With a voice that approaches mysticism, the poet explores what it means to be a child, an immigrant, a lover.
Li-Young Lee has ushered us into 2008 with "Behind My Eyes," his first collection of poems in seven years. It continues, in the near mysticism of his verse, to be fully engaged in life and memory while building and shaping the self from words.
Born in Jakarta in 1957 to Chinese parents (his father had been personal physician to Mao Zedong), Lee and his family fled the country's anti-Chinese sentiment in 1959. Following a multiple-nation journey, they settled in the United States in 1964. Much of "Behind My Eyes" is rife with family and loss, but the strongest poems render swirling and animated worlds: Birds move in trees in a secret code that might allow the speaker of one poem to become whole; in another, the wind asks questions in the voice of a dead father. The blurred border between the land of the living and the realm of the dead (or inanimate) magnifies Lee's metaphysical questing, creating mysteries that unfold into more questions. Everything is stitched and knotted and beautifully half-strange, trying to understand what can't be known.
The poems show a limitless interest in the magical power of language. They delve into what it means to be an immigrant, a lover, a child. In "A Hymn to Childhood," Lee writes:
The photographs whispered to each other
from their frames in the hallway.
The cooking pots said your name
each time you walked past the kitchen.
And you pretended to be dead with your sister
in games of rescue and abandonment.
You learned to lie still so long
the world seemed a play you viewed from the muffled
safety of a wing ...
After three books of poems and a memoir, Lee covers some of the same terrain, but this shouldn't be a surprise. In an interview with Tina Chang for the Academy of American Poets, he said: "If you rigorously dissect it, you realize that everything is a shape of the totality of causes. What's another name for the totality of causes? The Cosmos. So everything is a shape of Cosmos or God. It feels like something bigger than me -- that I can't possibly fathom but am embedded in."
These beliefs about art and poetry and life underpin and blossom up through the poems, giving off a shower of ethereal sparks. Some are as strong and moving as those in his first astounding collection, "Rose" (1986). In "My Clothes Lie Folded for the Journey," he writes:
Dreamed my father reading out loud to me,
my mother sewing beside me, singing
a counting song,
so I wouldn't be afraid to turn
from known lights toward the ancestor of light.
Lee's voice is poignant and potent, filled with compassion and longing. His poems are laced with adoration and unadorned suffering (at times, almost to a fault). And though they contain a few lines that have a certain slightness, an almost childlike buoyancy, some of his deepest work can be found here. Vast spaces are opened between poems about parents, food, war and immigration.
As much as they are in search of a spiritual transcendence through humility, attention and affection, the poems in "Behind My Eyes" are always extending the boundaries of what one might feel from a graceful arrangement of words.
Poet Alex Lemon is the author of "Mosquito" (Tin House, 2006) and the upcoming "Hallelujah Blackout" (Milkweed, Feb. 28). He lives in California.