Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Li-Young Lee

I have shared from Li-Young Lee before, and it is not hard to do it again. The man's words diminish other words as child's play, quiet all of one's surroundings, create new worlds with every new line, every open-ended stanza, every tragic or beautiful twist of expectations. The poem below is from his 1990 collection, The City in Which I Love You, a gorgeous and emotionally rent five-part meditation on his family's flight from Indonesia in the late 50s, eventually arriving in the U.S. in 1964. The impact of fatherhood is felt across all of Lee's work, and no less here.

It is always a reminder of what a gift poetry is after reading someone like Li-Young Lee. I hope it is a similar experience for you.

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Arise, Go Down

By Li-Young Lee

It wasn't the bright hems of the Lord's skirts
that brushed my face and I opened my eyes
to see from a cleft in rock His backside;

it's a wasp perched on my left cheek. I keep
my eyes closed and stand perfectly still
in the garden till it leaves me alone,

not to contemplate how this century
ends and the next begins with no one
I know having seen God, but to wonder

why I get through most days unscathed, though I
live in a time when it might be otherwise,
and I grow more fatherless each day.

For years now I have come to conclusions
without my father's help, discovering
on my own what I know, what I don't know,

and seeing how one cancels the other.
I've become a scholar of cancellations.
Here, I stand among my father's roses

and see that what punctures outnumbers what
consoles, the cruel and the tender never
make peace, though one climbs, though one descends

petal by petal to the hidden ground
no one owns. I see that which is taken
away by violence or persuasion.

The rose announces on earth the kingdom
of gravity. A bird cancels it.
My eyelids cancel the bird. Anything

might cancel my eyes: distance, time, war.
My father said, Never take your both eyes
off of the world
, before he rocked me.

All night we waited for the knock
that would have signalled, All clear, come now;
it would have meant escape; it never came.

I didn't make the world I leave you with,
he said, and then, being poor, he left me
only this world, in which there is always

a family waiting in terror
before they're rended, this world wherein a man
might arise, go down, and walk along a path

and pause and bow to roses, roses
his father raised, and admire them, for one moment
unable, thank God, to see in each and
every flower the world cancelling itself.

1 comment:

  1. When I started reading Li, I noticed that a vast majority of his poetry has to do with his past and his struggles, particularly with his father. And, as seems aparent with this poem, his Father in Heaven.

    But what's most beautiful about his poems is that, no matter how sorrowful they seem, there is always something optimistic hiding in them.

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