Behind My Eyes

By LI-YOUNG LEE

Those familiar with the work of Li-Young Lee will recognize his cultural and spiritual obsessions as well as the cast of mortal characters in his fourth collection of poems. Lee, the son of Chinese parents who immigrated to Indonesia, where his father was tortured because of his belief in Christianity, then relocated to Chicago, once again addresses aspects of the immigrant experience with poignancy and bite. In his work, childhood is a place populated with fear and soldiers; in poems like “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees,” he addresses those whose “left side of the face doesn’t match the right.” Like Billy Collins, Lee is a master of using everyday objects — in this case, doors, birds, apples, lakes, trains, and books recur frequently — to dive from the surface of daily life into the deepest realms of the spirit. In this collection, he is particularly concerned with mortality, family, and the frustration of translating particular emotions and experiences into language that anyone can understand. In a poem to a lover, he writes, “You were happy with two rooms, and a door to divide them” while several pages later, he says of himself, “My favorite door opens two ways: receiving and receiving.” But he’s self aware enough to find the humor in his constant quest for a working theory of the universe. In “Virtues of a Boring Husband,” he goes on an extended riff about the ladder that connects love with the divine, sure in the knowledge that the exercise is a surprisingly effective tool in putting his wife to sleep. In “To Hold,” he concludes, “So we’re dust. In the meantime, my wife and I make the bed.” For those who remember his wife, Donna, as the young lover in his first collection of poems, “Rose,” published in 1986, it provides a certain amount of reassurance, whatever end of Lee’s metaphorical train one might be on. As he puts it: “one of us witnessed what kept vanishing / while the other watched what continually emerged.” -