During these trying days of social distancing, self-isolating and quarantines, days rife with fear and anxiety, my colleagues and I thought you might like some company. So each day we will be introducing you to poets we have met over the years. The only contagion they will expose you to is a measure of joy, reflection and meditation brought on by “the best words in the best order.” Enjoy.
— Bill Moyers
Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents. His father had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong while in China, and relocated the family to Indonesia, where he helped found Gamaliel University. In 1959, the Lee family fled the country to escape anti-Chinese sentiment and after a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, they settled in the United States in 1964. In this clip from “Voices of Memory” (1989) he reads two poems and talks with Bill about his relationship with his father and his relationship with his sons.
“Early in the Morning”
While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher’s ink.
She sits at the foot of the bed.
My father watches, listens for
the music of comb
My mother combs,
pulls her hair back
tight, rolls it
around two fingers, pins it
in a bun to the back of her head.
For half a hundred years she has done this.
My father likes to see it like this.
He says it is kempt.
But I know
it is because of the way
my mother’s hair falls
when he pulls the pins out.
Easily, like the curtains
when they untie them in the evening.
Sad is the man who is asked for a story
and can’t come up with one.
His five-year-old son waits in his lap.
Not the same story, Baba. A new one.
The man rubs his chin, scratches his ear.
In a room full of books in a world
of stories, he can recall
not one, and soon, he thinks, the boy
will give up on his father.
Already the man lives far ahead, he sees
the day this boy will go. Don’t go!
Hear the alligator story! The angel story once more!
You love the spider story. You laugh at the spider.
Let me tell it!
But the boy is packing his shirts,
he is looking for his keys. Are you a god,
the man screams, that I sit mute before you?
Am I a god that I should never disappoint?
But the boy is here. Please, Baba, a story?
It is an emotional rather than logical equation,
an earthly rather than heavenly one,
which posits that a boy’s supplications
and a father’s love add up to silence.
Lee is the author of The Undressing (W. W. Norton, 2018); Behind My Eyes (W. W. Norton, 2008); Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001), which won the 2002 William Carlos Williams Award; The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1990), which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rose (BOA Editions, 1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award.
His other work includes Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (Edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, BOA Editions, 2006), a collection of twelve interviews with Lee at various stages of his artistic development; and The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon and Schuster, 1995), a memoir which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
Watch this full episode from Voices of Memory (1989).
See all poets in the A Poet a Day Collection.
“Early in the Morning” Reprinted from Rose, BOA Editions, Ltd., 1986, by permission of the publisher, www.boaeditions.org. Copyright © 1986 Li-Young Lee, whose most recent book of poetry is “Book of My Nights,” BOA Editions, Ltd., 2001. Source: Rose (BOA Editions Ltd., 1986)
Li-Young Lee, “A Story” from The City In Which I Love You. Copyright © 1990 by Li-Young Lee. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., boaeditions.org.