Li-Young Lee’s Search for God in The City in Which I Love You

This is a paper I wrote for a Poetry class about the poet Li-Young Lee and the second collection of poems he published, The City in Which I Love You. Here is the link to the book on Amazon:

To closely read The City In Which I Love You, by Li-Young Lee, is to admit, at times, to a blissful incomprehension, to come to realize that beauty does not always need to be understood to be appreciated. It is enough to read the book over slowly, the way Zen Buddhists drink their tea, savoring it like you savor the sun rising over the sea, one of the few awake, walking alone on the beach in the cool of summer, before the sun’s heat brings the crowds. To read it over, and then go back, looking for connections, direction, and links between poems. Sometimes I found those connections and links, other times I was left a little lost, but not necessarily in a bad way. More like when you are lost somewhere in the Grand Canyon, but you don’t mind it; you have food, water, maps. You’ll find you’re way back, sometime. I would rather be lost and wandering in the wilderness than secure and static in a penthouse apartment in the city. In the former, there is mobility in all directions, there is the freedom to be lost and enjoy the lostness. In the latter, the only mobility is downward, in a listless fall from societal grace.

So what ties the book together? What are the themes present throughout the book, whether explicitly stated or not? One theme is the father-son relationship, both between Li-Young Lee and his father, and between Li-Young Lee and his son. Sometimes it is difficult to know which of the relationships Lee is writing about. Often, perhaps, it is both. Lee is fatherless, and in understanding the relationship he has with his dead father, he can be a better father to his young son. Other far-reaching themes are love and death, and oftentimes the two are connected in some way, occasionally with references to the Song of Songs, the book in the bible that Lee quotes in his epigraph to the title poem. There is a quote from an interview Lee has with Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler where he says, “If I looked at everything as myself, that would be complete enlightenment” (Towler and Kaminsky 5). I would argue that a theme of this book is Lee attempting to do that, to find God somewhere deep in the silence of his soul, and to then to look for God outside himself, in the city, in the world.

The City in Which I Love You came out in 1990 and was the author’s second published book. The first was called Rose. The speaker in that book also focused on his relationship with his father. There are a few poems in the first collection whose specific details the speaker returns to in poems of the second collection. An example is the detail of the falling apples in “Falling: The Code” from Rose. Here, the speaker is in his house, listening to apples fall from a tree outside. He writes,

“Through the night

the apples

outside my window

one by one let go

their branches and

drop to the lawn.” (1-6)

In “Goodnight,” from The City in Which I Love You, Lee returns to the apples falling.

You’ve stopped whispering

and are asleep. I go on listening

to apples drop in the grass

beyond the window. (1-4)

In the poem from his first collection, Lee’s speaker searches for meaning in the falling of the apples and finds “the earth / falling to earth / once and forever / over and over” (28-31). In the poem from his second collection, there is another character, Lee’s son. At the end of this poem, the speaker writes, “I no longer hear the apples fall” (40). But the apples still fall ‘over and over,’ although he doesn’t hear them. He relates this back to himself and his son. For them, “there is no bottom to the night,” (45) or end to their descent, but this does not stop them from lying together, suffering “each other to have each other a while” (47). Accepting mortality can mean bearing discomfort, which is the meaning the speaker intends by ‘suffer,’ so that you can be close to another you love.

Four years separate the two collections. A certain ethos comes from the fact that these two poems begin with the speaker listening to the apples falling. The apples fell down sometime in the past, but as the speaker writes in “Furious Version,” the opening poem in The City, “the past / doesn’t fall away, the past / joins the greater / telling, and is” (352-354). The past poems Lee writes in Rose are not forgotten in The City; they join his greater telling. Although Lee returns to the same themes and images from his first collection in his second collection, there is ethos because the images are not stale, the themes are not rehashed in a dry manner, but expanded on, made new. The search goes on. It is more difficult to go back to the same themes and approach them with an equal sense of purpose than to go on to new themes altogether. But for Lee to go on to completely different themes in his second collection would seem to me like a defeat, a surrender. Lee makes his goals clear in one interview: his purpose is none other than to have “a dialogue with his highest nature, his true self” (Marshall 132). In that same interview Lee later says, “my true self is God. I assume that I am God, in my true nature” (134). For Lee then, there can be no other ultimate goal than to find that true nature, to find God. So as to what ‘kind’ of poet Lee is, I would say that he harks back to the Transcendentalists, those poets looking for a sort of higher self within, much more than the objectivists or the modernists or post-modernists. Lee even uses the word ‘transcend’ in an interview with James Lee. Li-Young Lee wrote a memoir called The Winged Seed five years after publishing The City. James Lee asks Li-Young Lee if it was more difficult to write prose than it was to write poetry, and Li-Young Lee answers that he “wanted to transcend craft” (Lee 1).

