Why are you crying? my father asked
in my dream, in which we faced each other,
knees touching, seated in a moving train.
I’m Li-Young Lee. I was born in Indonesia. I’m ethnic Chinese. I came to this country about ’64. I was born in ’57. My mother was the oldest granddaughter of the fifth wife, of the first president of the republic of China.
When I was born, my father at the time was working in Indonesia, teaching. And about a month after I was born he was incarcerated. And he spent about 19 months in a leper colony. After he got out, we were traveling under house arrest between Jakarta and Malaysia. We jumped ship and ended up in Hong Kong. And eventually we ended up in the United States as political refugees.
This is called “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees.”
If your name suggests a country where bells
might have been used for entertainment,
or to announce the entrances and exits of the seasons,
or the birthdays of gods and demons,
its probably best to dress in plain clothes
when you arrive in the United States,
and try not to talk too loud.
If you happen to have watched armed men
beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house
and into the back of an idling truck
before your mother jerked you from the threshold
and buried your face in her skirt folds,
try not to judge your mother too harshly.
Don’t ask her what she thought she was doing
turning a child’s eyes
away from history.
Maybe there was too much screaming
and weeping and the noise of guns in the streets.
It doesn’t matter. What matters is this:
The kingdom of heaven is good.
But heaven on earth is better.
Thinking is good.
But living is better.
Alone in your favorite chair
with a book you enjoy
is fine. But spooning
is even better.
I live in uptown Chicago. My wife isn’t literary at all. She’s kind of suspicious of people who are over read. She has a real good ear for something that’s kind of tinny. She comes from a long line of coalminers, and her father was a coalminer, her grandfather was a coalminer. They want proof of things.
“Living With Her”
She opens her eyes
and I see.
She counts the birds and I hear
the names of the months and days.
A girl, one of her names
is Change. And my childhood
lasted all of an evening.
Called light, she breathes, my living share
of every moment emerging.
Called life, she is a pomegranate
pecked clean by birds to entirely
become a part of their flying.
Do you love me? she asks.
I love you,
she answers, and the world keeps beginning.