This Old Poem #47:
Li-Young Lee’s Braiding
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/5/03

  Li-Young Lee is 1 of those modern PC Elitist poetasters for whom it is almost verboten to say anything against. If you do you are a racist- this Asian-American Poet is not cast as a pathetic nor despicable figure like fellow AAP David Mura, who has engendered large pockets of hostility for his supposedly misogynistic porno-addiction. LYL is a modern day martyr- someone, not unlike a Mary Oliver, to whom the PC Elitist term of spiritual is attached oh-so-delicately to- as if he is a modern monk. Being spiritual also entails being called lyrical & musical, whether or not the poems plod. MO’s best poems have music. LYL’s are merely distorted prose. The reasons for this Kid Gloves handling are evident from line 2 of his ubiquitous bio: 

  Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Djakarta, Indonesia, of Chinese parents. In 1959, his father, after spending a year as a political prisoner in President Sukarno's jails, fled Indonesia with his family. Between 1959 and 1964 they traveled in Hong Kong, Macao, and Japan, until arriving in America.

  Mr. Lee studied at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Arizona, and the State University of New York, College at Brockport. He has taught at various universities, including Northwestern University and the University of Iowa. In 1990 Li-Young Lee traveled in China and Indonesia to do personal research for a book of autobiographical prose- his memoir The Winged Seed.

  Li-Young Lee's several honors include grants from the Illinois Arts Council, The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1989 he was awarded a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation; in 1988 he was the recipient of a Writer's Award from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation. In 1987 Mr. Lee received New York University's Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award for his first book, Rose, published by BOA Editions, Ltd. in 1986; and The City in Which I Love You, Li-Young Lee's second book of poems, was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets. He has also won the Lannan Literary Award.


  Because of his father’s ‘suffering’ LYL has been granted critical immunity for his largely blustery, lightweight, clichéd, & predictable poetry. Well- not by me. Not now. But before I roll up my sleeves on the titular poem let me give you a few samples from LYL’s sheltered domain. In the poem A Story a young boy spends 5 stanzas ruminating on his father (an overworked theme pre-LYL, but 1 which LYL seems intent on forever toxifying), & dad’s inability to tell sonny-boy a tale quickly enough. Dad is puzzled, & the kid thinks dad a moron. Dad’s stupidity is seen as an existential breach in the universe. Dad is reduced to a sniveling idiot, picturing his lonely days gumming down food whilst Junior is banging prom queens. If your mind evokes strains of Sunrise, Sunset, believe me- this is what LYL intended, & views as good art! Dad has a melodramatic moment of questioning his diminution in his son’s eyes. Guess how the poem will end? With a moment of reconciliation? Of course- but don’t forget the obligatory ‘moment of silence':


But the boy is here. Please, Baba, a story?
It is an emotional rather than logical equation,
an earthly rather than heavenly one,
which posits that a boy's supplications
and a father's love add up to silence.


  If you still have part of your last meal held down, plaudits to you. & did’ja notice how utterly prosaic & bereft of poetic music this ‘lyric’ was? Cringe alert- sample #2 comes from a poem called The Gift. Ugh. Here LYL attempts a faux nursery rhyme approach. Daddy pulls a metal splinter from a child’s hand, we then get clichés as ‘his voice still’, ‘a well of dark water’, ‘a silver tear’, ‘a tiny flame’, etc. Fast forward to the child’s adulthood & he is plucking a splinter from wifey-pooh’s paw. Flashback to the initial scene- ain’t it sweet?

I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father. 

  This kind of pathetic bathos should be weeded out in any Day 1 of any even shady workshop rip-off class. That this kind of writing finds publishers, & gets lauded is only more proof of the utter dumbing down of culture- HUMAN CULTURE! Publishers have been thoroughly Oprahfied! About the only positive thing that 1 can say about this stock workshop themed piece of doggerel (the titular poem), which is as wholly generic as any poem I’ve yet essayed in TOP, is that- thankfully- LYL showed enough compassion to not cast it as a villanelle! 


We two sit on our bed, you
between my legs, your back to me, your head
slightly bowed, that I may brush and braid
your hair. My father
did this for my mother,
just as I do for you. One hand
holds the hem of you hair, the other
works the brush. Both hands climb
as the strokes grow
longer, until I use not only my wrists,
but my arms, then my shoulders, my whole body
rocking in a rower's rhythm, a lover's
even time, as the tangles are undone,
and brush and bare hand run the thick,
fluent length of your hair, whose wintry scent
comes, a faint, human musk.

Last night the room was so cold
I dreamed we were in Pittsburgh again, where winter
persisted and we fell asleep in the last seat
of the 71 Negley, dark mornings going to work.
How I wish we didn't hate those years
while we lived them.
Those were days of books,
days of silences stacked high
as the ceiling of that great, dim hall
where we studied. I remember
the thick, oak tabletops, how cool
they felt against my face
when I lay my head down and slept.


How long your hair has grown.

Gradually, December.


