Dear Li-Young Lee,
I knew from the first read that I was (am) in love with your first volume of poetry Rose.
If, after that first read, you asked me why I loved your book I would’ve listed off the brilliant use of metaphor in poems like “Rain Diary” “Dreaming of Hair,” and “Visions and Interpretations,” or how your terse sentences create space for the words to swell and ache the same way your speaker aches. I may have also mentioned how you always seem to pick the most thematically relevant moments to render, such as in the final stanza of “Persimmons.”
Now, a year after that first read through, I know that that those are fine reasons to be enamored with Rose, but to love it for those reasons is like loving someone for their beautiful hair. Real love comes from loving not only the hair self, but how it is worn.
Throughout the poems in Rose, you don’t simply write about your speaker’s family, you conjure them, you render their essence, and the essence of what surrounds you, for the world to see and understand, you dig until you reveal the very elemental core of their being.
In “Water” for instance, we learn your speaker’s father is a “son of water who’ll die by water.” You show us not only the literal manifestation of this, his “bloated/ liver” and “bloated legs,” but also point out that when the speaker puts his ear to his father’s face he hears “the sound of water/ returning” as if the prophecy of the wise man in Shantung—that his father will die by water—is true not because of coincidence, or even because the speaker believes the seer’s fortune telling, but somehow he can sense every part of father’s being, spiritual and physical, is tethered to water.
In “Always a Rose,” in you describe your family by telling us how they interact with the rose:
“Of my brothers
one would have ignored it,
another ravished it, the third
would have pinned it to his chest…
My sister would rival its beauty,
my mother bow before it, then bear it
to my father’s grave, where
he would grant it seven days,
then return to claim it forever.”
A more conventional author might use similes or metaphor to compare the rose to the speaker’s family members. A comparison would be sufficient, but would take away from joy of the process of getting to know your family through their interactions with the rose. Your willingness to allow what is not said to be heard, or if it is too quiet felt, inspires me to write every time I read your work.
And of your speaker’s clouded vision mentioned in your final poem: it takes strength to admit that too. Yet you use unanswered questions as deftly as you use metaphor, and you dare to leave them that way. At the end of “Ash, Snow, or Moonlight” your speaker asks “Is this the first half of the century or the last?/ Is this my father’s life or mine?” In “Dreaming of Hair” your speaker asks if his lover’s black hair is death or beauty. Both questions go unanswered. A lesser author may have stopped there, at the dual implication that both could be true, but your incredible sensitivity to the dual nature of your family members: their yin and yang, life and imminent death, kindness and coldness—we as readers believe that you may have transcended yourself, that all possibilities are true, and that each answer is equally profound. And that dedication to the truth in between the evidence is why I love your book, and why it continues to inspire me to this day, years (and many rereads) after I first read it.