Li-Young Lee


by Meredith L. McGill

I was extremely pleased to learn that Li-Young Lee was coming to speak as part of the Writers at Rutgers Reading Series, since I had just put his marvelous poem “Persimmons” on the syllabus for the “Introduction to Poetry” class I taught this past semester. It is always wonderful and awe-inspiring to have a poet you’ve worked to get to know on the page suddenly materialize as an actual person. As I reflected on Lee’s larger body of writing for the purposes of introducing him—taking the audience across the threshold from poet-on-the-page to poet-in-person—I felt compelled to introduce him twice: first in a conventional manner, laying out the arc of his career as a poet; and then in a way that responded to what my students and I were learning by studying his poetry.

Li-Young Lee was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents, who fled Sukarno’s regime in 1959, finally settling in the United States in 1964. Lee discovered poetry at the University of Pittsburgh, then pursued graduate work in creative writing at the University of Arizona and at SUNY–Brockport. His first book of poems, Rose, published in 1986, won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award; his second book of poetry, The City in Which I Love You, was published four years later as a Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Lee next published a remarkable prose-memoir, The Winged Seed: A Remembrance, followed by two books of poetry: Book of My Nights, which won the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and Behind My Eyes, which includes a CD of the poet reading.

While these details of Lee’s biography and this sequence of titles may serve as a bare-bones introduction to the poet’s career and to a set of books lined up on your shelf, this series of facts, presented chronologically, is peculiarly unsatisfying as an introduction to the work of Lee, whose poems characteristically put into question the sequential temporality of memory, the nature of identity, the mutual shaping of familial and cultural history, and the adequacy of language to capture the subtlety and consequence of everyday practices. For instance, that poem on my syllabus, “Persimmons,” begins with a teacher’s slap to the child-speaker’s head, reproving him “for not knowing the difference / between persimmon and precision,” a scene of cross-cultural misunderstanding that the poet proceeds to take apart, like a persimmon, with devastating precision. The poem offers a playful lesson in cultural difference—offering us advice, for instance, on “how to choose” a ripe persimmon—but it also provides a series of reflections on what it means to be asked to choose between cultures, expectations, languages, and memories. Forcing its reader to navigate crosscutting, nested, and repeated temporalities, the poem invites us to abandon the assumption that we can understand our lives as a sequence of events, the stuff of introductions. It ushers us, rather, into the hauntings and fateful doublings of dream-time, into constellations of significance—those moments in which we know ourselves by recognizing what others fail to know about us—and into the recognition that the most intimate of memories are often held for us by others.

After you’ve studied a poem like “Persimmons,” you know much more about Li-Young Lee, and about the work of poetry, in part because he’s persuaded you that you know far less than you think you do. For instance, where, exactly, is the poet from? When did Lee become a poet, that is, when did he know he was a poet, and how could he, or anyone else for that matter, possibly know such a thing? How does memory shape identity, and whose memories are these? We are indeed lucky to be invited to consider such questions by the remarkable poetry and poetry-in-person of Li-Young Lee.