Poetry of Li-Young Lee Is ‘Descended from Dreamers’

March 3, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents who had been exiled from China. After fleeing the regime of Indonesian President Sukarno in 1959 through Hong Kong, Macau and Japan, his family settled in the United States in 1964. He shares two poems from his recent collection.

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.