Li-Young Lee

Acclaimed poet Li-Young Lee is the author of two books of poetry: The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1991), which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rose (1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. He also wrote a memoir entitled The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon and Schuster, 1995), which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. His other honors include a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship.

Born in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1957 to Chinese parents, Lee and his family fled the country in 1959 after his father spent a year as a political prisoner in President Sukarno’s jails. From 1959 to 1964, the Lee family traveled throughout Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan before finally settling in the United States. Lee attended the Universities of Pittsburgh and Arizona, and the State University of New York at Brockport. He has taught at several universities, including Northwestern and the University of Iowa. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife, Donna, and their two sons.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 1998

Persimmons

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmons and precision.
How to choose

persimmons.   This is a precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms.   The sweet one
will be fragrant.   How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow.   Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
so sweet,
all of it, to the heart.

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
In the yard, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
face-up, face-down.
I teach her Chinese.
Crickets:     chiu-chiu.   Dew:     I’ve forgotten.
Naked:     I’ve forgotten.
Ni, wo:     you and me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.

Other words
that got me into trouble were
fight and fright, wren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
Wrens are small, plain birds,
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds our of yarn.
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple.   Knowing
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat
but watched the other faces.

My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.

Finally understanding
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.
I gave him the persimmons,
swelled, heavy as sadness,
and sweet as love.

This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired wooden stairs,
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.

He’s so happy that I’ve come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.
All gone, he answers.

Under some blankets, I find a box.
Inside the box I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

He raises both hands to touch the cloth,
asks, Which is this?

This is persimmons, Father.

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed.   These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of the one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

From ROSE (BOA Editions, LTD, 1986)

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,

and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

From ROSE (BOA Editions, LTD, 1986)

With Ruins

Choose a quiet
place, a ruins, a house no more
a house,
under whose stone archway I stood
one day to duck the rain.

The roofless floor, vertical
studs, eight wood columns
supporting nothing,
two staircases careening to nowhere, all
make it seem

a sketch, notes to a house, a three-
dimensional grid negotiating
absences,
an idea
receding into indefinite rain,

or else that idea
emerging, skeletal
against the hammered sky, a
human thing, scoured seen clean
through from here to an iron heaven.

A place where things
were said and done,
there you can remember
what you need to
remember.   Melancholy is useful.   Bring yours.

There are no neighbors to wonder
who you are,
what you might me doing
walking there,
stopping now and then

to touch a crumbling brick
or stand in a doorway
framed by the day.
No one has to know you
thing of another doorway

that framed the rain or news of war
depending on which way you faced.
You think of sea-roads and earth-roads
you traveled once, and always
in the same direction:   away.

You think
of a woman, a favorite
dress, your old father’s breasts
the last time you saw him, his breath,
brief, the leaf

you’ve torn from a vine and which you hold now
to your cheek like a train ticket
or a piece of cloth, a little hand or a blade –
it all depends
on the course of your memory.

It’s a place
for those who own no place
to correspond to ruins in the soul.
It’s mine.
It’s all yours.

From THE CITY IN WHICH I LOVE YOU (BOA Editions, LTD, 1990)