poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

Poetry Breaks: Li-Young Lee Reads "I Ask My Mother to Sing"

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 Universities of Pittsburgh and 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 Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon & Schuster, 1995); Behind My Eyes (W. W. Norton & Co., 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, Donna, and their two sons.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Behind My Eyes (W. W. Nortion & Co., 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)

I Ask My Mother to Sing

She begins, and my grandmother joins her.
Mother and daughter sing like young girls.
If my father were alive, he would play
his accordion and sway like a boat.

I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace,
nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch
the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers
running away in the grass.

But I love to hear it sung;
how the waterlilies fill with rain until
they overturn, spilling water into water,
then rock back, and fill with more.

Both women have begun to cry.
But neither stops her song.

From Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. Used with permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.

From Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. Used with permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.

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
It wasn’t the bright hems of the Lord’s skirts   
that brushed my face and I opened my eyes   
to see from a cleft in rock His backside;

it’s a wasp perched on my left cheek. I keep   
my eyes closed and stand perfectly still   
in the garden till it leaves me alone,

not to contemplate how this century   
ends
poem
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