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Book of My Nights by Li-Young Lee

I was introduced to Li-Young Lee’s writing through my boyfriend. When we met, one of our mutual loves was poetry. I gave him a book of Joy Harjo, and he gave me Li-Young Lee’s Book of My Nights. I had not really gotten around to reading the collection before my boyfriend sent me a video of Lee reading for UC Berkeley’s Lunch Poems. His intent was that I watch Lee read only one of his poems, “Have You Prayed?” However, I found myself transfixed by Lee’s quiet and steady intonation, and became invested not only in his writing, but also in his discussions of metaphor, and his own musings about poetry and art. Without meaning to, I watched all forty minutes of the reading in that sitting, and have watched it several more times since.
With a greater sense of attachment to Li-Young Lee, I investigated Book of My Nights and found that there is something both soothing and intriguing about his poetry. This comes into play largely because of the spirituality that permeates Lee’s writing, and his uncanny ability to merge over and over again the grandiose with the intimate. Lee for instance, brings elegant lyricism to the concepts of loss and remembrance in “Little Father”, he turns patience and futility into haunting image in “The Moon from Any Window”, and he beautifully weaves myth and memory with the fragility of nature in “Black Petal”.
Li-Young Lee does not write according to any strict form, but each poem is crafted to yield his own kind of rhythm. Often, the variety of meter creates a kind of meandering tone throughout Lee’s writing, but almost always his poems contain a point where concept, sound, and rhythm combine to create a poetic climax. This can be seen in one of Lee’s more tightly formed poems, “Heir to All,” which ends,

Listening is the ground/ below my sleep,/ where decision is born, and/ whoever’s heard the title/ autumn knows him by/ is heir to all those/ unfurnished rooms inside the roses.

Another notable aspect in this excerpt of “Heir to All,” is Lee’s tendency to mingle the abstract meaningfully with the concrete. Also though it wraps up nicely, like many of Lee’s stanzas, it was difficult to divorce it from the rest of the poem. This is because Lee carefully maintains his metaphors and allusions throughout his poems, and his rhythm is always molded towards a certain goal.
Another element of Li-Young Lee’s spiritual and exploratory tone takes form in questions and listed possibilities that add a level of curiosity and uncertainty. In “Degrees of Blue”, a poem about loss of innocence (among other things), Lee asks,

Where is his father?/ When will his mother be home?/ How is he going to explain/ the moon taken hostage, the sea/ risen to fill up all the mirrors?

Here, the escalation of questions adds up to a painful uncertainty that darkens the poem even further, for they ring disturbingly hollow in its retreating images and advancing emptiness.
Perhaps the greatest payoff of reading Li-Young Lee is that his poetry invokes all he seems to value. It is reflective, exploratory, and spiritual. At one point during the Lunch Poems, Lee goes into depth about metaphor. He describes how a friend of his claimed that metaphor was brought about through the comparison of mere words. Lee remarks, however, that he always felt that metaphor was a way to integrate two incompatible psychic contents. It does seem that in poetry; the greater stretch in comparison, the better the metaphor, but Lee presents an even stronger argument for that beauty of connection. It is connection, Lee feels, that instills art as a natural religion, for the practice of any art is “yogic” (linking, connective). Lee describes in a 2009 Lannan interview that the artist’s aim is to create new, however unorthodox patterns of connection that do not necessarily have to contrive to long formed ideas or concepts.
To see Lee’s interviews is fascinating and to read the poems of Book of my Nights is to discover his theory and wonder in action; to experience exquisitely written metaphors alongside very human expressions of uncertainty and curiosity.

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