By Li-Young Lee:
To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.
I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Chinese parents. In 1959, his father, after spending a year as a political prisoner in President Sukarno’s jails, fled Indonesia with his family. Between 1959 and 1964 they traveled in Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, until arriving in America.
Mr. Lee studied at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Arizona, and the State University of New York, College at Brockport. He has taught at various universities, including Northwestern University and the University of Iowa. He is the author of four books of poetry and one memoir and has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards.
Editor’s Note: At his recent reading with Peggy Shumaker and Amber Flora Thomas (held in New York’s Poets House and sponsored by Red Hen Press), I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear Li-Young Lee read. Not only to experience this performance, but to shake the poet’s hand and tell him how much his words have meant to me, how his poems above all others have been a vessel for me in my grief.
Between my father’s passing and seeing Mr. Lee speak I read Rose cover to cover, perpetually weeping. When tears would not come to me, though I felt the need to express them, it was this book that opened me up and enabled release. I cannot read Lee’s simple, sincere, and elegant poetic contemplations of the loss of his father without becoming one with him in his grief, and in so doing becoming one with my own, as I must.
Lee’s words and thoughts paint themselves into the mind’s eye like the most finely-crafted calligraphy. Simple beauty that defies the painstaking art required to make it. “O, to take what we love inside, / to carry within us an orchard.” I can scarcely conceive of a poet who better exemplifies what poetry ought to be.