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.
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.
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
That’s what I want, that kind of recklessness where the poem is even ahead of you. It’s like riding a horse that’s a little too wild for you, so there’s this tension between what you can do and what the horse decides it’s going to do.
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
And now, when art is practiced with no other intention than to create commodities for the profit economy, that’s a problem, because the profit economy is founded on a paradigm of scarcity and violence. Isn’t poetry a mode of valuation that is other than that? Isn’t there a paradigm of abundance and love that undergirds poetry?
Li-Young Lee, interviewed by Paul T. Corrigan for Image Journal