Poem of the Week, by Li-Young Lee

img_5354Thirty years ago I stood in a kitchen reading through a letter of complaint sent to a business about one of their products. “Oh my God,” I remember saying. “Whoever wrote this letter is a horrible speller. And the grammar? Jeez!” Then I turned the page over and looked at the signature. And realized that the letter had been written by someone I loved, someone who had worked incredibly hard their whole life long, someone who could always be counted on to help, someone who was right there in the room. 

That memory has haunted me ever since. When I think about it, the sensation of shame that flooded through me in that moment, that almost made me fall on my knees, was the beginning of a long slow road that brought me to where I am now, a writer and a teacher of writing who doesn’t care how bad her students’ spelling and grammar are. I am so so sorry, a student wrote me last week, thank you for being so patient and correcting my horrible spelling. All my terrible mistakes must feel like fingernails on a chalkboard to you.

But they don’t. I don’t care anymore about things like that. The surface doesn’t matter to me. Years and years of listening to others’ stories and watching others’ faces when their mistakes are pointed out, when they’re being laughed at, when they smile and smile and smile while their eyes fill with tears, have softened and gentled me. They have turned me into someone who will sit with her laptop propped on her lap and spend whatever time it takes to see through to the golden, glowing sun that shines beneath all those halting sentences. 


Persimmons, by Li-Young Lee

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker 
slapped the back of my head 
and made me stand in the corner  
for not knowing the difference  
between persimmon and precision.  
How to choose 

persimmons. This is precision. 
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.  
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one 
will be fragrant. How to eat: 
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.  
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.  
Chew the skin, suck it, 
and swallow. Now, eat 
the meat of the fruit, 
so sweet, 
all of it, to the heart. 

Donna undresses, her stomach is white.  
In the yard, dewy and shivering 
with crickets, we lie naked, 
face-up, face-down. 
I teach her Chinese. 
Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I’ve forgotten.  
Naked:   I’ve forgotten. 
Ni, wo:   you and me. 
I part her legs, 
remember to tell her 
she is beautiful as the moon. 

Other words 
that got me into trouble were 
fight and frightwren and yarn
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,  
Fright was what I felt when I was fighting.  
Wrens are small, plain birds,  
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn. 
My mother made birds out of yarn.  
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;  
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man. 

Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class  
and cut it up 
so everyone could taste 
Chinese apple. Knowing 
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat 
but watched the other faces. 

My mother said every persimmon has a sun  
inside, something golden, glowing,  
warm as my face. 

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,  
forgotten and not yet ripe. 
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,  
where each morning a cardinal 
sang, The sun, the sun

Finally understanding  
he was going blind, 
my father sat up all one night  
waiting for a song, a ghost.  
I gave him the persimmons,  
swelled, heavy as sadness,  
and sweet as love. 

This year, in the muddy lighting 
of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking  
for something I lost. 
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,  
black cane between his knees, 
hand over hand, gripping the handle. 
He’s so happy that I’ve come home. 
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.  
All gone, he answers. 

Under some blankets, I find a box. 
Inside the box I find three scrolls. 
I sit beside him and untie 
three paintings by my father: 
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower. 
Two cats preening. 
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth. 

He raises both hands to touch the cloth,  
asks, Which is this

This is persimmons, Father

Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.


​For more information on Li-Young Lee, please ​click here.

Poem of the Week, by Li-Young Lee

– Li-Young Lee

In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.

How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?

Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,

this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,

just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,

each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

For more information on Li-Young Lee, please click here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/li-young-lee

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What Was Really Happening

Late last night you drove three hours in deep darkness on the highways and then byways of a nearly-forgotten southern coast.

What was really happening was that you were thinking about another trip you took at the tail end of last summer. One of your youthful companions was with you, the middle one. Her belongings were jigsaw-puzzled into the trunk and the back seat.

She sat in the passenger seat, or rather she reclined in the passenger seat, and slept. She slept almost the entire way, over a thousand miles, as you piloted the rental car through the highways and byways of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

On the car ferry that crosses Lake Michigan the two of you made your way to the top deck and dragged lounge chairs over to the side. She reclined hers fully and fell asleep for most of the four-hour journey across that vast lake, waking up when you pressed half of a giant chocolate chip cookie into her hand.

Once in the car again, on the other side, she fell asleep again while you drove through the vast forests and hills of Michigan, a remote and, in your opinion, highly underrated state. When you crossed over into Canada –blessings on Canada, that vast and beautiful country– she fell asleep again.

She came awake when you spontaneously steered the car toward Niagara Falls –where you hadn’t been since you were a child– and the two of you got out and walked the length of the stone-walled path, cooled and softened by the ever-present mist rising from those enormous falls.

“Why am I sleeping so much on this trip?” she said.

“You’re tired,” you said. “It’s been a busy summer.”

She nodded. It had been a busy summer. Travel and socializing and working, all busy things, things that could tire a person out, but not so much when you’re her age.

One of the things that was really happening was that she had spent the summer not thinking about what was coming at the end of it, which was this long trip that was carrying her away from the city of her birth, the city she loved. That was carrying her away from the place that held her childhood.

But here she was, and here you were, getting back in the car for the final few hours of the trip which would bring her to a new place, where you would leave her. You decided to say something true.

“You’re sleeping so much because I’m driving and you feel safe because your mother’s taking care of you and it reminds you of being a little girl, so you let go and you fall asleep,” you said.

She smiled. There were only a few hours left to this trip and she didn’t fall asleep again. It was too late now not to think about what was to come, all the newness, all the unfamiliar people, all her friends back home.

All her friends weren’t back home, not really. They too were dispersing, if not to places a thousand miles distant then to places closer. But still: different. Different places. New places. New lives.