The City is divided into 5 sections, which together have symmetry. The first and last sections both consist of only one poem, but these two poems are the longest two in the book. This is an obvious similarity. The second and fourth sections both consist of six shorter poems, while the middle and third section has two poems including the title poem, and one of my favorites in the collection, “This Room and Everything in It.” Later, I will try to compare the first poem, “Furious Versions,” and the last poem, “The Cleaving.”

The title binds the poems together because it is the central poem of the collection, in actual location as well as in themes and overall importance. It is highly unlikely that Lee would have placed the poem in the middle section, and made it the title poem, if it did not present and express the central questions and themes and yearnings of the collection as a whole. In this poem, the speaker struggles to see himself in everything, in everyone. He wanders the streets and perceives with sorrow the lack of freedom in this country supposed to be a land of liberty: “the guarded schoolyards, the boarded-up churches…the prosecuted citizenry” (11, 14). He calls the city home, only because it is where the woman he loves lives, but he cannot see himself in the other people who live in the city: “the woman who is slapped, the man who is kicked / the ones who don’t survive, / whose names I do not know; / they are not me forever” (106-109). If finding God is Lee’s central purpose as a writer, this poem binds the collection together because here the speaker is struggling mightily to do that, to find God in the punished population of this unnamed controlled city, and to find God in the woman he loves, whose “otherness is as perfect” as his death (124). Again, there is the theme of death intricately linked to love in this ode to a lover, and of finding that true self in the alien unloved otherness of the city and in the loved otherness of his lover.

In “This Room and Everything in It,” a close reading reveals how the speaker uses figurative language to show his failure to remember things in “the way his father tried to teach” him (7) to remember, but how he has taken memory and made it an art: his imperfect memory, the imperfect beauty of love. The speaker writes:

“I am letting this room

and everything in it

stand for my ideas about love

and its difficulties” (9-12).

The scent of the woman he loves he lets “stand for mystery,” (20), her belly is “the daily cup / of milk I drank / as a boy before morning prayer,” (22-24), and “the sun on the face / of the wall / is God, the face / I can’t see, my soul” (25-28). In the middle line of the second to last stanza, the speaker writes, “I have forgotten my / idea” (41, 42). Each thing in the room stands for an idea, the idea he forgets is the “greater idea” (32) formed by all the smaller ones. One of the most meaning-packed stanzas in the collection comes in lines 25-28: “the sun on the face…” In this metaphor, the sun shining on the wall is God; God, who is the face the speaker cannot see, is also the speaker’s soul. He cannot see his soul, he cannot see God, but he sees the sun shining on the wall, which he takes to be God. He reveals what he cannot see, his soul, in his poetry, when he expresses his unique vision of the invisible within himself, and within us all. In the rest of the poem, the speaker uses ellipses to show his forgetfulness. The poem ends with the speaker saying that his idea “had something to do with death…it had something to do with love” (53-55). Death and love are linked here, connected by some thread too ineffable to name precisely, a thread that slips through the fingers as a memory slips from the brain, the details of a room forgotten. Perhaps death is the perfect culmination of a life filled with imperfect love.

