Mike recommended Li-Young Lee to me in January when he sent me a poem called “Early in the Morning”
EARLY IN THE MORNING
While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher’s ink.
She sits at the foot of the bed.
My father watches, listens for
the music of comb
My mother combs,
pulls her hair back
tight, rolls it
around two fingers, pins it
in a bun to the back of her head.
For half a hundred years she has done this.
My father likes to see it like this.
He says it is kempt.
But I know
it is because of the way
my mother’s hair falls
when he pulls the pins out.
Easily, like the curtains
when they untie them in the evening.
The poem reminded me a lot of some of my favorite poems in Fiona Lam’s Enter the Chrysanthemum in its concreteness, one of many reasons I’ve become so fond of Chinese and Japanese poetry in recent years.
Perhaps that introduction to Lee’s poetry left me somewhat unprepared for Behind My Eyes, which was published in 2008. The first half of the book tends to be rather abstract and philosophical, though the best of the poems like this one,
HAVE YOU PRAYED
When the wind
turns and asks, in my father’s voice,
Have you prayed?
I know three things. One:
I’m never finished answering to the dead.
Two: A man is four winds and three fires.
And the four winds are his father’s voice,
his mother’s voice . . .
Or maybe he’s seven winds and ten fires.
And the fires are seeing, hearing, touching,
dreaming, thinking . . .
Or is he the breath of God?
When the wind turns traveler
and asks, in my father’s voice, Have you prayed?
I remember three things.
One: A father’s love
is milk and sugar,
two-thirds worry, two-thirds grief, and what’s left over
is trimmed and leavened to make the bread
the dead and the living share.
And patience? That’s to endure
the terrible leavening and kneading.
And wisdom? That’s my father’s face in sleep.
When the wind
asks, Have you prayed?
I know it’s only me
a flower is one station between
earth’s wish and earth’s rapture, and blood
was fire, salt, and breath long before
it quickened any wand or branch, any limb
that woke speaking. It’s just me
in the gowns of the wind,
or my father through me, asking,
Have you found your refuge yet?
asking, Are you happy?
Strange. A troubled father. A happy son.
The wind with a voice. And me talking to no one.
manage to combine abstract and concrete ideas together beautifully.
I’ll have to admit that I like the way Lee begins with “I know three things” but only lists two things before he begins to reconsider. Most of all, I like the way the title “Have you prayed?” resonates throughout the poem, implying the father’s faith that carried him through tougher times than most of us will ever know.
There’s power in lines like “And wisdom? That’s my father’s face in sleep.” and “Have you found your refuge yet?” that suggests what the poet owes to his father.