By Eddie Tay
Straight from my father’s wrath,
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 shape floats
What emerges later from this simple but suggestively nightmarish image is a meditation on the death of his father:
In the procession of summers and the arrivals of days
The rose, we discover, is also capable of evoking moments of tenderness:I know moments measured
by a kiss, or a tear, a pass of the hand along a loved one’s face.
I know lips that love me,
that return my kisses
by leaving on my cheek their salt.
It is also capable of invoking scenes from his unhappy childhood days:
And there is one I love, smallest among us–
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002