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About this poet

Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents. His father had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong while in China, and relocated the family to Indonesia, where he helped found Gamaliel University. In 1959, the Lee family fled the country to escape anti-Chinese sentiment and after a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, they settled in the United States in 1964.

Lee attended the University of Pittsburgh and University of Arizona, and the State University of New York at Brockport. He has taught at several universities, including Northwestern and the University of Iowa.

He is the author of The Undressing (W. W. Norton, 2018); Behind My Eyes (W. W. Norton, 2008); Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001), which won the 2002 William Carlos Williams Award; The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1990), which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rose (BOA Editions, 1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award.

His other work includes Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (Edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, BOA Editions, 2006), a collection of twelve interviews with Lee at various stages of his artistic development; and The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon and Schuster, 1995), a memoir which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

With regard to Lee's work, the poet Gerald Stern has noted that "what characterizes [his] poetry is a certain humility... a willingness to let the sublime enter his field of concentration and take over, a devotion to language, a belief in its holiness."

He has been the recipient of a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer's Award, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, the I. B. Lavan Award, three Pushcart Prizes, and grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. In 1998, he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from State University of New York at Brockport.

He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife and their two sons.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

The Undressing (W. W. Norton, 2018)
Behind My Eyes (W. W. Norton, 2008)
Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001)
The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1990)
Rose (BOA Editions, 1989)

Nonfiction

The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon & Schuster, 1995)

Adore

                                        (adore, verb from Latin, adorare,
                                        from ad- 'to' + orare- 'speak, call pray')

You lie asleep beside me,
one hand on the pillow and cupped
at your mouth, as if to tell a secret.

As if you might say in your sleep
what you could never find 
words for awake.

Or as if you called
across a din of other voices,
or the howl of empty space. Calling

because there are no bells 
to strike the hours where we live. And I must know
when to kneel and when to rise.
What to praise and what to curse.
I must know how to bless
and how to receive blessing. 

One hand on your pillow and cupped
at your mouth,
as if you spoke a word
you'd kept to yourself all day, waiting 
for your most unguarded moment
to say, a thought meant for me, meant to be
shared between us this way,
sealed this way, a secret
no voice can carry without destroying,
a word without carriage, except conveyed
in the peace of your body and face,

a word born out of your deepest rest, a word
which only my own deepest breathing
and happiest rest beside you,
face to face, free of thinking, can sustain.

Maybe you had to be asleep
to say what you knew to be true.
Or what you had to say
you might not could bear to hear,
and so you must say so softly
I must close my eyes, I must turn
inward, to where you've made a room
and a bed inside me, to receive it. 

You say:
We cannot look upon Love's face without dying.
So we face each other to see Love's look.
And thus third-person souls
suddenly stand at gaze
and the lover and the beloved,
second- and first-persons,
You and I, eye
to eye, are born. 
But such refraction, multiplying gazes, strews
Love's eye upon the objects of the world,
as upon the objects of our room. 

My brush, hairpin, mirror, book,
your loving look finds each of these things
lovable, I can see. Things
by any other measure poor, your look crowns
to make them your heart’s royalty.
Face, blush, breath, eyes, evanescent,
pledged to death, nowhere stored,
Love’s look gathers within its fondling
to adore.

This strewing and gathering
of Love’s face, of Love’s gaze, and only this,
begun in death’s audience, is the founding
action, call it the fundamental
paradise…did I say paradise?
I meant paradox…the fundamental paradox
of the breaths we breathe,
the thoughts we witness,
the kisses we exchange,
and every poem you write.


From The Undressing: Poems by Li-Young Lee. Copyright © 2018 by Li-Young Lee. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
From The Undressing: Poems by Li-Young Lee. Copyright © 2018 by Li-Young Lee. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents.

by this poet

poem

Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking 
through bare rooms over my head,
opening and closing doors.
What could he be looking for in an empty house?
What could he possibly need there in heaven?
Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches?
His love for me
2
poem
In the steamer is the trout   
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.   
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,   
brothers, sister, my mother who will   
taste the sweetest meat of the head,   
holding it between her fingers   
deftly, the way my father did   
weeks ago. Then
poem
I've pulled the last of the year's young onions. 
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold, 
brown and old. What is left of the day flames 
in the maples at the corner of my 
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes. 
By the cellar door, I wash the onions, 
then drink from the icy metal spigot. 

Once, years back, I