"Our bodies look solid, but they aren't. We're like a fountain. A fountain of water looks solid, but you can put your fingers right through it. Our bodies look like things, but there's no thingness to them."
Such is the metaphysical preoccupation of Li-Young Lee's long-awaited third volume of poetry, Book of My Nights--a collection of 35 lyrical nocturnes which mark a shift in the poet's work towards a more hermeneutic mode. Where Rose and The City in Which I Love You confront childhood memories and the generational anxieties attendant to them, Lee surrenders much of his familial obsessing for a transfiguring kind of introspection.
As the title portends, Lee endures sleeplessness to contemplate the self's urge for total presence. And as with the two previous volumes that precede it, Lee arrives at his revelations through a pliant, twining syntax and an archetypal diction. Nights, those "black intervals," become a kind of threshold, a fugitive and elusive place where Lee interrogates himself as in the poem "From Another Room:" "Who lay down at evening / and woke at night / a stranger to himself?" In "Degrees of Blue" the poem yawns open into a dream-like setting: "At the place in the story / where a knock at the hull wakes the dreamer / and he opens his eyes to find the rowers gone, / the boat tied to an empty dock, / the boy looks up from his book ..." Indeed, the stillness and quiet and repetition of "night," at the very least, offer Book of My Nights provocative instants of self-transcendence.
In terms of its metaphorical strength, "Praise Them" (perhaps the finest piece of writing in the collection overall) expands through terse phrasings:
The birds don't alter space.
They reveal it. The sky
never fills with any
leftover flying. They leave
nothing to trace. It is our own
in chill air. Be glad.
Here, the birds become auguries of a new, visionary perspective at work in Lee's poetry. He continues his Romantic projections:
how three birds in a winter tree
make the tree barer ...
Give up what you guessed
about a whirring heart, the little
beaks and claws, their constant hunger.
We're the nervous ones.
There is a debt to Charles Wright, and one to Wallace Stevens here as Lee internalizes his landscape, conjoins imagination's immanence with the external world of God's eminence:
If even one of our violent number
could be gentle
long enough that one of them
found it safe inside
our finally untroubled and untroubling gaze,
who wouldn't hear
what singing completes us?
The Chinese painter and writer of the sixth century, Hsieh Ho, observed that a painting should enact a spiritual movement of its own--the painter's meditation becoming the viewer's meditation. And in the aforementioned poems, as well as "One Heart," "The Sleepless," and "Little Father" Lee's spiritual flights are wholly felt by the reader.
Unfortunately for the majority of poems in Book of My Nights, Lee's strength seems also to be his weakness. So smooth and polished are the surfaces, so ephemeral and fleeting the impressions, so reliant, poem to poem, on abstractions that, taken as a whole, the collection suffers. Indeed, a good portion of this third volume seems overwrought, monotone throughout, and as such slides from any sort of memorable grasping. For example in the poem "Buried Heart," Lee writes:
The hyacinth emerges headlong dying,
one of the colors of ongoing
its odor my very body's smokeless burning,
night's own dark lap.
Above ground, the crown of flowers tells the wish
brooding earth stitched inside the bulb.
In another kingdom, it was the wick
the lamp cradled, strands
assembled in rapt slumber.
Here, while the sounds are certainly wonderful, the metaphorical language seems graceful to the point of forgetfulness, airy and overly elaborate; in short, unconvincing--without the linguistic or syntactical kinks that would jolt us from what otherwise too often reads as pure artifice.
In contrast, take for instance the poem "Eating Together" from Lee's best book, Rose:
In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
Of Lee's first collection, Gerald Stern has praised its simplicity, how it "consists in finding the language that releases--even awakens--feelings, and that the poem as art object is best served by addressing those very feelings, that is, the language of those feelings." Stern has never been more right. Lee's great contribution to contemporary poetry has been his gift for revivifying the senses, his infusion of simple pleasures and simple speech into a poetic climate where the vogue seems to commodify language. Indeed, no poet in only two books would be as commended by peers and embraced by anthologists if he wasn't a master of balancing the grace of his artifice with the holiness of his experiences. And even if Book of My Nights reads less successfully than its predecessors, such shortcomings, nevertheless, remind us of the poetry past and the poetry still to be written.