Familial and Erotic Love
A Brief Introduction to the Poems of Li-Young Lee
By Eddie Tay
This fragment, arriving at the end of Li-Young Lee’s poem, crystallises many of the concerns that haunt his writings. It is representative of a body of poetry that consists of, among other things, lyrical meditations on love, whether familial or erotic.
The city in Lee’s poem is found everywhere and nowhere. It could be the City of God, the same city his father contemplates upon as a Presbyterian minister in a small Pennsylvania town after spending a year as a political prisoner in President Sukarno’s jails. It could be the City of America, where Lee’s family arrived at in 1964 after their travels from Hong Kong, Macau and Japan. Or it could be the City of Imagination, where his words found articulation.
As an American of Chinese-Indonesian descent, Lee’s poems have attracted no small amount of recognition even though he is, by American standards, not a prolific writer. His first poetry collection, Rose, was published in 1986 while he was working for a fashion accessories company. His second volume of poetry, The City in Which I Love You, appeared in 1990. 1995 saw the publication of The Wingseed: A Remembrance, a book-length autobiographical prose-poem. His most recent poetry collection, Book of My Nights, appeared in 2001.
In the past fifteen years, Lee was the recipient of several awards and grants from the Illinois Arts Council, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The City in Which I Love You was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets. Lee was awarded a fellowship in 1989 by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 1987, he received New York University's Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award for Rose.
Perhaps it is Lee’s confessional honesty, coupled with lines that effortlessly disguise the complexities of his poetic technique, which have won him such accolades. In 'Always a Rose' Lee uses as several starting points of his dreamlike meditations the image of a rose:
What emerges later from this simple but suggestively nightmarish image is a meditation on the death of his father:
The rose, we discover, is also capable of evoking moments of tenderness:
It is also capable of invoking scenes from his unhappy childhood days:
Lee’s poems are poems of memory. His confessions remembers as well as dis-members. 'Furious Versions', for example, is a poem that contemplates the fragility of memory and self. “Memory revises me,” says Lee at one moment of the poem. The poem entertains the notion that we wake up every day as a different person. We are different people at different times, depending on different versions of our memory. But the poem is intriguing because it takes this argument to the extreme, to the point that the son wakes up one morning as the father. In this poem, Lee wakes up only to forget who he is; his dis-membered self requires an act of re-membering, and he relives his father’s memories of fleeing from Indonesia:
Lee’s pared-down language is capable of exploring complex notions of self and memory just as it is capable of delivering graphic descriptions. At times, his poems, as in the case of 'The Waiting', are unapologetic in terms of portraying erotic scenes. The following describes a couple in a sexual act while the woman is breastfeeding her baby:
For Lee, a poem is not a vehicle that transmutes personal experience into words. A poem is experience itself. 'Heir to All', for example, is a testament to the notion that it is the poem that brings the poet into being:
Ultimately, Lee’s poems fascinate not only because they form a rich study in poetic technique; his poetry bears testimony to his bewilderment with self, place and identity. In his poetry, a personal universe emerges at the tip of a half-formed word. The world is for Lee a poem waiting to be written.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002