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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)

I Loved You Before I Was Born

I loved you before I was born.
It doesn't make sense, I know.

I saw your eyes before I had eyes to see.
And I've lived longing 
for your ever look ever since.
That longing entered time as this body. 
And the longing grew as this body waxed.
And the longing grows as the body wanes.
The longing will outlive this body.

I loved you before I was born.
It doesn't make sense, I know.

Long before eternity, I caught a glimpse
of your neck and shoulders, your ankles and toes.
And I've been lonely for you from that instant.
That loneliness appeared on earth as this body. 
And my share of time has been nothing 
but your name outrunning my ever saying it clearly. 
Your face fleeing my ever
kissing it firmly once on the mouth.

In longing, I am most myself, rapt,
my lamp mortal, my light 
hidden and singing. 

I give you my blank heart.
Please write on it
what you wish. 

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
I draw a window
and a man sitting inside it.

I draw a bird in flight above the lintel.

That's my picture of thinking.

If I put a woman there instead
of the man, it's a picture of speaking.

If I draw a second bird
in the woman's lap, it’s ministering.

A third flying below her feet.
Now
poem

God-My-Father gave me three words:
O-My-Love
O-My-God
Holy-Holy-Holy.

God-My-Mother’s wounds will never heal.
 
God-My-Brother is always alone in the library.
 
Meanwhile, I can’t remember
how many brothers I have.
 
poem
I buried my father
in the sky.
Since then, the birds
clean and comb him every morning   
and pull the blanket up to his chin   
every night.

I buried my father underground.   
Since then, my ladders
only climb down,
and all the earth has become a house   
whose rooms are the hours, whose doors   
stand open at