“As If Death Were Nowhere in the Background”


Reading a collection of poetry wall to wall brings out certain themes and stylistic quirks. Certainly this is true of Li-Young Lee’s now 36-year old collection, Rose. For one, Lee trades in plain language only. He is rooted in family and the quotidian rhythms of life. His verse is also infused with nature: fruit, vegetables, flowers.

There’s a thread of sadness in many of these poems, too, as if the family and love and desire all go on despite the presence of death. As the last stanza of his poem “From Blossoms” puts it:


There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.


Here is a representative poem by Lee. Note how the first and last stanza form bookends for the poem’s reflections on a mother and a father. It all seems almost too simple for a poem, but simplicity is the stuff of Lee’s work — and he makes it work well.


Early in the Morning
Li-Young Lee

While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher’s ink.

She sits on the foot of the bed.
My father watches, listens for
the music of comb
against hair.

My mother combs,
pulls her hair back
tight, rolls it
around two fingers, pins it
in a bun to the back of her head.
For half a hundred years she has done this.
My father likes to see it like this.
He says it is kempt.

But I know
it is because of the way
my mother’s hair falls
when he pulls the pins out.
Easily, like the curtains
when they untie them in the evening.