Lee’s After the Pyre

This is really my favorite poem in the second half of Behind My Eyes, but I also liked


It turns out, what keeps you alive
as a child at mid-century
following your parents from burning
village to cities on fire to a country at war
with itself and anyone
who looks like you,

what allows you to pass through smoke,
through armed mobs singing the merits of a new regime, tooth for a tooth,
liberation by purification, and global
dissemination of the love of jealous gods,
coup d’etat, coup de grace, and the cooing of mothers
and doves and screaming men
and children caught in the pyre’s updraft,

what keeps you safe even among your own,
the numb, the haunted, the maimed, the barely alive,

tricks you learned to become invisible,
escapes you perfected, playing dead, playing
stupid, playing blind, deaf, weak, strong,
playing girl, playing boy, playing native, foreign,
in love, out of love, playing crazy, sane, holy, debauched,

playing scared, playing brave, happy, sad, asleep, awake,
playing interested, playing bored, playing broken,
playing “Fine, I’m just fine,” it turns out,

now that you’re older
at the beginning of a new century,
what kept you alive
all those years keeps you from living.

very much and think it gives more insight into the essence of this work.

As I read these poems, I was driven to seek out Lee’s biography, something I seldom do because I’m a firm believer that the best way to read poems is simply to read the poems. The poems should reveal their own meaning, not serve as some esoteric guide to help us divine the true nature of something else. That said, there were so many fascinating glimpses of the various stages of Lee’s life that I felt compelled to to some background reading.

Some of the appeal of Lee’s poems may well come from his unique background, one few of his readers will have shared, but the power comes from making us see that what he’s learned from his very different experiences is also applicable to our lives. This poem does that as well as any I’ve read.

I think most of us see ourselves as “a whole.” We are what we are. What I am got me this far in life. I don’t see any reason to change now But what if precisely those things that made us successful keep us from enjoying that success.

Scrooge is probably the most famous example of this truism, and some of us might wonder if we shouldn’t be more generous during Christmas season now that we’ve accumulated our fortune, but like most truisms this one soon becomes a stereotype. We need to look far more deeply than that if we are truly to discover those things that keep us from realizing our full potential or our greatest happiness.

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