The Uncovering of Language to Its Sacred Condition

“I do feel that images are gifts. I don’t know if they create the soul, but they certainly reveal it. The image is a revelation of sorts, therefore apocalyptic as opposed to ecliptic. While eclipses cover, an apocalypse is an uncovering. The writing of a poem is the uncovering of language to its sacred condition. Many people who don’t write poetry think that poetry is prettified language. But poetry undresses language down to its manifold meaning. I keep imagining the body of God naked, radiating meaning and significance and voice; somehow we cover it, and dress it up so it becomes prose. And I feel like images come from the body; it’s kind of a body wisdom. ”

~ Li-Young Lee, from “Poems from God,” by Amy Pence, Poets & Writers, November/December 2001 (subscription required)

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To Life
by Li-Young Lee, from Behind My Eyes: Poems

Behind My Eyes: Poems Who hasn’t thought, “Take me with you,”
hearing the wind go by?
And finding himself left behind, resumed
his own true version of time
on earth, a seed fallen here to die
and be born a thing promised
in the one dream
every cell of him has dreamed headlong
since infancy, every common minute has served.
Born twice, he has two mothers, one who dies, and one
the mortar in which he’s tried. His double
nature cleaves his eye, splits his voice.
So if you hear him say, while he sits at the bed
of one mother, “Take me home,”
listen closer. To Life,
he says, “Keep me at heart.”

Tearing the Page
by Li-Young Lee [listen]

Every wise child is sad.

Every prince, is a member of the grass.

Each bud opening opens on the unforeseen.

Every wind-strewn flower is God tearing God.

And the stars are leaves
blown across my grandmother’s lap.
Or the dew multiplying.

And of time’s many hands, who can tell
the bloody from the perfumed,

the ones that stitch
from the ones that rip.

Every laughing child is forgetful.
Every solitary child rules the universe.

And the child who can’t sleep
learns to count, a patient child.

And the child who counts negotiates
between limit and longing,
infinity and subtraction.

Every child who listens
all night to the wind eventually

knows his breathing turns a wheel
pouring time and dream to leave no trace.

Though he can’t tell what a minute weighs,
or is an hour too little or too long.

As old as night itself,
he’s not old enough in the morning
to heat his milk on the stove.

But he knows about good-byes.
Some of them, anyway. The good-bye
at the door each morning, a kiss for a kiss.
The good-bye at bedtime,
stories and songs until it’s safe to close his eyes.

And maybe he’s even heard about the waiting room
at Union Station, where dust and echoes climb
to the great skylights

accompanied by farewells
of the now-going, to join the distant
farewells of the long gone,

while a voice announces the departure
of the Twentieth Century for all points West.

Yes, every wise child is heart-broken.
A sorrowing pip,

he knows the play
he’s called away from each evening
is the beginning and end of order
in a human household.

He’s sure his humming to himself
and his rising and falling ball are appointed
by ancient laws his own heart-tides obey.

But he can’t tell anybody what he knows.

Old enough to knot his shoelaces,
he’s not old enough to unknot them.

Old enough to pray, he doesn’t always
know who to pray to.

Old enough to know to close the window
when it storms, old enough to know the rain,
given the chance, would fall on him,

and darken him, and darken him, the way
he himself colors the figures
he draws, pressing so hard he tears the page.