Lost in the silence, oppressed by want before the sun rises, I haunt the borders of my heart, sucking my hitchhiker’s thumb, greedy for milk from a substitute mother, hungry to be held. I struggle with ancient luggage, too heavy to carry alone. Strum on the strings of my heart, reassure me of your presence. Wait for my voice in the morning, and I’ll wait for yours at night. Let me speak as if you are with me, sitting poised across the table, able to respond in kind. In the heat of time I blind myself to your mercy. I fold with a full house, go all-in with a ten-four. I drift in a cloud that holds nothing else. Drop me into the ark again. Send me down to my place when somehow I end up at the helm, awakening to the shouts of deckhands, Captain, sir, it’s high time we get moving. You know I don’t know what the hell I am doing. I never learned to read the currents. I need so much help to reach the calm seas and clear skies. I entrust your law to guide this ship through flood and fog. I stand in position on the leeward deck. Now take complete control, and steer this hull to the distant shores of my soul.
As a bird, when tricked by a mirror image of itself in the sky, will fling its wings against the frame, hindering its inborn ability to fly, so too do the illusions in my vision injure my capacity to soar. My soul falls from its deathless star, and my body crumbles to the hard wet sand. I crawl underneath a parched plant to await the desert of absence, or recover the truth beyond the pall and pale, your miraculous resurrection. Find me here, my battered Lord, and beat your name in my chest like a drum. Find me here, and let me come to the blessed recognition of the Word beyond death, beyond fear.
As a child, I liked to move. Play basketball, run around with my brother Collin, double-bounce him on the trampoline. But I would always want to do my homework first, and then I could let myself have fun. And this is still the case. I need to do my homework, and then I can have fun. What is my homework? My work is to be at home in my life, in my body, to embrace the place where I am standing in the present moment. To find the endless summer at the heart of this cold winter morning. I want so much to be in medias res, in the middle of things. I want to glimpse the center, to enter by the narrow gate, and to live from the core. Lord of my life, help me to feel this wish with my entire being. Point me toward you. Make my heart single. Let my voice sing of Life experienced, not by an isolated individual, but by a single soul united in the depths with all souls, by one man at one with your Oneness, in touch at last with your Is-ness. Do not let me forget what I want. Do not let me drift. Help me to stay directed, to finish my home-work, and to enjoy the journey home.
I look for and fail to find a single living poet. Because of this, when I read poetry, I read those poems left by the dead, left by those few who were truly alive, who were forced by overwhelming longings to divorce themselves from the coolly detached and burn themselves in their own fire. I do not seek to express a cool and detached position on reality. I have no icy illusions of chilling mastery. What feels real to me is the fire seething in my breast that I cannot escape. A poem is a prayer, a fleeting moment of wordless weeping, with no identifiable cause, shared between reader and writer. Are there no more poems that will shed light on the darkness that cowers in the cold and cramped corridors of my soul? Very well, I will have to create them myself. When the world has gone cold, it is time for me to bring it fire. I cannot become as cold as the world is becoming; if I do so I am lost. When no living poet can inspire me, it is time to seek inspiration within. What burns in me burns in silence, and yet I begin again, seeking to give sound to what would burn me to the ground without the words to give it meaning. I do not know in advance what I will say, and I will not let my ignorance deter me. I will not get a Ph.D. in poetry. I will not be schooled by the too-cool, pressed into submission by the passionless, or possessed by the indifferent. Indifference is one demon in me, but intensity is a stronger demon. I cannot write poems of hungers being satisfied, or of not being hungry at all; I cannot write poems of lukewarm fulfillment, of ease and unearned Sunday afternoon contentment; I cannot write poems of skating on the surface of frozen lakes, of letting myself be frozen. What is a poem that does not go through the fire? Not a poem at all, but words alone that leave me cold. The true writer, as wordsmith, forges his words under flame and hammers them onto the page, twists them until they no longer resist him, pounds them in until they drive him home, until they voice what never rests in the depths of his soul. Each word I write goes through the fire. It cannot be otherwise. Each word must be wrought like iron in a blazing furnace, then wrung like water out of a cold shirt just before it is flung aside by one who smolders with desire under the torrid desert sun.
