Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
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Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002

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Familial and Erotic Love
Page 2

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:

These days I waken in the used light
of someone’s spent life, to discover
the birds have stripped my various names of meaning
the sparrow by quarrel,
the dove by grievance.
I lie
dismantled. I feel
the hours. Do they veer
to dusk? Or dawn?
Will I rise and go
out into an American city?
Or walk down to the wilderness sea?
I might run with wife and children to the docks
to bribe an officer for our lives
and perilous passage.

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:

By murmurs and thingless words
the mother answers
her son’s sucking, his
gulping and mewling.
Rolling towards them, the man
reaches around her waist to stroke the boy’s head.
Slowly, she reaches behind
and clasps him, fastens
him to her, while he
half mounts her damp length,
and spills his semen between her knees.

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:

What I spill in a dream
runs under my door,
ahead of my arrival
and the year’s wide round,

to meet me in the color of hills
at dawn, or else collected
in a flower’s name
I trace with my finger
in a book.

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.

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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002


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  Other Essay in this Issue

Heidegger’s and Derrida’s Notions Of Language & Difference
Cyril Wong on telecommunication.

Related Links

Li-Young Lee biography
External link to the Academy of American Poets.

Three Li-Young Lee poems
External link to Indiana University.

Two Li-Young Lee poems
External link to Ploughshares.


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