Birds Fly Forward: Li-young Lee

Tsunami foam at Bondi Icebergs outside Sydney

Image via Wikipedia

Birds Fly Forward: Li-young Lee

Mr. Lee was born in 1957, in China, into an intellectual and powerful family. So, unsurprisingly, his early life was filled with movement, as his family fled through China, Indonesia, and several other parts of Asia before landing in America. While Lee was too young to remember most of this adventure, it’s written all over his poetry. The title for this entry comes from his poem For a New Citizen of These United States:

And in the interval between
familiar faces, events occurred, which
one of us faithfully pencilled
in a day-book bound by a rubber band.
But birds, as you say, fly forward.

But that in no way means he’s a one-topic wonder. Visions of life as an immigrant merge with universal themes, but also with an insane amount of originality. I look at his poems over and over, wondering, how did he do that? How does anyone combine such lightness with so much depth?

His poems grab. He’ll start with some image, some memory, something to arrest the imagination. This keeps it moving, developing, morphing throughout the poem, until by the end you’re going “Gee, I thought this was going to be simple.” Then you want to start at the beginning and read it over again.

My following poem (Note:  An edited version of this poem was later published in an Anthology created to benefit survivors of the 2011 Tsunami, Amaterasu, which has since gone out of print.)


Oh, how we wished we could build a wall,
when slamming waves lifted fields of parked cars
as if flooding rice with a heavy rain–virile waves
that lift metal and throw down concrete.

And how we wish with all our hearts to abort
a force so strong it breaks the earth–horrid force
lifting black hearts of plutonium stripped
to ride the back of the dragon’s breath.

This is our work, to drown
the worst thing that could happen,
to pour wave after hopeless wave, to stay
by the core unto death and sickness.

Only for our children do we suffer the break
of dawn, even as their clothes hang to dry in this dismal wind.
And oh, how we wish we could name that wind
that blows the mind clean when we first wake up,

Before we remember,
before we know.

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