The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

“Persimmons” consists of eighty-eight lines of free verse. The speaker is clearly Li-Young Lee himself, who immigrated to the United States from China as a small boy. The poem begins with Lee in trouble with his sixth-grade teacher because he cannot hear the difference between the words “persimmon” and “precision.” This scene is the first of several episodes Lee recalls in “Persimmons,” each of which involves a verbal ambiguity, misconception, or blunder of some sort. In the course of the poem these encounters involve Lee and four other people: Mrs. Walker (the teacher), Lee’s wife Donna, his mother, and his father.

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After recalling his punishment in school, Lee jumps ahead many years to a scene in the backyard, where he and his wife are making love. Here, too, words seem to fail the poet; he can teach Donna the Chinese for crickets, but cannot remember the words for dew and naked. He does, however, “remember to tell her/ she is as beautiful as the moon.” The love between them quickly eliminates the awkwardness Lee feels.

Next he recounts other words “that got me into trouble” as a boy, “wren and yarn” most poignantly. His mother seems to have contributed to his confusion, but she also helped him to see the underlying unity of things: “Wrens are soft as yarn./ My mother made birds out of yarn.” She also made a rabbit and “a wee man” as Li-Young watched, toys for her child, acts of love that taught him to see how rich words might be if they were not tied too tightly to single meanings. From his mother the toy maker, Lee takes the reader back to Mrs. Walker. She has brought a persimmon to class “and cut it up/ so everyone could taste/ a Chinese apple.” The boy can see that the fruit is not ripe, but he says nothing and only watches the faces of his classmates.

Two brief verse paragraphs follow in which the poet describes the persimmon more fully and compares it with the cardinal on his windowsill, which sings to him, “The sun, the sun.” The remainder of the poem focuses on Lee’s father, who has gone blind. His relationship with the persimmon is the most complex and has the most to teach the poet.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704

“Persimmons” opens with the scene in Mrs. Walker’s sixth-grade class. The incident is recounted in the flat language of simple narrative, but the stage is set for a more complex, stream-of-consciousness account of the poet’s coming of age, both as a poet and as a man. “Persimmon” itself constitutes the strongest current in that stream: The sound of the word, the taste, feel, and appearance of the fruit, and the symbolic significance it has for the poet and his parents all contribute to the design of the poem.

“Persimmon” and “precision” may not sound much alike to a native English speaker, but that same speaker may also lack the “precision” Lee has learned from his Chinese mother in distinguishing ripe from unripe fruit, a difference he can trace as he watches the faces of his classmates as they sample pieces of an unripe persimmon Mrs. Walker has imprecisely chosen in the market. This kind of wordplay is the dominant poetic device Lee employs in “Persimmons,” a kind of play that continues with wren and yarn and fight and fright. In each instance, the poet finds in the memories of his childhood something that connects the words with each other.

It is not only the sound of these words that engages Lee’s attention but also the sense impressions they evoke. Lee uses imagery of taste and touch as well as sight and sound, among them rich images like the touch of a wolftail brush on silk, the sounds of crickets and the feel of dew in the yard where Lee and his wife lie naked in the moonlight, and especially the taste of a genuinely ripe persimmon. (The sense of taste is something of a Li-Young Lee trademark; see especially “Eating Alone” and “Eating Together,” collected in Rose, the volume in which “Persimmons” appears.) Lee’s imagery often employs synesthesia, whereby one sense is described by evoking another; thus, the persimmon tastes like sunlight, and the backyard shivers with the sound of crickets.

The persimmon also carries a kind of symbolic weight for the poet and his family. When Mrs. Walker calls the fruit a “Chinese apple,” she points to a meaning of which she is almost certainly unaware. Lee’s father is a political refugee whose pursuers have driven his family far from home. They can never go back, it would seem, but they have brought knowledge of the persimmon with them; what is exotic to the American teacher and her students is familiar to Lee’s family. Further, the more his mother and father tell him about the fruit, the more mysteriously potent it becomes: It has a sun inside, it is “heavy as sadness/ and sweet as love.” Lee has been granted a kind of power through knowing the secrets of the persimmon.

Other objects carry similar weight in the poem. Lee finds three of his father’s paintings: “Hibiscus leaf and a white flower/ Two cats preening./ Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.” All of these subjects seem to have been ones that Dr. Lee could still paint after going blind, suggesting that blindness and vision are no more remote from each other than wren and yarn. This stress on the thing rather than an idea links Lee to older modern poets such as Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams.

One more point should be made about the structure of “Persimmons.” Until near the end, the poem moves from episode to episode as sounds and images carry the poet from one place in time to another. When he asks his father the “stupid question” about his blindness, however, the nature of the movement changes. With his painting of the persimmons in hand, Dr. Lee takes over. He describes painting blind, with the physical sense of brush in hand and the strength and “precision” in the wrist substituting for sight. The last episode is narrated not by the son, but by the father, who at this point sees more effectively, even though he is blind. This situation is an ironic twist familiar to readers of Sophocles and John Milton, but it seems less painful here, as Dr. Lee emphasizes how much remains to him.

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Themes