A Review of Li-Young Lee’s The Undressing — June 20, 2018
by Christopher Nelson
In The Undressing, Lee’s first book in almost ten years, he does powerfully what we have loved in his poems for many years: he puts us face to face with beauty and mystery and the terrors that beauty and mystery hide. The long, opening title poem is at once erotic and meditative and harkens to the mystic poetic tradition of the masnavi, a dialogic form in which student and master, poet and spirit, lover and beloved, man and angel, etc. attempt to answer the numerous impossible questions of being. The speaker in the poem is making love to the beloved, and for each gesture of affection and desire, each caress, each kiss, the beloved doles out truths. It is a more symbolized version of a motif we have seen in Lee’s previous work, “Virtues of the Boring Husband” and “Lake Effect,” for example, in Behind My Eyes (2008). Presently, the beloved says, “it’s too late for flags. / It’s too late for presidents …. The war is on. / If love doesn’t prevail, / who wants to live in this world? / Are you listening?” Warning prophecy and romantic summons—Lee reminds us in the same poem that since prior to written history, humans have killed, exiled, and variously ruined each other. That ancient story is still our story, and “The world / is a story that keeps beginning.” The implicit question of the titular poem is “How will we write the story of the world?” He reminds us that we get to choose.
This dialogic model sometimes extends from one poem into the next; for example, in “The Word from His Song,” a sparrow’s cry is an exclamation that “All roads be blessed!,” while the following poem begins, “Stop putting words in the mouths of the birds.” Insight followed by contradiction—this is not an unusual rhetorical mode in spiritual texts: I think of the paradoxes of the Daodejing and the ancient mystical Christian text “Thunder: Perfect Mind,” where we read, for example, “I am without God / And I am she whose God is magnificent.” “My life is not my life,” Lee writes. “I have no life / apart from all of life.” The juxtaposition of opposing statements forces us to confront the limitations of our language-based knowing and, simultaneously, acknowledge the bewildering pervasiveness of truth(s). And these aren’t the easy insights of dogma or popular culture; immersing yourself in The Undressing, you have the sense that Lee’s insights are hard-won, those moments rarely revealed, and revealed only to the lifelong querent.
Lee’s book is a quasi-religious text that brings together various and disparate encounters of the divine in the material world; it seems that a boy unable to sleep, an ageless river, and a dandelion seed aloft are equal participants in this drama in which “God seeks a destiny in all things.” In the poem “My Sweet Accompanist,” Lee writes in a motif he has been developing through several books: having two fathers, the embodied and the spiritual. After hearing the son sing, the father responds,
“I don’t need to hear your descriptions of my garden.
I planted everything in that garden.
I can read each leaf and bud
by sunlight, by moonlight, and by no light.
You think I don’t know what’s in my garden?
Or who or what’s been there?
I taught you to love your neighbor.
Write a song about that.”
Lee’s readers know that his family fled political oppression and imprisonment in Indonesia and China, a recurring subject in his books and interviews. This deeply personal story is one that we have been learning in installments. In his 1986 book Rose, we learn of the father “of sleepless nights and stories / of camps where his spit turned to blood … Father of the thousand-mile-sadness, the rocking ship, / and the melancholy of trains.” In 1990 in the city in which i love you, “A pistol butt turns my father’s spit to blood,” and when the young poet is on a walk with his father, “on a sidewalk in America,” a man apparently recognizes his father as if he were a dream from the past: “Here was the sadness of ten thousand miles.” And hauntingly in 2001’s Book of My Nights: “I can’t tell what my father said about the sea / we crossed together / from the sea itself, // or the rose’s noon from my mother / crying on the stairs, lost / between a country and a country.” Other examples abound, but let me be clear: this revisiting of the subject is not evidence of a lack of imagination on Lee’s part; on the contrary, we get the sense that his understanding of his own history continues to deepen and complicate with time. In “Love Succeeding” in The Undressing—a poem that will embolden your faith in the unity of humanity—Lee writes:
I don’t know who God thinks is worth saving.
But my father drowsing
at a train window
impersonates the rain.
At rest, confirmed in a name, Father,
his true state remains unknown.
In transit, undocumented, unverified, illegal,
scapegoat, torture victim, fugitive, and refugee,
he sleeps, escaped,
momentarily unclaimed and out of favor.
Only he and God know
he’s changed his name again to flee
yet another country.
Yes, the world is a story that keeps beginning.
The Undressing exists largely in a mythic mode, where objects have a storied significance: “I flushed twin doves / from my father’s unmown field,” he writes in “Stolen Good.” “I missed them with my rocks and sling, / but brought them to their knees / with a shout of my father’s name.” His previous book, Behind My Eyes, was in a similar style, but the new work takes it further, which is not to say that The Undressing isn’t personal. That is one of the rich achievements of Lee’s style; he is able to wed the mythic and the personal, the political and the spiritual, and the familial and the cultural. I think this has been one of his intentions for years, and he has succeeded. In a conversation with audience members published in 1999 by Indiana Review, Lee said that when writing a poem, “you’re just trying to make a work that has the most fate in it.” Twenty years later, that idea still governs—and his work has become increasingly numinous.