li-young-lee

As though touching her
might make him known to himself,

as though his hand moving
over her body might find who
he is, as though he lay inside her, a country

his hand’s traveling uncovered,
as though such a country arose
continually up out of her
to meet his hand’s setting forth and setting forth.

And the places on her body have no names.
And she is what’s immense about the night.
And their clothes on the floor are arranged
for forgetfulness.
—  Li-Young Lee, "Dwelling," Book of My Nights
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, “The Gift”
Persimmons

BY: LI-YOUNG LEE

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference  
between persimmon and precision.  
How to choose

persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.  
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.  
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.  
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
so sweet,
all of it, to the heart.

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.  
In the yard, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
face-up, face-down.
I teach her Chinese.
Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I’ve forgotten.  
Naked: I’ve forgotten.
Ni, wo: you and me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.

Other words
that got me into trouble were
fight and fright, wren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,  
fright was what I felt when I was fighting.  
Wrens are small, plain birds,  
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds out of yarn.  
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;  
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class  
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat
but watched the other faces.

My mother said every persimmon has a sun  
inside, something golden, glowing,  
warm as my face.

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,  
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,  
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.

Finally understanding  
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night  
waiting for a song, a ghost.  
I gave him the persimmons,  
swelled, heavy as sadness,  
and sweet as love.

This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking  
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,  
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.
He’s so happy that I’ve come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.  
All gone, he answers.

Under some blankets, I find a box.
Inside the box I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.

He raises both hands to touch the cloth,  
asks, Which is this?

This is persimmons, Father.

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,  
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times  
eyes closed. These I painted blind.  
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,  
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, Friend, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings

was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.

—  Li-Young Lee, “One Heart” (from Book of My Nights)
A bruise, blue
in the muscle, you
impinge upon me.
As bone hugs the ache home, so

I’m vexed to love you, your body
the shape of returns, your hair a torso
of light, your heat
I must have, your opening
I’d eat, each moment
of that soft-finned fruit,
inverted fountain in which I don’t see me.
—  Li-Young Lee, from “The City in Which I Love You,” The City in Which I Love You

God, that old furnace, keeps talking
with his mouth of teeth,
a beard stained at feasts, and his breath
of gasoline, airplane, human ash.
His love for me feels like fire,
feels like doves, feels like river-water.

At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
and helpless. While the Lord lives.

Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone.
I’ve had enough of his love
that feels like burning and flight and running away.

—  Li-Young Lee, from This Hour and What is Dead
As though touching her
might make him known to himself,

as though his hand moving
over her body might find who
he is, as though he lay inside her, a country

his hand’s traveling uncovered,
as though such a country arose
continually up out of her
to meet his hand’s setting forth and setting forth.

And the places on her body have no names.
And she is what’s immense about the night.
And their clothes on the floor are arranged
for forgetfulness.
—  Li-Young Lee, “Dwelling”

Lie still now
while I prepare for my future,
certain hard days ahead,
when I’ll need what I know so clearly this moment.

I am making use
of the one thing I learned
of all the things my father tried to teach me:
the art of memory.

I am letting this room
and everything in it
stand for my ideas about love
and its difficulties.

I’ll let your love-cries,
those spacious notes
of a moment ago,
stand for distance.

Your scent,
that scent
of spice and a wound,
I’ll let stand for mystery.

Your sunken belly
is the daily cup
of milk I drank
as a boy before morning prayer.
The sun on the face
of the wall
is God, the face
I can’t see, my soul,

and so on, each thing
standing for a separate idea,
and those ideas forming the constellation
of my greater idea.
And one day, when I need
to tell myself something intelligent
about love,

I’ll close my eyes
and recall this room and everything in it:
My body is estrangement.
This desire, perfection.
Your closed eyes my extinction.
Now I’ve forgotten my
idea. The book
on the windowsill, riffled by wind …
the even-numbered pages are
the past, the odd-
numbered pages, the future.
The sun is
God, your body is milk …

useless, useless …
your cries are song, my body’s not me …
no good … my idea
has evaporated … your hair is time, your thighs are song …
it had something to do
with death … it had something
to do with love.

—  Li-Young Lee, “This Room and Everything In It”, from The City in Which I Love You

a bruise, blue
in the muscle, you
impinge upon me.
As bone hugs the ache home, so
I’m vexed to love you, your body

the shape of returns, your hair a torso
of light, your heat
I must have, your opening
I’d eat, each moment
of that soft-finned fruit,
inverted fountain in which I don’t see me.

—  Li-Young Lee, The City in Which I Love You