Here is a poem by Li-Young Lee, from his first book, Rose (BOA Editions). Lee lives in Chicago and is the author of two widely admired books of poetry and a memoir. He was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1957, of Chinese parents. The following year his father was arrested by the government of President Sukarno and spent a year as a political prisoner. The family fled Indonesia when the father was released, traveling from Hong Kong to Macau to Japan, and in 1964, when Lee was 7, they settled in the United States. Here is a poem about his father:
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,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.
Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy's palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife's right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
One Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father.
"The Gift," read once, would seem to be a fairly straightforward poem about learning loving and nurturing behavior from a loving and nurturing father. It's very pleasing that way, but there's a lot in the poem that such a reading doesn't account for. And so it's a good example of how much difference the active participation of the reader makes. We have to notice that it's also written in such a way that it's about how time collapses. The story of the father and son folds so seamlessly into the story of the husband and wife. And it's about something more complicated in the relation of father and son. The hands that touch the boy so tenderly are also the "flames of discipline" that were raised above the boy's head. And the metal sliver is a "flame," a tear and a flame, and the father seems to be planting it in the son.
So the poem's about learning love and punishment from the same hands. And it's about the metal sliver as the knowledge of mortality. The son, in the course of things, will bury the father. He is the "Little Assassin," and that knowledge, it would seem, is what goes for the heart. It's complicated and contradictory, in the way that poetic logic often is. If the son is the little assassin, and the sliver is also the little assassin, and the sliver is experienced as the threat of death, then the son is his own death, planted in his palm by his father. This is dream logic, the logic of each individual's sense of fate, and it is subterranean, like the father's story, "a well of dark water, a prayer." So interesting: The love the boy learned from the father he gives to the wife, as a gift; all the rest, too complicated to say in a physical act, he gives to the poem.
(Li-Young Lee: "The Gift," 1986 by Li-Young Lee. Reprinted from "Rose," with the permission of BOA Editions.)