Poets & Writers

A Poet a Day: Li-Young Lee

"The Burning One"

A Poet a Day: Li-Young Lee

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.”
— 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. He reads this new poem from his home in Pittsburgh.

The Burning One

Say, Ahhhh.

Stop saying, Death lives
because Life dies,
thus rendering the impossible possible.

Say, Ohhhh.

Stop saying, Death owns one foot
and Life owns the other,
and that’s why everybody limps,
that’s why we keep walking in circles,
that’s why we’ll never be free
of the spell of yes-and-no.

And don’t say, Life and Death dwell together
in each foot of both feet, and each step
means falling
forward into Life and Death,

a rocking heel to toe,
out of Life into Death,
out of Death into Life.

Say, Mmmm.

Don’t say,
Life and Death are in the human heart,
that seat of the possible and the impossible,
that fulcrum and pivot of all rocking
forward and backward,
all leaning port and starboard.

The heart is but a shoe keeping time
to an older cresting and ebbing, opening and closing.
Our Being called forth and our Being called back
ride the surge of a greater arc and deeper stepping,
a closer turning upon an utter, inmost pole,
our perfect rotation upon an ancient and absolute axis.

(stanza break)

Say, Ahhhh,
and kiss me.
Seal my mouth with your mouth.

Say, Ohhhh,
and kiss me again.
Part my lips with your lips.

Say, Mmmm,
and kiss me once more and longer.
Put your mortal stamp on me.

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.

(Bio from Poets.org)
See all poets in the A Poet a Day Collection.