by Kristina Marie Darling
In Li-Young Lee’s Behind My Eyes, hieroglyphs collide head-on with parables, burning books, and “breath to fan the fire’s nest,” setting the stage for an elegant collection of poems. A highly anticipated follow-up to the author’s previous four books, Lee’s newest work examines the many contradictions inherent in the immigrant experience, depicting them in spare, lyrical narratives throughout. Often juxtaposing thoughtful observations on identity and family with Western attempts to commercialize and quantify, Lee’s poems convey the difficulty of negotiating one’s heritage with American cultural values, proving at once philosophical and grounded in everyday life.
Pairing consumer culture with the intensely personal, Lee often parodies the commercial when conveying the experiences of immigrants and refugees, suggesting that popular solutions like self-help and checklists prove frivolous in truly critical situations. His poem “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees” exemplifies this trend:
Don’t ask her what she thought she was doing
turning a child’s eyes
away from history
and toward that place all human aching starts.
And if you meet someone
in your adopted country,
and think you see in the other’s face
an open sky, some promise of a new beginning,
it probably means you’re standing too far.
Mimicking the tone of a self-help book through his use of imperative sentences and extended lists, the content of the poem creates a sharp contrast with the form the author appropriates. By such incongruities, Lee suggests that “history” and “human aching” remain fundamentally incompatible with commercialized solutions—a theme conveyed with elegance and refinement throughout the collection.
Lee’s poems impressively use domestic imagery when depicting the transcendent and find otherworldly significance in the everyday, a phenomenon that his speakers attempt without success to categorize. Suggesting that truly meaningful experiences are mismatched with this American desire for definitive cataloging, works such as “Have You Prayed” explore such contradictions with wit and grace:
When the wind turns traveler
and asks, in my father’s voice, Have you prayed?
I remember three things.
One: A father’s love
is milk and sugar,
two-thirds worry, two-thirds grief, and what’s left over
is trimmed and leavened to make the bread
the dead and the living share.
In this passage, part of a persistently incomplete list, Lee narrates an attempt to divide a father’s affection as one would “milk and sugar,” themes that surfaces throughout the book. Implying through this metaphor that, just as in the tangible process of baking, the narrator’s efforts will never be precise, “Have You Prayed,” like many of the poems in Behind My Eyes, imbues everyday experience with philosophical significance, proving both lyrical and image-rich throughout.
Lee’s use of avian imagery to convey similar thematic elements is also impressive. Often using birds as emblems for immaterial ideas like love, death, and the afterlife, Lee implies through this motif that such experiences remain both enigmatic and ultimately inaccessible. Take the middle stanzas of the elegiac “The Shortcut Home”:
In my brother’s story,
our death sings to us from the highest branch
of the oldest tree the birds remember
in song, and we wander our father’s house
in search of the origin of the hours.
Here, Lee represents the idea of death subtly, the “tree the birds remember / in song” being the speaker’s father’s final resting place. Using hyperbole to convey the inaccessibility of both the creature itself and the narrator’s lost loved one, Lee describes the birds as inhabiting the “highest branch / of the oldest tree,” suggesting, as do many poems in the collection, that some experiences prove beyond the reach of human song.
Ideal for readers who enjoy spare yet expressive poems, Li-Young Lee’s Behind My Eyes is a thought-provoking and finely crafted read. The book also includes a CD of Lee reading twenty-two poems from the collection in his resonant voice, a model other premier poetry publishers would do well to follow.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009