The two poems “Furious Versions” and “The Cleaving” differ in form, as the former is split up into sections while the latter is one long poem; the splitting up of the former works because each new section takes a thought from the previous section and pulls the poem in another direction. The latter poem revolves around the cleaving of the meat, and never moves away from that cleaving in any significant way. The cleaving remains central to the poem, as does the eating done after the cleaving. Both words and the images provided by the words serve the speaker in multiple capacities. “Furious Versions” is a difficult poem to analyze, but the same could be said for the collection as a whole. The poet, and the transcendental nature of his work, is in a sphere somewhere beyond the critical approach. A rational analysis can only get one so far in understanding him. Still, the form, the repetition in different sections, and the transitions can help in understanding. For instance, the speaker ends both section one and section four with a variation of the world “disperse.” In section one, he writes, “on a page a poem begun, something / about to be dispersed / something about to come into being” (65-67). Here, dispersal seems to be a synonym for creation, the creative act of writing a poem. But at the end of section four, “each sickly / bloom uttering, I shall not die! / before it’s dispersed,” (255-257), ‘dispersed’ seems to be a synonym for death. From the death of the rose, its dispersal, comes the creation of the poem, now dispersed and come into being, in the process of being formed. The form of “The Cleaving” is one long poem. It begins and ends with the same image. The man doing the cleaving is a man with the same face as the speaker: “this man / with my face,” (1) in the first lines of the poem, and “this immigrant, / this man with my own face” (334) to end the poem. In “Furious Versions,” the speaker gives the audience versions of himself, as a son walking with his father (section 5), as a man wandering the house looking for what is making a sound (section 2), and as a man thinking of the similarities and differences between the sound of trees and the sound of the sea (section 6). In “The Cleaving,” there is only one version of the speaker, only one scene he is involved with. This one version of the speaker, though, encompasses the whole world.

“What is it in me would

devour the world to utter it?” (189, 190)

Although he never answers the questions explicitly, he later states that he would “devour this race to sing it” (217). Cleaving can mean two things: it can mean splitting, sundering, severing; and it can mean linking, embracing, conjoining. These are two contrasting meanings that the speaker in “The Cleaving” brings together. He writes at the end,

“What then can I do

but cleave to what cleaves me.”

Here, he is talking about embracing the divisions within himself, embracing his soul in all its manifestations, whether grotesque or ideal; embracing the world, despite its divisions, its cleaving and splitting up into races which do violence to each other, the violence that is “no easy thing” to accept (309).

In the forward to Rose, poet Gerald Stern, who once taught Lee, writes that he is “amazed by the large vision, the deep seriousness and the almost heroic ideal, reminiscent more of John Keats, Rainer Maria Rilke and perhaps Theodre Roethke than Williams Carlos Williams on the one hand or T.S. Eliot on the other” (Rose 8). He also says Lee owes “a debt to Whitman” (Rose 10), no doubt because both share a similarly large vision. In terms of the collection, I would say to potential readers to read the selection if they are curious and wonder about their own conception of God, if they are interested in searching the depths of the invisible to attempt to make it visible. Readers may need to spend more time on Li-Young Lee poems to appreciate them in as full a way as possible than they would spend on most other poets. A poet should be read in much the same way his poems are written: written with serious intent, they must be read with the same seriousness. A surface level reading will not get very far towards understanding the depths of this poet. The speaker in the cleaving says he would

“eat Emerson, his transparent soul, his

soporific transcendence.”

Here Lee is making a break from the transcendentalists, professing his individuality. Though inspired by Whitman and Emerson, his poetry will not be a repetition of either of their writings. Li-Young Lee is distinct from both because his story is unique and completely different from the native born Americans. He is distinct from post-modernists in that he predominantly uses himself as the subject in his poems. As David Roderick writes in his review of Lee’s Book of My Nights, published in 2002, “Li-Young Lee has always eschewed the postmodern condition of fragmentation in favor of synthesis, and what makes him a contemporary poet worth reading is that he remains true to his ideals without backsliding down the slope of solipsistic confessionalism” (Roderick 172). Finally, Lee is distinct from objectivists in that his poems are subjective, primarily concerning his thoughts, emotions, desires, his ‘large vision,’ his ‘heroic ideal,’ his search for his true self, for God.

In an interview with Tod Marshall, Li-Young Lee says, “In minute and inevitable ways, everything is connected. In the invisible realm—which has more reality than the visible realm because the visible is dying and without materiality—when somebody writes a poem, when he opens himself up to universe mind and that universe is suddenly present in the visible world, the poet isn’t the only one that gets the benefits of that. Universe mind comes down and that whole mind is a little more pure, a little more habitable.” To make the universe mind visible, to find and express the true self, these are Lee’s goals throughout this collection of poems. In many of the poems, especially “This Room, and Everything in It,” and “The Cleaving,” Lee is successful. For a moment, whether in his own soul, in his wife’s body, in the face of the man with his own face, Lee is able to see himself, his true self, in another. He is able to see God in another. For a moment, he realizes there is no difference between the two, between his true self and God, between himself and another. The walls come down, the boundaries are split, cleaved, and he embraces the world, in all its grotesquerie and beauty. Reading his poems late on a humid summer night, I was able, for a few moments, to do the same.

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