Li-Young Lee undresses the soul-searching Being within each of us

Speaking about narration of one’s life, there will always be versions, rumours, tales, traces; some will be on wikipedia, some will be sealed in national security data, but only the each of us will encounter the soul-searching question when nothing from outside could fulfil — what does this life mean? Hours, days, months or decades go by, the battered self stoop to reach the ground we once wanted to leave so badly.

There are stories we tell ourselves, she says.
There are stories we tell others.
Then there’s the sum of our hours
death will render legible. -Li-young lee

The Poet Li-Young Lee (李立揚) has his own stories to compose, and they are bigger than the mere curiosity that one might have while reading about his background. Li-Young Lee’s maternal great grandfather is Yuan Shikai, and father worked as a physician for Mao Zedong (Wiki). Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, Li-Young Lee eventually immigrated to the U.S.

Will people who are in exile missing their roots? Or will they long for new roots? In the opening poem from Li-Young Lee’s Undressing, he paints a beautiful and melancholy picture to answer this question. Again, it makes my heart echo.

She says, The world
is a story that keeps beginning.
In it, you have lived severally disguised:
bright ash, dark ash, mirror, moon;
a child waking in the night to hear the thunder;
a traveler stopping to ask the way home.

--Li-Young Lee The Undressing

Skilfully using laconic words, Li-Young Lee’s poems are profound in a way of our everyday encounters will remind us. Dreams! Colours! Fires! Yet these images are full of sensitivity that could capture any pounding hearts —

There are voices that wake us in the morning, she says.
There are voices that keep us up all night. –Li-Young Lee

But all burning is not the same.
Some fires kindle freedom.
Some fires consolidate your bondage.
Do you know the difference?

-- Li-Young Lee The Undressing

Between life and death, he records the struggle and composes it into a song, like all poets. There erupt with fortitude, tenderness and dauntlessness; between life and death, he grabs the word “Word” boldly —

Inside time, death rules.
Life is death’s kingdom.
We live at dying’s rate.
Words are a sop for death.
But The Word is the mother of thresholds,
regulating life and death.

-- Li-Young Lee The Undressing


But not before he learns to say yes to life
is to say yes to death.
To say no to death
is to say no to living.

-- Li-Young Lee The Undressing

Susan Sontag would be so angry to the above stanza, I’d venture.