The thing that was really, truly happening was that she knew, fundamentally, that the life she had lived up until now was over. Still part of her, as it would always be, but over.

You glanced at her, gazing out the passenger window. She was the second of your three youthful companions. Her brother had two years of being the only one, before she was born. Her sister would have three years of being the only one, now that she was leaving. She was the only one who had never had a single stretch of time with just you.

For some reason this had never occurred to you before, and as you watched her looking quietly out the window at the woods and lakes of upstate New York, the knowledge smote your heart.

Something else you knew but didn’t say was that she slept so much on that trip because what was to come was inevitable. There was nothing she could do, at this point, to prevent it.

Choosing where to go to college, whether to go to college, who you’ll live with when you’re there –none of these decisions were the catalysts of the change she was facing. Time was. The simple fact of years, years that go by, that ferry a person from one stage of life to another.

Sometimes you’re aware that it’s happening, other times it just happens.

There have only been a few times when you yourself weren’t trying to influence the outcome of something in your own life. When you weren’t striving for something, urging yourself on, making lists, working on something that would not see completion for a long time, if ever.

What all this busy-ness means, ultimately, is that you count on there being a future. You count on there being days and weeks and years ahead of you. How often has it happened that you just. . . stop? Shut down the planning, the thinking?

Rarely. Almost never. Two times come to mind.

The first: you were a child, riding in the back seat of the station wagon with your sisters. Your mother was driving. It was winter in upstate New York: snow and wind and black ice on the road. The car began to slide. It was sliding sideways and you were looking out the window and you knew it was going to slide right into the ditch, right into that wall of snow on the side of the hill.

There was nothing you could do. You let go and let it happen.

The second: about an hour after that girl, the one looking out the window on the final leg of the thousand-mile journey, was born. She was a long time coming, like her brother before her, and by the time she was clean and swaddled you were so exhausted you couldn’t speak.

When everyone was gone –the nurses, her father, the silent smiling man who brought you a plate of supper– there was only one lamp lit in the room.

It was night. It was winter. She was sleeping in a plastic-walled box on wheels next to you.

You don’t know why you turned on the t.v., but you did, muting the sound. There on the screen, bombs were falling on a distant country. Your country was bombing another country. You had brought another human being into a world full of bombs and violence and terror.

For the first and only time you can remember, this didn’t matter to you. You didn’t start planning and worrying and shaking your head.

Here was a quiet room, a lamp, a sleeping baby, a plate that held baked chicken and green beans and buttered toast. You let go and let it happen.

Then you closed your eyes and went to sleep.

In the end, is this the way it is? From one life into whatever, if anything, comes next, does there come that sleep? That letting go?

Between two unknowns, I live my life.
Between my mother’s hopes, older than I am
by coming before me, and my child’s wishes, older than I am
by outliving me. And what’s it like?
Is it a door, and good-bye on either side?
A window, and eternity on either side?
Yes, and a little singing between two great rests.

(excerpt from “The Hammock,” by Li-Young Lee)

Poem of the Week, by Li-Young Lee

From Blossoms
– Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

For more information on Li-Young Lee, please click here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/li-young-lee

Kathi and April are both doing it, so why shouldn't she?

clam-man-sylvan-beach1She copies her friends and decides to write a poemish thing a day for a month. After all, if they told her to jump off a bridge, sure, she would jump off a bridge. Why not?

Good Lord,  I’ve got to write a poemish thing, she tells her daughter. They are sitting in a semi-grimy motel room on Day Four of a 1500-mile road trip. It’s check-out time.

Like right now, she says to her daughter. Quick, give me a topic.

Fruit! says the daughter.

Fruit? Too general. Too broad. Despite the fact that for some reason all she can picture is Minnie Pearl in a fruit hat with the price tag dangling off.

Give me a specific fruit, she says to her daughter.


Her daughter sounds so sprightly. Fruit! Apple! That’s what happens when you’re a child, packed and ready to go and eating a pre-packaged sweet roll of indeterminate age while watching morning television in a semi-grimy motel  room. You become sprightly.

Sprightly or not,  the daughter said apple and apple it shall be.

Apple. What can possibly be poemized about an apple that won’t make her weep with cliche?

Eve ate one and all the trouble began: the new clothes, the shame, the forcible exit from the garden. But was  it so great in that garden, really? The whole idea always strikes her as the equivalent of the white clouds and harps and halos in the New Yorker cartoon heavens, those blah middle-aged paunchy angels peering down at the lost world below.

* * *


Is it fun, with all that peace up there? Do you look down on us, you who used to be us, down here amongst the grit and the grime, you who no longer eat anything, let alone apples, peering down from your clouds on we who do, and shake your heads knowingly, glad to be done with it all and safe up on your clouds?

Or do you wish you were still here? Do you secretly wish you could trade places with, say, me, still eating apples, like this one, warm in my hand from a tree warmed by September sunshine?

I would, if I were you. Look at this apple, and look at me eating it. Look at me, with this crunch and this color and this flavor flooding my mouth.

Give me dirt. Give me tears, and a throat sore from crying. Give me laughter that makes my stomach hurt. Give me sex. Give me this wide brown churning river outside this grimy hotel window. Give me these muscles and bone and blood still dripping from this cut thumb. Give me a mountain that makes my legs ache. Give me this beating heart that hurts in a thousand ways. Give me this child, that man, this dog and the sun glinting off that hurrying river.

Give me fear,  and give me wonder.

Keep your clouds and your harps and your halos,  poor sad jealous angels peering down from your whiteness, and give me this world, this enormous world with its dirt, and its bruises, and its worms, yeah, I’ll take them too.

* * *