Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Top Ten Chicago Poets: Li-Young Lee

Something to do with death...something to do with love--from "This Room and Everything In It" by Li-Young Lee

In an essay posted on, A Slightly Qualified Defense of MFA Programs: Six Benefits of Graduate School, Arielle Greenberg lists "to find out what to read" among the reasons. I had never heard of Li-Young Lee before beginning Columbia College Chicago's poetry MFA program. If reading his four volumes of poetry had been the only return on my investment of tuition and time, it would have been worth it, because Li-Young Lee's poems are transformational. It is unlikely that I will say or can say anything new about his body of work, but I want to go on record as being among those who consider it transformational. From the short, highly confessional lyric poems of Rose, through the longer more ambitious poems of longing of his later books, The City In Which I Love You and Book Of My Nights, to his more metaphysical collection, Behind My Eyes, these quest poems are offered to us as sustenance for our writing lives. You can google the poet and read his extensive list of honors and awards for yourself--let's get on to a poem. Listen to "This Room and Everything In It," a gorgeous, haunting study of memory, emblematic of Li-Young Lee's work:

This Room and Everything In It

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.

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