The Author's Mind: Examining Lee's Writing
In 1991, Li-Young Lee spoke at SUNY Brockport, his alma mater, in conversation with authors Anthony Piccione — a former professor of Lee’s — and Stan Sanvel Rubin. There, he expressed the particular insatiable hunger that resulted in the titular poem in his second book of collections, “The City in Which I Love You.” “There’s a kind of dumbness about me: I feel sometimes like a dumb animal, especially when I was writing that poem. I really felt — this is very personal now — I was so full of craving I was just going out of my mind … I was just so full of craving and longing, wandering around looking for the center of my beloved, wondering,” Lee said. When Lee began writing, the manuscript was forty pages in length, and took three years of editing and revising before it was published.
Lee approaches his poetry as if it is a living thing, something that requires watering and pruning — much like a bonsai tree. Each work is a direct result of an outpouring of emotions and experiences, oftentimes an excess of emotions. He mentions this in the interview Brimming in The Bloomsbury Review (see above) in 1996: "Writing. Brimming ... that's what it is .. I want to get to a place where my sentences enact brimming.What's it called ... a meniscus! Where you pour water right up to the top, and it kind of hovers there! It’s that perfect fullness.”
After the publication of Rose, Lee’s first poetry collection, author Edward Nobles wrote a review in Southern Humanities Review (see above): “The best poems here are willing to aspire, to be emotional, to risk failure in an attempt to grapple with those large … issues.” In Noble’s review, he noted Lee’s tendency to obsess — Lee finds a specific topic and will dive however deep it takes to answer his questions. These points of obsessions are almost always about love and its companions. Without the love in his poems, there would be no admiration, lust, passion, compassion, or endurance. It is amidst this search where questions about intimacy, identity, grief, and family emerge.
Lee’s poems — especially the earlier work — focus heavily on his father, and his metaphorical and spiritual search for him. Author Gerald Stern points out that, “what characterizes Lee’s poetry is a certain humility, a kind of cunning, a love of plain speech, a search for wisdom and understanding — but more like a sad than a desperate search…” Gerald Stern writes more about Lee’s father in the foreword to Rose (see above). Rose debuts “Persimmons,” a perfect representation of Lee’s abilities to scour and scrutinize his own past and emotions.
In “Persimmons,” Lee illustrates a scene: as a sixth grader, his teacher reprimanded him for not knowing the difference between persimmon and precision. It is clear he knows:
“How to choose
persimmons. This is precision.”
But implied is a disconnect between his understanding and language, one that comes with moving to a new country. His teacher brings a persimmon to class so everyone can taste this “Chinese apple,” adding to the disconnect — this is a fruit that is foreign to the class, but a friendly welcome to the one student who cannot pronounce it.
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat
but watched the other faces,” Lee writes.
Persimmons remind Lee of his mother and father, especially the ones his father painted while he was going 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,” Lee’s father tells Lee.
So here are persimmons: presented as both memorabilia for cultural disconnect and a signal of warm devotion. “Persimmons” is one of Lee’s most popular poems for good reason. He builds a story around a singular thing and allows it to span generations. He questions identity but reconciles that there must be security in the certainty of memory. He holds adoration in the palm of his hands: the desire for a lover to know every bit of himself and the undying reverence for an aging father.