About this poet

Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents. His father had been a personal physician to Mao Zedong while in China, and relocated the family to Indonesia, where he helped found Gamaliel University. In 1959, the Lee family fled the country to escape anti-Chinese sentiment and after a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, they settled in the United States in 1964.

Lee attended the University of Pittsburgh and University of Arizona, and the State University of New York at Brockport. He has taught at several universities, including Northwestern and the University of Iowa.

He is the author of The Undressing (W. W. Norton, 2018); Behind My Eyes (W. W. Norton, 2008); Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001), which won the 2002 William Carlos Williams Award; The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1990), which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rose (BOA Editions, 1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award.

His other work includes Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee (Edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, BOA Editions, 2006), a collection of twelve interviews with Lee at various stages of his artistic development; and The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon and Schuster, 1995), a memoir which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

With regard to Lee's work, the poet Gerald Stern has noted that "what characterizes [his] poetry is a certain humility... a willingness to let the sublime enter his field of concentration and take over, a devotion to language, a belief in its holiness."

He has been the recipient of a Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer's Award, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award, the I. B. Lavan Award, three Pushcart Prizes, and grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. In 1998, he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from State University of New York at Brockport.

He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife and their two sons.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

The Undressing (W. W. Norton, 2018)
Behind My Eyes (W. W. Norton, 2008)
Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001)
The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions, 1990)
Rose (BOA Editions, 1989)

Nonfiction

The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon & Schuster, 1995)

Folding a Five-Cornered Star So the Corners Meet

This sadness I feel tonight is not my sadness.
 
Maybe it’s my father’s.
For having never been prized by his father.
For having never profited by his son.
 
This loneliness is Nobody’s. Nobody’s lonely
because Nobody was never born
and will never die.
 
This gloom is Someone Else’s.
Someone Else is gloomy
because he’s always someone else.
 
For so many years, I answered to a name,
and I can’t say who answered.
 
Mister Know Nothing? Brother Inconsolable?
Sister Every Secret Thing? Anybody? Somebody?
 
Somebody thinks:
With death for a bedfellow,
how could thinking be anything but restless?
 
Somebody thinks: God, I turn my hand face down
and You are You and I am me.  
 
I turn my hand face up
and You are the I
and I am your Thee.  
 
What happens when you turn your hand?
 
Lord, remember me.
I was born in the City of Victory,
on a street called Jalan Industri where,
each morning, the man selling rice cakes went by
pushing his cart, its little steamer whistling,
while at his waist, at the end of a red string,
a little brass bell
shivered into a fine, steady seizure.
 
This sleeplessness is not my sleeplessness.
It must be the stars’ insomnia.
And I am their earthbound descendant.
 
Someone, Anyone, No One, me, and Someone Else.
Five in a bed, and none of us can sleep.
Five in one body, begotten, not made.
And the sorrow we bear together is none of ours.
Maybe it’s Yours, God.
For living so near to Your creatures.
For suffering so many incarnations unknown to Yourself.
For remaining strange to lovers and friends,
and then outliving them and all of their names for You.
For living sometimes for years without a name.
And all of Your springtimes disheveled.
And all of Your winters one winter.

From The Undressing: Poems by Li-Young Lee. Copyright © 2018 by Li-Young Lee. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

From The Undressing: Poems by Li-Young Lee. Copyright © 2018 by Li-Young Lee. Used by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee

Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents.

by this poet

poem

I loved you before I was born.
It doesn't make sense, I know.

I saw your eyes before I had eyes to see.
And I've lived longing 
for your ever look ever since.
That longing entered time as this body. 
And the longing grew as this body waxed.
And the longing grows as the body wanes

poem

God-My-Father gave me three words:
O-My-Love
O-My-God
Holy-Holy-Holy.

God-My-Mother’s wounds will never heal.
 
God-My-Brother is always alone in the library.
 
Meanwhile, I can’t remember
how many brothers I have.
 
poem
I never claimed night fathered me.
that was my dead brother talking in his sleep. 
I keep him under my pillow, a dear wish
that colors my laughing and crying.

I never said the wind, remembering nothing,
leaves so many rooms unaccounted for, 
continual farewell must ransom
the unmistakable fragrance
our human