Li-Young Lee: Furious Versions

This article is part of two series: one on Chicago writers, the other on the many people I brough to North Central College during my time as director of its Cultural Events program.

Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1957 to Chinese parents, Li-Young Lee eventually settled in the U.S. with his family, first in a small Pennsylvania town, then in Chicago.  The stormy and fascinating saga of these moves—having in large part to do with his father’s incarceration as a political prisoner in Sukarno’s jails—is recounted in Lee’s memoir The Winged Seed (1t995), which was recently adapted for the stage by David Mura.  Because of these early experiences with flight, Lee’s poetry, even as it seeks to find images strong enough to rest on, seems always to convey the feeling of continual searching, especially for the father, that extends into the past, permeates the present, and marks out uncertain roads into the future.  One of the featured poets in Bill Moyer’s beautiful Power of the Word series, and one of 34 poets celebrated in Moyer’s Power of the Word, Ll-Young has become one of the preeminent poets of his generation.  His first book, Rose (1986) won the 1987 Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award. His second book, The City in Which I Love You (1990) won the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and his subsequent five other books (and counting) have also been richly honored.

David Starkey and I put Lee’s “Furious Versions” in our book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing, investing eleven full, and precious anthology pages to it.  It was more than worth it: beginning with the lines “These days I waken in the used light / of someone’s spent life, to discover / the birds have stripped my various names of meaning entire: / the soarriw by quarrel, / the dove by grievance….” and containing a remarkable meeting “in Chicago, Little Chinatown,” where “who should I see / on the corner of Argyle and Broadway / but Li Bai and Du Fu,” those ancient great writers he describes as “two poets of the wanderer’s heart.”

“Wandering” may be too light a word to describe “Furious Versions,” though that’s what it does, furiously, seamlessly, attempting to understand, perhaps reclaim, those names stripped of meaning.  I think often of Li-Young.  We were close for a while before wandering away from each other.  I had him speak at a national conference I held in Chicago at the Blackstone Hotel. The room he spoke in had elaborate filigreed cove moldings. “I kind of feel I’m on the inside of a wedding cake,” he began, “which is fine because frosting is my favorite food.” I brought him several times to North Central College, once to read, then to teach a series of workshops on poetry, where I heard him say once: “The more I try to write poems the less I know about how that’s done.” He called me up once, saying, “I’ve been asked to give a commencement speech. Richard, what exactly is that?”  It may have been at the University of Massachusetts, and after I talked about such speeches for a minute, he exclaimed, “God, to I have to give advice!”  I said that since they’d invited a poet to speak, I thought reading poems would be appropriate. “I can do that?” he replied.  And at his home in Chicago, a three-flat where his mother and his brother’s family also lived, I had dinner. I loved Donna, his wife, whose twin sister had married Li-Lin Lee, Li-Young’s brother.  At dinner we discussed their new enterprise. Li-Lim, a painter would paint and Li-Young would write words, a poem, over the painting.  “The paintings have been done a while,” Li-Lin said, and standing up and reaching over the table to knock on his brother’s forehead, he said, “Where are the words, Li-Young, the words?”

These always came hard for Li-Young, who—as the magazine cover and quotation to the left from a Poetry Foundation article suggest—were always tied up with some connection to God. Any person is many things at once. Any scene is many things at once. Once he was telling me about another thing feeding his insomnia.  “I was thinking, Richard,” he said. “who is Donna, really? What does she mean?”  What is the right word and context of words around it that can make it mean all the things it could mean all at once. Language is multi-vocal, and somehow this multifariousness, this richness of meaning relates to the richness of God, so that searching for the meanings stripped from his names by the birds is a search to restore richness, to speak and see the multiple ways God speaks and sees and is.  Me speaking about me is truly not enough.  The “I” that speaks with God and like God is after much bigger things…abd snakker things, too.

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