For readers not previously acquainted with Li-Young Lee, it needs be said that he is a highly accomplished Chinese American poet whose initial volume, Rose (1986), won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award given by New York University and whose second volume, The City in Which I Love You (1990), received the Lamont Poetry Prize of the Academy of American poets. Readers familiar with Lee’s deeply moving and exquisitely crafted poems will recall his many haunting pieces that remember, evoke, and interrogate the almost mythic figure of the poet’s deceased father, Kuo Yuan Lee. To a large extent, the autobiographicalThe Winged Seed, Lee’s first prose work, is a lyrical and sometimes surrealistic memorializing of the author’s father and the author’s relationship with him. This memoir is also, as its title indicates, the saga of the Lee family’s participation in the twentieth century diaspora of Asians fleeing from the political upheavals of Asia and seeking to take root in the promise of America. Thus the book is a complex fabric made up, on the one hand, of a highly subjective psychological history about the formation of dominant themes and images in a poetic imagination that is woven, on the other hand, with factual history of world events. Although names, dates, and places are mentioned, they are tucked into the text offhandedly as if to underplay the significance of such external “facts,” and the reader who wants them must often work to unravel them. What matters most for the book are the internal truths of the psyche and the sensibility that are conveyed in Lee’s hauntingly evocative poetic prose.
Immediately indicative of its fundamentally poetic character, the book begins with a waking from dream. The dream has to do with Lee’s unquiet father, who has appeared to the author in his funerary clothes and the worn-out shoes in which he has tramped from his Pennsylvania grave to his son’s Chicago dwelling, bearing a jar of blood and pockets full of seed. These oneiric images are presented starkly, without explanation; their possible significations evolve and accrue in the course of the book. Eventually the reader realizes that, among other things, blood and seed are both signifiers of life and death. Blood signifies life’s genetic traits passed down through the generations of a family, and its spilling spells potential death; seed signifies the sowing of potential new life as well as the death of the blossom that produced it. That such powerful images emerge from the realm of dreams also adumbrates other motifs of the book—the question of what night is, what unconsciousness knows, how insomnia becomes creativity, and the driving force of the sun.
Although Lee’s father is the dominant presence in the book, Lee also provides some fascinating glimpses of his mother, Jiaying, and her patrician lineage. Lee’s maternal great-grandfather was Yuan Shih-K’ai, a name that Lee mentions with disarming casualness, without contextualization. Anyone acquainted with modern Asian history will recognize, however, that General Yuan (1859-1916) was a major player in Chinese politics at the turn of the century. He was the right-hand man of the empress dowager during the last years of the Manchu Empire, then became the first president of the Republic of China. Yuan later was a cause of civil war and made a serious though failed attempt at creating a new imperial dynasty with himself as its progenitor.
Jiaying was the granddaughter of Yuan’s fifth wife. There are brilliantly recollected vignettes of her life growing up in the privileged class of China, munching on lychees (a reprise of the seed image), learning of the suicide of an unhappy servant, attending the funeral of the family matriarch, journeying to the ancestral burial ground, and discovering the pillage of these graves by revolutionaries. Jiaying was living in the French quarter of Tientsin when Lee’s father joined her destiny with his.
In Lee’s memoir, Jiaying emerges as a capable mother and fiercely loyal wife; she had to bring up four small children while her husband was a political prisoner—whom she tried to visit daily and attempt to free—and she was prostrated by grief and guilt when one of her children died of meningitis.
Gripping as Jiaying’s story may be, she remains a comparatively minor personage in Lee’s memoir and only an occasional presence in his poems. The defining image of Jiaying that settles in the reader’s memory is the one that introduces her in the book. She and her immigrant family have just arrived in America with only what they can carry. On a train from Seattle to Chicago, they are seated by a poor American teenage mother with a hungry baby. The inexperienced mother does not know how to feed the infant with the only available food—cookies the Lees have given her. Jiaying finally takes the baby in her arms and chews a cookie in her mouth to form a...
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