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poetry of

Li-Young Lee

A Story

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.

-- Li-Young Lee, ©1990. Reproduced from The City in Which I Love You, with kind permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.

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
against hair.

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.

-- Li-Young Lee, ©1986. Reproduced from Rose with the kind permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he'd removed
the iron sliver I thought I'd die from.

I can't remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy's palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife's right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

-- Li-Young Lee, ©1986. Reproduced from Rose with the kind permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.


Lee, Li-Young. 1986. Rose  (Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd.)

Lee, Li-Young. 1990. The City in Which I Love You  (Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd.)

Lee, Li-Young. 1995. The Winged Seed: A Rememberance  (NY: Simon & Schuster)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT:  Li-Young Lee: "Early in the Morning" and "The Gift" copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. Reproduced from Rose, by Li-Young Lee, with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd., 92 Park Avenue, Brockport, NY 14420 USA. Li-Young Lee: "A Story" copyright © 1990 by Li-Young Lee. Reproduced from The City in Which I Love You, by Li-Young Lee, with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd., 92 Park Avenue, Brockport, NY 14420 USA.

CAUTION: Users are warned that this Work is protected under the copyright laws of the United States, and that downloading is strictly forbidden. For information concerning rights via any medium, contact BOA Editions, Ltd., 260 East Avenue, Rochester, NY 14604 USA.   E-mail: boaedit@aol.com   Phone: 716.546.3410.

Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Chinese parents. In 1959, his father, after spending a year as a political prisoner in President Sukarno's jails, fled Indonesia with his family. Between 1959 and 1964 they traveled in Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, until arriving in America.

Mr. Lee studied at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Arizona, and the State University of New York, College at Brockport. He has taught at various universities, including Northwestern University and the University of Iowa. In 1990 Li-Young Lee traveled in China and Indonesia to do personal research for a book of autobiographical prose.

Li-Young Lee's several honors include grants from the Illinois Arts Council, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1989 he was awarded a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation; in 1988 he was the recipient of a Writer's Award from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. In 1987 Mr. Lee received New York University's Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award for his first book, Rose, published by BOA Editions, Ltd. in 1986; and The City in Which I Love You, Li-Young Lee's second book of poems, was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets. He has also won the Lannan Literary Award.

L-Y L, if you see this...  t h a n k  y o u

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