Few poets write like Li-Young Lee these days, facing the biggest and broadest questions head-on — What is the purpose of human life? How should we reconcile our best and worst impulses? Which is more real, the spirit or the body? Fewer still ask these questions so well, and so movingly, in terms anyone can understand, making vast abstractions feel specific and, for the most part, grounded in a lived life. “You publish doubt and call it knowledge,” writes Lee in one of several poems in this new collection, his fifth in 30 years, in which an unnamed interlocutor, a stand-in for the beloved, interrogates the poet’s choice of vocation. I can’t think of a better expression for what a poet does: articulate life’s interminable uncertainties, perhaps making a fool of himself.
These new poems treat all of Lee’s old themes, beginning with the question of whether sex and sexuality can answer for the needs of the spirit. The long title poem pits a lust-driven Lee against a partner who needs to unburden her mind before she can indulge her body. It’s like a wrestling match between two very different sorts of angels:
Her blouse lapses around her shoulders,
and I bend lower
to kiss her navel.
There are voices that wake us in the morning, she says.
There are voices that keep us up all night.
At his best, Lee is capable of enormous sensuality, of blurring the lines completely between the words and the things they refer to. This blurring, a kind of translation between real and imaginary spheres, enacts one of the central questions of Lee’s poetry. Things get very sexy indeed on the way to answering it: “The smell of her foot / makes me think of saddles. / I lick her instep. I kiss her toes. I kiss her ankle.”
But, of course, there is no answer, otherwise why write poetry rather than nonfiction. Lee calls language, which, in his parlance stands, sometimes, for God, “the true blank” — it is always hiding what it purports to explain.
And so the words he uses in an attempt to fathom his own origins — he was a child refugee, the son of Mao Zedong’s former personal physician who went into exile — are equally slippery, awkward footholds on “that ancient peak / called Father’s Heart”:
Soldiers with guns are at our door again.
Sister, quick. Change into a penny.
I’ll fold you in a handkerchief,
put you in my pocket,
and jump inside a sack of rice,
one of the uncooked kernels.
The imagination here attempts to transform the traumas of memory into something palatable, into something bearable. This is another of the main purposes of poetry: to make experience visible if not comprehensible or less painful.
Readers may occasionally wish these poems, so at home at abstract heights — “such refraction, multiplying gazes, strews / Love’s face upon the objects of the world” — would put their feet on the ground.
But Lee is capable of such spiritual force couched so often in specificity (“You lie asleep beside me, / one hand on the pillow and cupped / at your mouth, as if to tell a secret”) that any quibbles one might have with this utterly true poetry simply dissipate.
Teicher’s most recent book of poetry is “The Trembling Answers.”
W.W. Norton, 96 pp., $25.95