The pen will not always write. This is not a function of writer’s block, but more simply because the pen has no ink. Actually, its ink is just irregular. Some words it writes fine; other words only the outlines of letters appear, though you press the pen into the paper as hard as you can. The absurdity of the situation drives you to madness. Before long you will rip the pen in half and then in pieces. You try and write the word ‘half,’ but only half of it comes in, the ‘h’ and the ‘l.’ You fill in ‘hell’ instead. You are half in hell, and the cause of it is a half-busted pen that lets you express half a life. You are unable to live your life without expressing it, that you know. But now that your one pen is failing you, you realize that even when the pen was working, you were still living half a life. The expression of life had taken over for the living of it, the words for the reality. To give such significance to words! That is the madness. The pen that breaks only brings you to the realization of your brokenness. It is the pain that comes when you realize that you have not been living life, only constructing a façade of life in your fatuous dreams. And now with the failed pen. You scour the room looking for another one, one more resilient, better able to handle the pressure you put on it, the pressure it puts on you. The pressure you put on yourself to use it to express yourself, that self you are always so far from finding, from knowing, from being. So far you have been able to express the self you are not yet, the yearning to be that self. But how long can you continue to express a yearning? How long, and to what end, will you express what you are not? As for the pen, it is nearing its end, so why can you not accept its ending? You cannot direct it to do your will, to transmute your confusion into something like clarity. The pen continues to record half of what you intend to write. You have to struggle to discern your own words, which themselves struggle to come out of you, struggle against you, help you sometimes to give up the struggle, the rest of the time only make it worse. The more words you write the more you exist in the trench that separates how you live from how you express the life you do not live, the half-lived travesty you wish you could call your life. But this life is no more yours than this pen is yours to command. Even this pen seems to have a life of its own, and you find yourself envying its freedom, even if it is a freedom to be nothing, to make itself invisible, to rebel against the commands of one who is no longer its master. You envy the pen that will not deign to write of your envying. You condemn its useless freedom, which records only half of your useless words, the words that are only outlines of letters, as you seem to be the outline of a man. The only true man is the outlier, who is not an outline, but an in-depth individual who encircles the false and picks out the truth at the center. But to return again to the pen. It seems to have gotten past its rebellious phase and now records faithfully your every word, whether adequate to the task or wholly inadequate. It is not for you to decide for now which words work and which do not. You let the pen move as it will across the page, using what words seem to come to it. Then you go back, with the same pen, changing some words and phrases, keeping others as they are. Many of the words are hugely inadequate to the task, which itself is huge, towers above the words. The task is to express, with the pen, Life itself, which cannot be expressed but must be lived. And so the task is impossible, and yet goes on.
Those of you who read the last post will remember that I began with a quote by John Keats. He said that the poet has no identity, that he is the least poetical of creatures. This is the case when he first begins to write poetry. His task is to be what he is not yet but could become. His task is to become the invisible that he can express but cannot yet be. Expression can lead to Being. He must be what he is not now; He must be what he really is. When he is that, there will be no need to express it. The greatest poet does not write a word. Other people take down what he says, for he has lost the need to record that he is and who he is. He only needs to record it when he is not yet it and writes as a means to become it, and to record the distance between how he is at present and who he could become, which is who he truly is.
Some say that who we are can only be discerned in the present. I cannot verify this belief in my experience. Who we are at this moment can only be discerned in the present, of course. But is who we are in this moment who we truly are? The poet, at present, is no one. He has no identity, as Keats makes clear. He strives to have an identity, but only if that identity encompasses his whole person, if it is a complete identity. As one who writes poetry, he must go through everything. He must be divided, he must suffer, undergo all sorts of humiliations, but above all he must not accept the designation of ‘Poet,’ for that would give him an identity, which he does not have. People when they look at him or read his work and think ‘Poet’ would be thinking of their own ideas of ‘Poet’ and so would not see him as he is. If he sees this and continues to allow it, he also will begin to see himself as he is not, as they see him. He is the poet; he writes poetry. That is his identity; that is who he is.
But what does this mean? He does not know who he is. Only those who do not know who they are can write poetry. But now he is a poet; that is who they say he is. That is who he is and he knows it. Bob Dylan, who everyone labeled ‘Poet’ from the very beginning said in an interview, “A poet is anybody who wouldn’t call himself a poet.”
It makes little sense for someone who writes poetry to have that poetry published, to have his poems critiqued by people who already know, or at least think they know, who they are. A poem can only be read truly by those who truly do not know who they are. Only the ones who do not know are able to understand another who also does not know. A man who does not know who he is does not necessarily write poetry. Writing becomes necessary according to the intensity of suffering that having no identity and not being whole entails. The more suffering, the more dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, the more necessary it is to write. Colin Wilson writes, “Language is the natural medium for self-analysis; the idea of ‘a way back to himself’ cannot be expressed in any other medium.” Writing is the way back to oneself, to unity, away from self-division. If someone is divided but neither knows nor cares, why should that person be concerned with the search for self and wholeness, a search in which the seeker will remain in a constant state of tension and angst, will feel alienated from others, and will be unable to find peace or rest? But the solitary, the one who knows and cares about his self-division, does not seek peace or rest. He knows that he will find neither as long as he stays divided. Peace may come for a time, but it cannot be sought.
The more the solitary writes, the deeper he goes into the search for self and wholeness, the less present he becomes to the surface. It is almost as if he exists only in solitude. Amongst people he might as well not exist. This is because with others he is especially aware of his lack of identity, since most all communication with others comes from identity, what is called ‘personality.’ For one who knows he has no identity, what can he say? Someone who is perceptive about surfaces may get the distinct impression, “This person does not exist.” Someone who is perceptive to depth may feel there is much more and will be drawn to the unseen in that person.
The unseen in the solitary person is really the whole person, for almost everything about him is unseen. So the one perceptive to depth will intuitively understand the other’s essence, though the personality on the surface appears non-existent. The less false personality, the truer to essence. But there can be a personality type that is proud of its lack of falseness, its lack of false personality. Instead of making a false personality out of his lack of false personality, and having some sort of distorted pride in that, the solitary, the one searching for himself, must undergo the suffering inherent in this non-identified state, the humiliation of having no identity to fall back on. It is most important not to alleviate this tension in any superficial way. The only way out is through.
She came back up one night,
but it was only to return a shirt.
I won’t be needing this.
No, she would not be needing the shirt.
There was no reason for her to keep
what she did not need.
It is still quiet up here, as I remember it.
Yes, she remembered it well.
It was still
and it was quiet
I remember it well, though it was too small for the two of us.
Yes, again she remembered it well.
It was indeed too small to hold us both.
It could only hold one.
I guess I won’t be coming back up here anymore.
It was no guess;
It was the truth.
She would find no reason to come back up here.
She had returned the shirt.
She left and I hid the shirt away.
I would not wear it
but would keep it
where it was hid.
I could find no reason to get rid of it.
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: http://www.amazon.com/City-Which-American-Poets-Continuum/dp/0918526833.
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
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
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.
So much to read in the Sunday papers, my dad says,
Lamenting the wealth of options with equal pleasure and regret.
Almost 11 now, my parents get ready to go to mass.
I decline, citing work to be done, papers to write.
Grappling with what can’t be grasped—
The clang and clatter of plates,
My parents are late,
But they are not rushing.
It will be just them at mass.
My brother is out running a race,
My sister is enjoying the start of her summer somewhere vacational,
I am sitting at this table on this porch I did not work on,
Working on living a vocational vacation,
Coming close by escaping far, and then,
In the end,
Returning to the center,
Like a restless captain who sails around the world,
Chasing something he can only find
By docking his ship—
Knocking about on the seas,
Unwilling to rest,
Nearly blinded by the unbridled surf.
Narrow-minded? Or single-minded,
Willing to sail for lifetimes,
Knowing he must,
Before he can sit content by the hearth,
Willing to search the fluid waters to find
What for him holds solid worth.