgive me. Blessed / with a chance to talk to my wife, … all I can do is moan” (8-9). In the final words, however, he justifies writing about his moaning, and in doing so establishes a complicated bond, not only with his wife, but with all who are reading his words later: “And yet, if I didn't tell you, / I would be angry at you for not listening, / blaming you for what I haven't spoken” (9). By breaking silence, the letter-writer creates an audience defined by a relationship of listening and response rather than anger and strangely misplaced responsibility. The poem ends with a definition of this listening audience: “When you write back, please / tell me what country I'm in. / I feel so poor now. / These words are all I own” (9). The poem Mura writes a generation later answers the request. Mura himself owns the words, and in making them known, is both writing back to the letter-writer, his grand-uncle, and also revealing the contours of the country they both inhabit.

Marilyn Chin is also receiving a letter from an ancestor in “Exile's Letter: after the failed revolution” (15), but, as so frequently happens in Chin's poetry, the give-and-take of conversation suggests the give-and-take of prayer to an ancestral spirit. In “Exile's Letter,” Chin seems to be a god or a spirit present in the moon protecting the peasant farmer who is leaving the fields for the last time: “she [the exile] looks up, finds my face in the moon.” What follows is a prayer made to the face in the moon, but the identification of Chin with the farmer becomes so complete that the letter quoted at the end could well originate with either of them, praying one to the other: “Dear Cousin, do not mourn me … Like you we are fallow deer; / on Regret Road we must not tarry” (15).

Sometimes, Chin herself is the supplicant looking for the ancestor she might pray to. Her investigation, however, always involves a dialogue with her family or with us, the readers: “Do you know the stare / of a dead man?’ she asks in “The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty” (49). “My father the ox / without his yoke / sitting on a ridge / of the quay,” she answers herself. “Auntie Jade / remembers:” she continues, “Hunger / had spooned / the flesh / from his cheek. …” Auntie Jade also warns her, “when you pray / to your ancestors / you are praying / to his hollowness.”’

In “Turtle Soup” (24), Chin recounts a conversation about a turtle cooked by her mother into soup. Almost from the beginning of the poem, Chin's voice becomes dialogic, poised between various speakers and listeners. She uses the second person which in an unsettling way implicates the reader: “You go home one evening tired from work, and your mother boils you turtle soup, … You say, ‘Ma, you've poached the symbol of long life.’” The mother responds to the daughter coming home from work, Chin, the poet, and us, the reader: “All our ancestors have been fools. / Remember Uncle Wu who rode ten thousand miles / to kill a famous Manchu and ended up / with his head on a pole? … Sometimes you're the life, sometimes the sacrifice.” Chin then directly enters into the conversation as an outside voice addressing the person coming home from work: “Baby, some high priestess has got it wrong.” She then turns to us, the readers, and addresses us with a rhetorical question which also suggests a lament: “Is there nothing left but the shell / and humanity's strange inscriptions, / the songs, the rites, the oracles?”. It is apparent that Chin longs to be that priestess who could “get it right.”

Less skeptical than Chin, Garrett Hongo also aspires to be a priest for his generation and for those before him, a task which complicates and historicizes the voice in his poems. In “Stepchild” (51-63), he oversees a dialogue that crosses generations. While in part, the poem documents briefly the events about which second-generation Japanese-Americans have kept silent, it also opens up an accusatory dialogue between the generations: “Why,” the first-generation Issei ask of the second-generation Nissei: “do you ignore us? / We give you songs of grief / and you run to the liars. … Our history is bitter” (54). “This is not beautiful, you [the Nissei and third-generation, Sansei] say / This is not what we came for. / But who knows this better / than your grandfather / who spent the years / of his internment / sealed in the adobes / at Leuppe in Arizona” (55). Hongo, like Chin, directly enters into the argument in the middle of the poem by bringing the argument into the poem's own present tense, no matter how far in time from World War II that present may be: “Why do you give me fairy tales?”. Hongo asks in the first person. “I am your stepchild. / Tell me, / your one bastard / tell me the truth” (56).

While “Stepchild” is a call to investigate and make known Japanese-American history and to discover and make the myths, stories, and poems that realize the meaning of this history, two other poems, “Roots” and “Something Whispered in the Shakunachi,” suggest that myth-making involves a different kind of conversation with the ancestors themselves. Here Hongo's role is priestly rather than accusatory. “Heritage,” you will recall him saying in “Roots,” will be an “ancient flute / throbbing from its place in my heart / where his [an ancestor's] heart has found its roots” (50). The ancestor is described in “Something Whispered” as a farmer who made flutes out of bamboo and lost his farm during the internment, but managed to raise bamboo again. The “full-throated songs” that memory creates for the farmer come “out of wind, out of bamboo / out of a voice / that only whispers” (78). The image of a voiced wind recalls the powerful story of Chinaman's Hat in Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men, where the grasses hold the voices of those who lived among them. In many poems Hongo aspires to be the receptive conduit for this historical and mythic voice although such a role requires him to enter into a complex dialogue with the earlier generations themselves.

In “A Final Thing” (City 72-74), Li-Young Lee works out more fully the relation between speaker and listener in a poem based on dialogue. The poet in “A Final Thing” awakens one morning to overhear his wife telling their son a story. Although he cannot hear the words, the poet is especially sensitive to the nuances of his wife's voice and its responsiveness to the listening son:

she is telling a story,
using a voice which speaks to another,
weighted with that other's attention,
and avowing it
by deepening in intention.
Rich with the fullness of what's declared,
this voice points
away from itself
to some place
in the hearer,
sends the hearer back
to himself
to find what he knows.
A saying full of hearing,
a murmuring full of telling
and compassion for the listener
and for what's told.


