“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.
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.