Inside a used bookstore at a grotesquely outsized strip mall in Fremont, California, I first pulled Li-Young Lee’s 1986 chapbook Rose from the shelf, a volume so thin the spine hardly held a label.
Rose was pushed all the way back to the darkness of the wall, sandwiched between two anthologies. I set it at the bottom of my pile of wish list books, beneath a copy of Dante’s Inferno. It looked interesting enough; the cover featured a Dr. Seuss-esque drawing of an eye on the end of a stalk, maybe by one of the poet’s kids. And I’d heard this name, Li-Young Lee, before. It sounded stately, earned, a good name for a poet.
Year after that Christmas break during my sophomore year of high school, when my parents took that arm-punishing stack of well-loved tomes from my hands and said they’d pay for them, less an investment in my reading pleasure than my future, Rose still finds a way to climb from its perch on my poetry shelf and onto my nightstand. Early mornings and late nights seem the most fitting times to read Lee’s forays into that space between cerebral wordplay and what Randall Jarrell called the “unarguable Necessity” of the worst poetry out there. The collection begins with the stark thus-ness of entering a room or hearing a confession for the first time: “Of wisdom, splendid columns of light/waking sweet foreheads/I know nothing//but what I’ve glimpsed in my most hopeful daydreams,” Lee starts the chapbook in “Epistle,” qualifying the downpour to come.
And come it does, black clouds and all. In Rose, Lee’s suffering, historical awareness channeled like a pressured pipeline, holds a lens to a family and writes down what it sees. The result is a series of letters, of epistles, that seem they couldn’t possibly belong to anyone else but Lee or anyone else but me at the same time, their dramatis personae no one and everyone. “The Gift,” which recalls his father’s spoken analgesic as he lifts a splinter out of his son’s palm, gives way to “Eating Alone,” a riff on the mind’s late-night—and sometimes midday—hallucinations, this one of a resurrection: “It was my father I saw this morning/waving to me from the trees. I almost/called to him, until I came close enough/to see the shovel, leaning where I had/left it…” But then the poem returns to earth. “White rice steaming… /And my own loneliness,” Lee writes. “What more could I, a young man, want.”
Rose’s blending of one world with another, of times before with times after, mimics the schizophrenia of memory. I read “Persimmons” a million times. In it, Lee deciphers not just “the difference/between persimmon and precision,” not just the intersection of Chinese and American cultures, but the paintings his sightless father made. One, of persimmons “so full they want to drop from the cloth,” his father explains: “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.”
I witnessed my grandmother going blind, just as she had her mother. So Lee testified to his father’s decline, and not in a totally sentimental way. He talked about fruit, for crying out loud, not some hereafter. He’d held his eyes—no, his sixth sense—open, and in maybe 40 or 50 lines had said all that I could ever think to say about lineage, the wounds by which heritage transmits itself.
A few theory and canon classes later, I’d hear the nag of the New Critics whenever I returned to Lee’s work, of Wimsatt’s writing about the emotive critic versus his cognitive counterpart. I knew which one I was. I didn’t know how to be anything else. Unlike other books that submitted to the operating table of my desk, Rose was not someone else’s heart, but my own, transplanted: a book that disarmed my English major-y attempts to dissect it. A secret unnerving in its self-satisfaction, resting on the fulcrum that plied waking life apart from dream. Despite my protests, Rose was that unholy of unholies: the book you relished at night, in bed, the computer off and the world distant—because, really, you think you could tell your hyper-intellectual book club, the ones plowing through William Vollman’s latest for the second time, that you felt something about it, that it empathized with you?
High school, when I discovered Lee’s poetry by accident, now seems a half-sick nightmare, a well with some truth still shimmering at the bottom. Here, even today, are smart poems that double as love poems, love poems that double as elegies. Poems whose unrealities hurt enough to be real, poems that skirt cliché (the title, anyone?) before boomeranging back to still life. The creased book continues to make the pilgrimage from my shelf to my nightstand, from my nightstand to my shelf, without growing old. Then one day, a few weeks back, an epiphany—that in the midst of my years-long affair with Rose I knew next to nothing about its author. I hopped online and downloaded a recording of a reading he’d done at Berkeley some years ago.
The next morning, late to class and pushing 80 on Highway 13, I listened to the CD I’d burned the night before. From behind the fizzle of a cheap microphone Lee talked about his work. Before he read, he spent a lot of time explaining a hypothesis he’d devised about poetry, about communication: since every instance of speech was conducted via exhale, “the dying breath,” as he called it, every creative work found its origins in death. All poems, even the happiest, were acts of sinking away: of sight, of life, of something that might not be spoken but understood.
“It is not heavenly and it is not sweet…” Lee concludes “Epistle,” “but it is what I know/and so am able to tell.” Rose was my first lesson in this silent alphabet. I’d lost people, too; I’d grown tired from the act of trying so hard to tell, to say something, and here was a book that taught with the perception of the all-seeing eye on its cover, that spoke—that still speaks—through the simple fact of its existence. What more could I, a young man, want?