The Poetry of Li-Young Lee: Fusion of the Immediate and the Eternal

  We are all wanderers. Li-Young Lee takes this seriously. He knows that whether aware of it or not, all people search for purpose and the Divine. Themes of place and God recur like dreams that come back again and again, filling his many books with beauty and belonging. The clarity that his poetry brings to our wandering has illuminated readers from all over the world by inviting them to fill in the gaps themselves, by leaving room for the reader’s own experiences to fit perfectly between his thoughts and words. He is a master at making things whole and yet leaving room for someone else to share that wholeness with him.
  If Lee’s poetry is unique, it’s only one of the many things about him that is. He was born to Chinese parents in Indonesia, his father the exiled personal physician of Mao Tse-tung. After a journey of five years through Hong Kong and Japan, the family put down roots in the United States. His father had become a preacher in Hong Kong, and continued preaching in Pennsylvania, where Lee eventually attended the University of Pittsburg and became a writer.
  One essential characteristic of Lee’s poetry is its sense of eternity. In his poem “Early in the Morning,” this is both concrete and abstract.
  
While the long grain is softening 

in the water, gurgling 
over a low stove flame, before 
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced 
for breakfast, before the birds, 
my mother glides an ivory comb 
through her hair, heavy 
and black as calligrapher's ink. 
  
In this section of the poem, a specific event is set forward, one so specific that it is “before the salted Winter Vegetable” and “before the birds”. The moment is exactly when his mother is combing her hair. And the reader starts to feel that though this is one moment, it is eternally consequential, even though it is routine. The poem continues to, “For half a hundred years she has done this,” the “half a hundred” giving the reader a repetitiveness and yet an eternity to digest in just a few words.
  The immediacy of a moment and the eternal continuation of it recur again and again in Lee’s poems. It is what makes them so accessible, so loved. The poems speak to the deeper place inside, the place from which joy and sadness come, a place that is almost impossible to access through words. And yet, Lee does exactly that. Take his poem “From Blossoms,” one of his most beautiful. He writes, “From laden boughs, from hands, / from sweet fellowship in the bins, / comes nectar at the roadside.” The joy in these three lines is tangible. The reader wants to breathe it in, senses already its sweetness like that of peaches. The poem fills with sunlight and sweet summer, culminating in his description of life as from “joy / to joy to joy, from wing to wing, / from blossom to blossom to / impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.” It fills the heart with the moments that, as children, we stood in the sun barefooted and looked up at the blue, blue sky. It is ripe with all of our joys, both Lee’s joy and the reader’s own, and an eternal joy that is above us all.
 One of Lee’s most well-known poems is “The Gift,” about a time his father pulled a splinter from his hand. His father’s voice was “a well of dark water, a prayer.” A well springs up for all time, and the timelessness lingers as the reader moves on. “A prayer” creates a metaphor for a divine relationship between the child and his father. It is a beautiful, gentle moment. “Had you entered that afternoon,” he writes, “You would have thought you saw a man / planting something in a boy's palm, / a silver tear, a tiny flame.” The reader who has read many of Lee’s books might wonder if that tiny flame was love: a love for language and a love for God as those themes appear again and again in his work.
  Lee’s writing is flawless, joy-filled, and runs deep, and the world of poetry certainly recognizes that. He is the seven-time award winner of the Pushcart Prizes, and he has also been awarded the Lannan Literary Award, the Whiting Writer’s Award, and the American book Award. He is known worldwide for his incredible understanding of language. His gentle words guide people to the unknown and then set them free to wander there. His writing is timeless and will be remembered for hundreds of years.


Works by Li-Young Lee

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.