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.

Lee’s Behind My Eyes

Mike recommended Li-Young Lee to me in January when he sent me a poem called “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
against hair.

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,


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

reminding myself
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.