Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773
Li-Young Lee, one of the most widely acclaimed American poets at the turn of the twenty-first century, was born in 1957 to Chinese parents in Jakarta, Indonesia; Lee’s family emigrated to the United States in 1964. He grew up in Pennsylvania, attended the University of Pittsburgh, and pursued graduate studies at the University of Arizona and the State University of New York, Brockport (which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1998). Although Lee has taught at prestigious universities (Stanford, Northwestern, University of Iowa), he has preferred to work at a warehouse in Chicago where he, his wife, and their children live with other members of the Lee family.
Family and family members loom large in Rose, and no one larger than Lee’s father. In fact, this father figure takes on near mythic qualities. He had been physician to Chairman Mao Zedong in Communist China. When he could, he left for Indonesia to become cofounder and vice president of the Christian-oriented University of Gamaliel (Hebrew for “God is my reward”). Unfortunately, Muslim Indonesia was then led by sinophobic president Achmad Sukarno, who unleashed an anti-Chinese pogrom that swept Lee’s father into prison in 1959, where he sustained kidney damage. Throughout his year of incarceration, Lee’s father proselytized his fellow inmates and his jailers. After bribing his way to freedom, Lee’s father became involved in the leadership of an evangelical Christian movement in Hong Kong, preaching to throngs numbering thousands. However, a financial dispute prompted him to migrate to America in 1964, where, in his forties, he enrolled in a Pittsburgh theological seminary. Eventually Lee’s father became the Presbyterian pastor of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. He died in 1980.
Lee’s poems show that, in life, his father taught him invaluable lessons in living. He gave his son indelible examples of loving (reflected in “The Gift”) and graphically illustrated that true knowledge comes not merely from empirical classroom knowledge. He transcended physical limitations by painting perfect still-life paintings although he had gone blind (“Persimmons”). He showed his son how to savor the jubilance of ripe peaches (“The Weight of Sweetness” and “From Blossoms”) as well as the chaste joy in marriage (“Braiding”). In death, the father challenged his son to ask eschatological questions, to confront the mystery of human life, and to seek the wisdom he longs for (the book’s first poem, “Epistle”) and the truth that he perceives like a dream but cannot understand (the book’s last poem, “Visions and Interpretations”).
Although the presence of Lee’s mother is less frequently felt in Rose, she is an important family figure. She was the aristocratic granddaughter of the fifth wife of General Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China after the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911. In Lee’s writings, his mother emerges as a fulfilling wife (“Early in the Morning”), a resourceful helpmate (she engineered their family’s escape from Indonesia), a devoted parent capable of being the family head (“Eating Together”), and a person steeped in a Chinese high culture that is unavailable to her Chinese American son (“I Ask My Mother to Sing”). Lee’s wife, Donna, is a figure of tender love (“The Gift”), of sensual love (“Persimmons”), through whom he realizes the inevitability of mortality even in the joy of marriage (“Braiding”). Lee has two brothers and a sister who is mentioned with special tenderness (“My Sleeping Loved Ones”).
The book Rose has three parts. Part 1 comprises thirteen poems largely drawn from the recollected feelings and sensations of their speaker’s boyhood; it ends with “Eating Alone,” which communicates his sense of loss and loneliness after his father’s death. Part 2 is a single poem of 274 lines, “Always a Rose,” meditating on the question of death, which opens up the mystery of life. Part 3 opens with “Eating Together” (which counterposes “Eating Alone”); it balances the earlier poem’s loneliness with a new sense of community derived from reconstituted commensality. The eleven poems of part 3 also tend to reflect an adult’s viewpoint, and they are comparatively more abstract in tone and texture. Although the book is predominantly in free verse, Lee does experiment with poetic form, perhaps more so in part 3 than in part 1. In part 1, for instance, “Epistle” appears to be a nonrhyming terza rima and “Nocturne” an irregularly rhyming sonnet. Part 3, however, contains a tour de force of rhyme in “Between Seasons,” where only four words are used repeatedly to end its twenty lines; and in “Visions and Interpretations,” stanza lengths are used to create a diminuendo effect as the poem begins with a set of quatrains, continues with triplets, and concludes with couplets.