Monday, August 26, 2013

Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia to Chinese parents; as political refugees they eventually made it to the United States in 1964, where they settled. His debut poetry collection, Rose (1986), won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award from New York University. In 2006 Breaking the Alabaster Jar, a collection of interviews, was published.

Many of Li-Young's poems are flavoured with memories of being:
-----"a child at mid-century
-----following your parents from burning
-----village to cities on fire to a country at war
-----with itself and anyone
-----who looks like you..."
----------("After the Pyre")
and those of his father, a Presbyterian minister,
-----"In the room with the shut curtains, of course.
-----He's talking to God again, who plays
-----hide and seek among His names..."
----------("God Seeks a Destiny")

In 2012, I attended an interview with Li-Young Lee at the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College. He said, that his real desire is not to be a poet, but to make contact with the divine. His poems "need a word from God [but] sometimes they are just me talking." Lee also described speech as the "out-going breath", and said, "life is in the in-going breath". "A poem," he said, "is a musical score for the dying breath." The following poem is from his fourth poetry book, Behind My Eyes (Norton, 2008), as are the poems referenced above.

Descended from Dreamers

And what did I learn, a child, on the Sabbath?
A father is bound to kill his favorite son,
and to his father's cherishing
the beloved answers Yes.

The rest of the week, I hid from my father,
grateful I was not prized. But how deserted
he looked, with no son who pleased him.

And what else did I learn?
That light is born of dark to usurp its ancient rank.
And when a pharaoh dreams of ears of wheat
or grazing cows, it means
he's seen the shapes of the oncoming years.

The rest of my life I wondered: Are there dreams
that help us to understand the past? Or

is any looking back a waste of time,
the whole of it a too finely woven
net of innumerable conditions,
causes, effects, countereffects, impossible
to read? Like rain on the surface of a pond.

Where's Joseph when you need him?
Did Jacob, his father, understand
the dream of the ladder? Or did his enduring
its mystery make him richer?


Why are you crying? my father asked
in my dream, in a which we faced each other,
knees touching, seated in a moving train.

He had recently died,
and I was wondering if my life would ever begin.

Looking out the window,
one of us witnessed what kept vanishing,
while the other watched what continually emerged.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: