Li-Young Lee | The Undressing | Norton £20.00
In a recent interview, Li-young Lee commented, ‘I think poetry is the mind of God. All the great poems that I love seem to me to all have that little ingredient. You feel like you’re in the presence of the mind of God.’ Such utterances tend to scare people on this side of the Atlantic; people might agree with Lee’s comments but they would be unlikely to say them. And Lee, who is much lauded on his side of the Great Pond, is not afraid to embrace the vatic,
I loved you before I was born.
It doesn’t make sense, I know.
I saw your eyes before I had eyes to see.
And I’ve lived longing
for your every look ever since.
That longing entered time as this body.
And the longing grew as this body waxed.
And the longing grows as this body wanes.
That longing will outlive this body.
‘I loved you before I was born’
I kept mistyping that as ‘I loved you before I was bone’, which might suggest that somewhere inside me there is a rather ‘blue-pencil’ attitude to this writing. The first thing to notice is that the ‘I’ in this writing feels very much that it is Lee himself, the empirical Li-young Lee. The sense of address from the authorising consciousness of the poem is present throughout the whole of this book. And that would be fine, but such utterances quoted are rather bound to the writer, a way which can exclude.
The next thing, perhaps, is those very end-stopped lines. The utterances are held in the line, and that sense of the vatic is emphasised in the simple sentences. Emphasis is also in the repetitions, which run from the past tense of ‘entered’ and ‘grew’, through the present of ‘grows’ to the future of ‘will outlive’, with the repeated complement of ‘this body’. Another way in which the utterances might feel a little clenched is the presence of the ‘you’. Since this ‘you’ is unparticularised, the reader is either left simply wondering who the ‘you’ is, or left feeling excluded by something the poet knows but isn’t letting on. In fact, in a YouTube recording of the poet reading this poem, Lee comments that the ‘you’ is Sofia, for him, the Christian feminine embodiment of wisdom, but that is not so obvious on the page.
Elsewhere in the book, Lee’s back story emerges. His family is both eminent and touched with tragedy. Lee’s maternal great-grandfather was China’s first republican president. And his father was Mao’s personal physician, until he took the family to Indonesia, where his father was imprisoned. This latter experience, Lee describes in the sequence ‘Our Secret Shame’. On a visit to his ‘unrecognizable’ father with Lee’s mother, his mother slips a bar of soap to his father, ‘…I thought that the strange man had thieved it from her. As the guards were returning him to his cell, I ran after them and snatched the soap out of my father’s pocket, exposing my parent’s ploy.’ Lee comments that he later learned from his father that although he had been tortured ‘for lesser offences’, this time the guards merely laughed; ‘the reason was he’d been teaching the prison guards in secret, at their request, to read and write in English, using the King James Bible.’
The father that emerges from these poignant poems is of a forbidding presence, who is both feared and loved in equal measure. A Presbyterian minister, Lee’s father would recite Chinese poems by heart and get his children to recite from the King James Bible, too. In the lovely, ‘My Sweet Accompanist’, Lee describes his father playing the accordion, while his son ‘sang/ my songs for him’. After the performance, the father criticises the son’s ‘songs’,
I don’t need your descriptions of my garden.
I planted everything in that garden.
I can read each leaf and bud
by sunlight, by moonlight, and by no light.
And it is not only the son’s lyricism which the father criticises, it is also the son’s ‘cleverness’,
Where your cleverness can’t reach,
there are victims in the world without a defender.
The accusers are full of passion.
The persecutors hated us without a cause.
The ones who not know what they do are fierce,
though sometimes they apologized before murdering their prey.
Such comments from the father, in contrast with the earlier, somewhat rhetorical writing, do much to leaven the load in this book; and are, perhaps, the best parts in it. It is not simply that the father is the moral conscience of the book, he is also some of the weight which grounds other occasionally rhetorical writing. The relationship with not only the father, but the mother, brother and sister, put family and the contexts of Lee’s family at the heart of the book, in ways which feel centripetal and robust.
This centring is particularly useful as the final section of the book reaches out to a more overtly political subject matter. As the penultimate poem, ‘Changing Places in the Fire’ announces, Lee is unafraid to evoke the apocalyptic in his poetry.
And this sparrow with a woman’s face
roars in the burdened air – air crowded with voices,
but no word, mobbed with talking by no word,
teeming with speech, but no word –
this woman with the body of a bird
is shrieking fierce
in the swarming bubble, What’s the Word!
In contrast to earlier writing, the sentences are longer. And even if the clauses are substitute sentences, they are packed, paratactically, one after another, so that the illusion is created of the images running into each other. Within these continuities, Lee elides the subjects of verbs, so we have participles, such as ‘crowded’, ‘mobbed’, ‘teeming’, ‘shrieking’ and ‘swarming’ which wrest the syntax into density. The effect of the writing is to further energise the all ready charged imagery. The charge continues through this long, dramatic poem, which would clearly go down well at readings.
The Undressing is a wide ranging book in which Li-Young Lee shows himself a writer of considerable technical resource. Sometimes the poems simply seem too loud, not overwritten, as such but rather hectoring. There is a vastness to the poems with little sense of irony. But the best poems, which are mostly those about his family, have both an inner quietness and inner resolve, which make them compelling and moving.
by Ian Pople