There will come a day
one of us will have to imagine this: you,
after your bath, crosslegged on the bed, sleepy, patient,
while I braid your hair.


Here, what's made, these braids, unmakes
itself in time, and must be made
again, within and against
time. So I braid
your hair each day.
My fingers gather, measure hair,
hook, pull and twist hair and hair.
Deft, quick, they plait,
weave, articulate lock and lock, to make
and make these braids, which point
the direction of my going, of all our continuous going.
And though what's made does not abide,
my making is steadfast, and, besides, there is a making
of which this making-in-time is just a part,
a making which abides
beyond the hands which rise in the combing,
the hands which fall in the braiding,
trailing hair in each stage of its unbraiding.


Love, how the hours accumulate. Uncountable.
The trees grow tall, some people walk away
and diminish forever.
The damp pewter days slip around without warning
and we cross over one year and one year.


  Stanza 1 has nothing new nor poetic in it- but the rewrite (below) says far more with far less. In it we start in media res, get all the attendant baggage that the original feels a need to detail, & it has music. Stanza 2, originally, is rote, trite, & detailed description meant to make the poem’s percipient ‘real’ & individuated. But characters become real by their actions, & how they are described. The rewrite gets to the center in haikuvian fashion. Stanza 3 can even be shortened. With just the rewritten title & line 1 of Stanza 1 of the rewrite we have invoked all the hair brushing & braiding workshop clichés. The 2 word stanza 3  can be seen as the query at the poem’s axle, of a moment of appreciation of the brushed’s mane. Stanza 4, originally, feels a need to remind you this is about hair & braiding. The rewrite focuses in on what the speaker finds important. This ‘builds’ character in & of its own ungilded statement. Stanza 5- an abomination of tautology, while the rewrite is more mysterious, lauds the creationary impulse, & leaves blanks to be filled in. In short, it intrigues where the original bores. Stanza 6 ends the poem with a whimper- more braiding, but the braiding is not just of hair- see, the poet was being deep & symbolic. The rewrite leaves us wanting to reread & connect some dots. Read it fully:



Undone, brush and bare hand run the thick,
fluent length, whose wintry scent comes musk.

The thick, oak tabletops- how cool
they felt against my face.


How long.


After your bath, crosslegged on the bed, sleepy, patient.


Making, which abides the hands

rises in the combing, fall
in each stage of it.


Damp pewter days slip around without warning.


  Would I add a little bit more to pique? Yes. But I won’t since that is not the mission I’ve assigned for TOPs. My job is the butcher out the fat. Of course, all doggerelists & bad poets have their apologists. Read this simpletonian online defense of a totally unmusicked LYL poem stanza:


  Poets like Li-Young Lee, however, use poetry as a lyric force to detain the moment and hold it still long enough for the beautiful to surface.

  Lee often employs very short lines, yet the power of his language unfolds slowly to linger on each thought. Through the use of assonance, liquid "n"s and "l"s, and open "o"s, Lee condenses sensuality and embodies the emotion of the speaker. Consider the flow of "Early in the Morning": "While the long grain is softening/in the water, gurgling/over a low stove flame." The poem opens like an incantation and the simple act of cooking becomes a ritual.


  What is not addressed is that the lines quoted are not particularly attention-grabbing, & the ascribed sensuality is not a conscious act of poetry, rather the typical consequence of any run of 25-30 words (in a 26 letter alphabet). These are some of the pathetic types of faux criticism that abound in the Academic world. The critical writing is as poor in its genre as the poetry in LYL’s poems. Here is that same online ‘critic’ justifying the crap in the aforementioned poem, The Gift:


  A narrative element also guides the unfolding of Lee’s poems: he looks to family as the primary source of story and myth. In a work like "The Gift," we see the concentric circles that ripple outward from unconditional, familial love -- for Lee, the family has infinite resonance. The events of the poem transpire in a small, intimate moment that overflows with larger significance. The speaker removes a splinter from his wife's thumb and remembers the time his father tenderly removed a splinter from his own palm when he was a child. His father recited a story to calm him, but we learn that the memory of the story has faded. Only the emotional intensity remains: "I can't remember the tale,/but hear his voice still, a well/of dark water, a prayer."


  As a point of comparison- reread my take on that poem (from above):


  Here LYL attempts a faux nursery rhyme approach. Daddy pulls a metal splinter from a child’s hand, we then get clichés as ‘his voice still’, ‘a well of dark water’, ‘a silver tear’, ‘a tiny flame’, etc. Fast forward to the child’s adulthood & he is plucking a splinter from wifey-pooh’s paw. Flashback to the initial scene- ain’t it sweet?


  The point? Even at ½ the length, & despite my needling, a reader has a far greater sense of what the poem entails, & even gets some real criticism, not just bland clichés about bland clichés, & then a recitation of them! However, if all critics- in the workshop or out- had my acumen we would not know ‘that a boy's supplications/and a father's love add up to silence.’ Imagine the loss!  

Final Score: (1-100):  

Li-Young Lee’s Braiding: 30
TOP’s Braiding: 70

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