Photo by Flickr user crabchick.
In The Winged Seed Li-Young Lee gathers up his memories of his mother and father and his childhood and dreams about them. The family’s displacement from China to Indonesia to the United States is reordered in Lee’s memoir in a way that mirrors the tangled process of remembering. For Lee, his father’s spent shoes and exposed ankles and his mother standing for hours at the gate to the prison where Lee’s father was being held are the raw material, the genesis, for a story, that though it is supremely unique, exceeds its own content with its universality. This reissued edition begins with a new foreword by Lee who writes, “Once upon a time, we were children in a river valley, and teachers getting our names wrong helped to keep us hidden, safe to make the most faithful playmates of God and Death. Any wonder, we were ruined for any other company.” This is the echo of idea that Lee spoke of in an interviewwith BOMB following the initial publication of the book in 1995 when he said, “I can’t stop thinking about love and death; no other issues interest me.” With the addition of God, who at one point Lee refers to as a “monster in [his] eyes,” The Winged Seed is a remembrance of love and death and God.
The 2013 reissue by BOA Editions is the same text as was published in 1995 and had since gone out of print, but now includes a small collection of photographs of Lee and his family as a well as the previously mentioned foreword by Lee himself. For those who have read a lot of Lee’s work it may be a little reductive to see Lee’s father, so mythologized and looked to in Lee’s poems and here in the memoir, confined into a two-by-two inch photograph. To hear Lee’s voice in the present, some 18 years after the book’s initial publication and sounding just as sure and also as shaky, is the real appeal with this new publication. He writes in the foreword, “It’s just time: the book I read, the letter I write, the window I look out of. Just a sleeve I keep trying to mend, the spool diminishing.” Lee’s story is not over, it can’t ever be.
“Sound is a lot more important to me than sense,” Lee told BOMB in the ’95 interview. This is true and also not in The Winged Seed. There are sections that break into lyrical prose poem form, but framed as they are by the narrative, these sections thrive and add something to the story rather than detract from it. Lee commands these sections even though he might claim that sound does. The passages most prone to language-play and sound-chasing-after-sound are those about senseless death unspeakable pain. The form suits the content; he lets the wild parts remain that way and doesn’t try to tame them into narrative. There’s a sense that the sound of the language can outreach intention and story. And, if the reader doesn’t track, don’t worry, the story always returns.
The memoir moves through time the way a dog walks off his leash, going here and then there in slow and then quick bursts. As mentioned, the sequencing of Lee’s book is a reflection of the out-of-order, associative way memory tends to work. The order also speaks to Lee’s conception of time itself. In the present part of the story a full-grown Lee and his mother are at the Beautiful Asia Market in Chicago picking up some napa cabbages when his mother says, “Elsewhere, your head is always elsewhere, in the past or in the future. Why can’t you be here?” Lee’s sense of present seems to be that the past + the future = the present. For Lee the past and future consume his thoughts and generate what for him is the present.
There was time as a child that Li-Young Lee could not speak. When he later broke his silence it was with one hand over his mouth like he was chewing food. “My mouth was a shame to me, an indecent trench,” he says at one point. In Lee we see the profundity of a mute poet, a listener. And it seems true that possibly the best poets are part mute. Regarding this balance he writes, “I’m just a mouth, which is itself nothing but a talking ear, and a talking ear a listening wound, a trumpet, almost God.” It’s not only the muse that Lee listens for. He is attuned to the past and future as well, which he describes as two hands writing, “The right hand, writing what the left hand erases, laying to waste the dark for want of you. The right hand should have been a bird, and the left hand flying under it for a shadow.” He seems to be asking always which is more real, the bird or the shadow.
Listener and then conduit (“listening wound” and “trumpet”) are principal in all of Lee’s work. In “A Final Thing” from the 1990 collection of poems The City in Which I Love You come the lines,
I am that last, that
final thing, the body
in a white sheet listening
the whole of me trained,
curled like one great ear on
The poem goes on to say that basically a good story, a moving speaker, a poem,
away from itself
to some place
in the hearer,
sends the hearer back
to find what he knows.
Most of Lee’s work is about his family and the struggle to assimilate and create and keep hold of a sense of self. In the hands others this could become redundant and overly-sentimental. In Lee’s work, though, there is a drive for something beyond, towards a kind of new knowing, which ultimately unifies by sending the hearer back to him or herself. So much of his work is about listening and silence. He shows us how we can mine our own experiences. “I mix memory and forgetting, I hurry shadows, while holding noon at a standstill,” he says. Lee shows us the scuffle and proves that “scribbling pages of words, which in the morning only [you] can read … the letters spread into illegibility, looking like mad graphs of a crazy heart” is part of what it is to listen.