Behind my Eyes, Li-Young Lee. Norton. 2008
The opening poem in Li-Young Lee’s most recent collection, Behind my Eyes, ends with the lines “While all bodies share/ the same fate, all voices do not,” an appropriate emphasis for a book that comes with a CD of the author reading his own poems. Lee’s work falls into the interesting gap between poetry for the page and poetry in performance; though most poets writing now know their poems will have a voiced life even as they are prepared for the page first, Lee seems to understand that the spoken is essential and contemporaneous with the written. His headlong embrace of the concept of death is stopped short by the living voice, and he understands that the immortality traditionally courted in the form of the printed word is transformed wholly by the fact of poet as virtual presence.
Lee’s work in this book, consistent with that of previous books, appears on the page, but lives best and longest in the ear. He knows that his voice is able to supply the rhythm, syntax and counterpoint that the lines on the page do not supply, and though these poems are adequate on the page, they are most fully realized in hearing. Most of these poems deploy their ideas in rhetorical structures familiar to sermons, political speeches, a Whitmanian insistence on patterns of parallel structure and repetition borrowed from religious texts and delivered by a charismatic figure too possessed with his mission to worry over perfection of diction, image or line integrity. Rather, Lee’s poems favor aggressive juxtapositions, breath units, and syntactic parallels that drive shifts in tone and focus through the ear as well as the white space of the page.
Many of the poems, for example, favor a question and answer format, as in “Hymn to Childhood” and “Have You Prayed.” Others, like “Immigrant Blues,” and “Mother Deluxe” use a trope of re-naming; in “Mother Deluxe,” the re-naming is constituted from a card game or tarot deck where the cards are all renamed via titles that resemble local news headlines. In “Immigrant Blues,” the strategy is similar: the “old story from the previous century/ about my father and me” is renamed again and again in the poem with phrases that resemble titles of Psychology Today articles. In each case, the private and public experiences are deftly juxtaposed and irony is released by the contrasts.
A similar strategy employed often in these poems is that of the conversation. Poems like “Sweet Peace in Time,” involve a first person speaker and a third person responder whose conversation is constantly derailed by an influx of surreal and vaguely spiritual images that ride on the rhetoric of conversation, and ultimately expose the inability of human speech to reach beyond the literal. The he said/she said conversation format in “Lake Effect,” however, gets tiresome, due to both the repetition of the dialogue tags and the unwavering project of metaphorical renaming. In combination, these devices are overwhelmingly reiterated corralling rather than releasing the imagination.
Counting is yet another prominent rhetorical strategy of these poems. “Seven Happy Endings,” for example counts intimate encounters, rooms, and increments of time to examine conceptions of narrative closure or lack thereof. While “Have You Prayed” counts discrete moments of knowledge: “One:/ I am never finished answering to the dead./ Two: A man is four winds and three fires.” And later begins turns to fractions, “two-thirds worry, two-thirds grief” before ending ominously with “one.” The poems are unrelenting in their quest for intimacy and spiritual connection, and the constant swing between the highly intimate rooms of beloveds and the high rhetoric of public and spiritual realms is a constant pulse in the book’s lyrical travels.
There is a tendency to teeter on the edge of lyric, coupled with a refusal to develop images, ideas or comparisons. They simply are, and while this oracular renaming can and often does release the spiritual dimensions of utterances, just as often it sidesteps opportunities to explore and develop complexities that have been foregrounded. Lee is perfectly able to map the territory, but the view is mostly aerial.
In many ways I miss the ability to sustain meditation that we see in the best of Lee’s earlier gems like “The Gift” or “Eating Alone” where the view is a close-up that refuses to pull back to a level of abstraction until the idea has been detailed into an array of rich complexities. The poems of Behind My Eyes often pull back too soon in favor of more enigma, and even the lyric intensity of the many renamings cannot save the poems’ tendency to bleed out. Hearing the poems read, however, mitigates the problem somewhat, since “heard melodies are sweet.” But to my mind “those unheard” really are sweeter, so on the page, many of these poems fail to make full use of their best moments to get the reader to a place of deeper understanding. Elemental images like birds, water, song keep reasserting themselves, but are never allowed to expand. The poems seem to hope that the reader will fill the gaps, but the autobiographical elements that pepper many of the poems hold the reader at some distance and trouble the “deep image” contract the poems seem to favor.
“Seven Marys,” a poem close to the book’s midpoint, comes as a great relief with its shock of address to someone other than the reader or the writer’s self. Here the voiced direct address to “Father John” not only changes up the perspective, but the repetition of the “seven Marys” until they mutate into multiple Sarahs and Rachels really does push the poem beyond a steady eddy. The enigmatic female figures beautifully and efficiently merge and emerge from each other in the mind of the speaker who desires of them “the fate of My sleep,” “the shape of my destiny.”
While the poems of section one seem to chronicle the speaker’s childhood troubled by immigration and integration, the poems of the second section are pointedly Biblical. Some of these, like “Cuckoo Flower on the Witness Stand” are so nakedly personal in their remembrances of childhood religious experience that we long for the enigmatic spaces from section one’s more expansive poems. Plain language packed into couplets like “I sang in a church choir during one war/ American TV made famous” or “I doodled in the church bulletin on Sundays/ while my father offered the twenty-minute Pastor’s Prayer” clunk along next to more characteristic lyricism like “And speech’s bird/ threads hunger’s needle” burying the latter’s power to resonate.
In the book’s final section, there are poems that seem to undermine or mock the self’s more familiar strategies in the bulk of the book. “Standard Checklist for Amateur Mystics” welcomes some irony, as does “The Sea With Fish,” which offers a list of phrases that typically launch details of remembered experience familiar in earlier sections of the book,
“From now on . . .”
“In that country . . .”
“Were we ever . . .”
So dreaming continued
forward and backward.
However, Lee refuses to finish off the sentences, only leaving repeated ellipsis and moving instead to a list of what feel like titles (On the Spot, Hidden Inside Becoming/ Stranger Going Along,/ Blind but Fixed Between Wings That See). Such a decision reduces the structure of the poem to its lowest common denominators, mocking the simplicity of its own formula and calling attention to the fact that the poet himself is aware of the inadequacy of these familiar gestures of language.
The final poem in the collection, “Station,” is among the volume’s very finest pieces. It manages a pleasing balance between Lee’s lyric intensity and his penchant for repetition with mutation, but here the poet provides more durable rhetorical structures as part and parcel of the subject. Inhabiting a voice from the speakers in a train station announcing arrivals and departures, “Your attention please. Train number 4, The Twentieth Century,” the poem is able to move effortlessly between the heard voice and the imagined voice, and the departures and returns from the realm of the literal are seamlessly integrated:
Your attention please. Train number 66,
Unbidden Song, soon to be
the full heart’s quiet, takes no passengers.
“Station” brings the collection’s senses of nostalgia and spiritual journey into clear and satisfying focus.
Please leave your baggage with the attendant
at the window marked: Your Name Sprung from Hiding.
An intrepid perfume is waging our rescue.
You may board at either end of Childhood.
Leslie Adrienne Miller is author of five books of poetry, The Resurrection Trade and Eat Quite Everything You See from Graywolf Press, and Yesterday Had a Man in It, Ungodliness, and Staying Up For Love from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston, an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an M.A. from the University of Missouri, and a B.A. from Stephens College.