SOURCE: "Inheritance and Invention in Li-Young Lee's Poetry," in MELUS, Vol.
Li-Young Lee’s poetry draws on his memories of the refugee experience and stories recounted by family members.
The effect is more than personal; it is admonitory—as if to warn us that we cannot face the "next nervous one hundred human years" without a knowledge of what his past represents.
But whereas the central figure in Rose is the father, here the "furious versions" belong to the son—because his "memory's flaw / isn't in retention but organization." This long poem seems to fill in some gaps left by the previous book, but its language is angrier, less elegiac: It was a tropical night. It was one year of fire out of the world's diary of fires, flesh-laced, mid-century fire, teeth and hair infested, napalm-dressed and skull-hung fire, and imminent fire, an elected fire come to rob me of my own death, my damp bed in the noisy earth, my rocking toward a hymn-like night.
In 1959 the family fled from anti-Chinese persecution in Indonesia, embarking on a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, arriving finally in the United States in 1964.
After studying theology in Pittsburgh, Lee's father became a Presbyterian minister in a small town in Pennsylvania where Lee attended high school.
They challenge us with their heightened rhetoric, exhibiting the dangers (as well as the glories) of eloquence. The echo of Whitman may need to be muted; even Lee's own tremendous verbal resources may demand modulation in order to achieve their finest realization.
One more adjective, one more item in a list, and the poem could tip over into excess.
The opening poem, "Furious Versions," is a long, seven-part account of his family's exile.
Fueled with the sense that he is the only one who has lived to tell it, Lee recounts his father's fractured life and the loss of his brother.