The language that requires a listener and includes in its own words the act of hearing could well describe the letter and prayer forms of Chin and Mura and the inchoate mythic flute songs of Hongo.

But Li-Young Lee goes a step further and frames the conversation between his wife and son with his own unseen presence as he overhears them in a far bedroom:

My son, my first-born, and his mother
are involved in a story no longer only theirs
for I am implicated,
all three of us now
clinging to expectancy, riding sound and air …
I hear it through the bedroom wall;
something, someday, I'll close my eyes to recall.


You will recall that Lee is plagued by his own subjectivity: his ability to make up multiple and contradictory versions of the past and his vulnerability in the present where immediate perception is always fragmented, transient, and interrupted by terrifying physical memories. Yet by witnessing the intimate exchange between his wife and child and being implicated in that exchange, Lee transcends his own subjectivity partly because the dialogue does not originate with himself and partly because the dialogue introduces him to a history beyond his own invention. He will later recall words his wife, not he, invented and which his son received. Such words suggest an oral poetry that precedes his own tragic history. Faith in the transcendence of such dialogic language that somehow can sustain itself across time and place ultimately saves Lee from the fragmentation and transience expressed in “Furious Versions.”

In “Furious Versions,” Lee asks the question: “How, then, may I / speak of flowers / here, where / a world of forms convulses / here, amidst / drafts” (City 18-19). Lee writes in a later stanza; “behind the sound / of trees is another / sound. … it / ties our human telling / to its course / by momentum, and ours / is merely part / of its unbroken / stream, the human / and otherwise simultaneously / told. The past / doesn't fall away, the past / joins the greater / telling and is” (City 26). In “A Final Thing” (City 72-74), Lee identifies the origins of the “greater telling” in an oral and dialogic language in which he participates.

Li-Young Lee's poetry, together with the poetry of David Mura, Marilyn Chin, and Garrett Hongo, attests to a faith in the continuity of language, particularly as it enacts a dialogue across generations. To look back at a “homeland” is ultimately not to look back at a burning city and freeze in a deathly paralysis, but rather to overhear in the fire the conversation of ancestors. The task of poetry is to declare the conversation loudly and assertively in a fractured world and then to turn it into a dialogue across and through the fissures of geography and time and grief. This is the challenge and the accomplishment of the poetry of Li-Young Lee, David Mura, Marilyn Chin, and Garrett Hongo.

Works Cited

Brinker-Gabler, Gisela, and Sidonie Smith eds. Writing New Identities. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.

Cheung, King-Kok. “Reviewing Asian American Literary Studies.” An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Ed. Cheung, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 1-37.

Chin, Marilyn. The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 1994.

Fuchs, Lawrence. The American Kaleidoscope. Hanover NH: Wesleyan UP., 1990.

Hom, Marilyn K., trans. Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1987.

Hongo, Garrett Kaoru. Yellow Light. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1982.

———. Volcano: A Memoir of Hawaii. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Kelen, Leslie and Eileen Stone. “Introduction.” An Oral History of Ethnic and Minority Groups in Utah. Eds. Kelen and Stone. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1996. 4-15.

King, Russell, John Connell, and Paul White, eds. Writing Across Worlds. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. China Men. New York: Ballantine, 1980.

Lee, Li-Young. The City in Which I Love You. Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, 1990.

———. Rose. New York: BOA Editions, 1986.

Lai, Him Mark, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940. San Francisco: Hoc Doi Project, 1980.

Lee, Robert, Singing to Remember. Prod. and dir. Tony Heriza. New York: Asian American Arts Centre, 1992.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “Immigration and Diaspora.” An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Ed. King-Kok Cheung, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 289-311.

Mura, David. After We Lost Our Way. New York: Dutton, 1989.

———. Turning Japanese. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1991.

Stone, Elizabeth. Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Uba, George. “Versions of Identity in Post-Activist Asian American Poetry.” Reading the Literature of Asian America. Ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992. 33-48.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. “Chinese American Literature.” An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Ed. King-Kok Cheung, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 39-61.

Yogi, Stan. “Japanese American Literature.” An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Ed. King-Kok Cheung. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 125-55.

Publishers Weekly (review date 9 July 2001)

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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 imprisoned, Lee's family left the country, spent five years moving from place to place in Asia, and arrived in the U.S. in 1964. (These events are described in The Winged Seed. Lee's American Book Award-winning memoir of 1995.) Lee has ever been concerned with questions of origins, but in the 11 years since the publication of his last collection, memories of childhood answers furnished by father, mother and siblings now fail to assuage the poet's 3 a.m. doubts. Yet he does not trust himself to formulate answers on his own in these 35 nocturnes, and the father seems to be missing or dead. The poet's tightly wrought, extraordinarily careful and finally heart-wrenching responses finally boil down to one ultimate cry: “Where is his father? Who is his mother?” The complex permutations of these fundamental inquiries and their unsatisfactory answers construct a space in which knowledge and redemption, if never quite attained, always seem possible. Lee is never faced with sheer emptiness; his “silence thunders,” a vocal presence to which Lee's speaker responds, “declaring a new circumference / even the stars enlarge by crowding down to hear.”

Further Reading

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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 from Independent Presses.” Kenyon Review 9, no. 4 (fall 1987): 131-37.

McGovern commends Lee for avoiding predictability and triteness in Rose, maintaining that “by flirting with sentimentality he transcends it.”

Additional coverage of Lee's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Asian American Literature; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 153; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 165; Literature Resource Center; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 24; Poetry for Students, Vol. 11.

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Lee, Li-Young (Poetry Criticism)