Chicago poet Li-Young Lee’s new book, The Undressing, is his first collection of poems in ten years. Known for retelling his family’s history as refugees from Indonesia, Lee has also written extensively on his complicated identity. The Undressing explores God and death, desire and violence, and the burden of human history. I recently spoke with Lee over the phone from his home in Uptown about the book and his writing rituals.
Much of your previous work explored questions about your identity. Although The Undressing is just as introspective, it does seem to shift into a deeper understanding of your past, and questions often revolve around lack of sleep, managing desire, God, and death. Can you discuss how your search for identity and the questions you ask yourself have evolved over time?
I hope the questions have gotten deeper. And I hope I’m becoming more comfortable in not knowing the answers, because I don’t seem to have arrived at any answers. Although, the ardor I feel asking the questions seems to intensify as I get older. So I feel more ardor in my asking, sometimes even desperation.
But at the same time, I’m sensing that I might be okay not knowing, which troubles me, because I don’t want to be okay with not knowing. I want to know—what am I doing here, what are we doing here? What is the nature of desire and what is the nature of love? Is all human culture underwritten by violence? Which, the answer to that seems to be yes, and I’m curious what that means, what I’m supposed to do with that information. How can we continue to participate in culture when all of culture is underwritten by violence and war and expulsion and murder? And state-sanctioned murder.
I don’t know what to do with that information. I don’t know the answer, but I know I’m troubled by those things.
You said in a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books that you had been trying to come to terms with your own violence and your own propensity toward violence, as well as the nature of violent male behavior and violent culture. Did writing this book allow you to come to terms with such violence, or perhaps understand it better? Did it open up new questions that may never be answered?
Violence is a real issue for me because of certain things I encountered when I was a child. There was a lot of violence directed towards me and my family. And I think the sad logic of that is, you would think that a person who had a lot of violence directed toward them would learn to be more compassionate and merciful. And eventually maybe that person will be. But I think there’s an early interim stage when a person assimilates that violence and becomes violent as a result.
And I know that we live in a culture—particularly, I think, in North America—where we are driven by desire. People on Madison Avenue, the advertisers, generate more desire, and they really know how to play on our desires and how to increase and multiply our desires. They invent and manufacture desire. But I think unmediated by love, desire is violent. So this confluence, I think, of my early experience of desire being violence directed at my very body, and the bodies of the members of my family, and then coming to a culture that is so rampantly desirous—I think it’s a bad cocktail.
I was involved in the martial arts for many, many years, and there’s a kind of male culture which, on the one hand, is kind of beautiful. It’s fearlessness and courage and not being afraid of violence, but it can take a wrong turn and become bullying and wanting to inflict and enact violence. It’s a fine line. There’s a lot to be said for people who are courageous and who experienced fear like everybody else, but who are willing to mediate this violence by meeting violence. But that logic troubles me—violence to end violence, war to end war. And I don’t know the answer. It seems to me that the world, if we face the truth, has malevolence in it. Human malevolence. I witnessed it face to face. When I was a very young child, we were in Indonesia and the murders began, the massacres began. A young man approached my family and said to my father, “I have to drink your blood.” Those very words. We encountered this, and so I know that there is human malevolence, and ferocity, and bloodthirstiness.
The Daoists said that a safe human being is someone who stands in the marketplace with a smile on her face, her cheeks smudged with mud, and she blesses what needs to be blessed, and she kills what needs to be killed. Wow. I think that’s so powerful.
And we could take that then to the making of art, right? We kill poems sometimes when they’re not good enough. We extract words radically. I think writing poetry is a way of radical counting. You’re counting words, you’re counting silences, you’re counting images, you’re counting nouns, you’re counting stresses, you’re counting pauses. It’s such a heightened, intense way to count the world. But it leads us to the idea of what counts all together. What counts? If we don’t know what counts, it seems to me like we’re in trouble. And it seems like we’re living in a world where we’re not sure what counts.
Both the title poem and “Changing Places in the Fire” involve a conversation between the narrator and a woman or a woman-like figure, both God-like figures. How does this choice serve those topics you were addressing, largely love and the body, as well as human suffering, overall?
Yeah. It was intuitive for me. I’ve always known or felt or intuited that the great feminine, the goddess, was where a lot of wisdom was going to come. The figure of Sophia, the wisdom aspect of God, and the figure Mary in the Christian tradition, or Guanyin, the goddess of mercy—these figures have always been really important to me. My own struggle with it is that I’m trying to find the place where logos and eros meet. Because my obsession with Sophia, I think, made me overvalue the wise, cerebral aspect of the goddess.
But I have to remind myself that my fascination with the goddess is also sometimes to a fault. The goddess’s body, the female body, is expressed even in hills and rivers and trees and mother earth. And it’s not only my wife’s shoulders or my wife’s hair or the smell of her armpit; it’s her body as much as her wisdom. But because of my own flaw, I tend toward the Sophia aspect.
So I wanted to account for all of it in the long poem “The Undressing.” And I wanted to account for my own ignorance about it, that somehow I tend toward both. I think sometimes I tend toward Sophia because I’m afraid of the Eve aspect, the erotic aspect of God. God the goddess. But then sometimes I’m so overwhelmed with the erotic aspect of the goddess, I forget the Sophia aspect. And I think the voice in “The Undressing” is the goddess speaking from a logos standpoint.
You know what’s strange—I find a lot of people attribute the logos completely with male aspect. I think that that’s actually wrong. Because Heraclites the Greek philosopher said the logos, which is the beginning of the cosmos, the ruling logic of the cosmos, is the dynamism of opposites. So is the negotiation of the harmony of male and female. That’s the logos. I don’t know why in the most Christian thinkers they think of logos as male. But that would not be logos at all, that would just be one aspect of the dynamism of opposites.
Another theme that you circle back to in these poems is language around birds and flight, sometimes in comparison to or representative of humanity. A line that particularly struck me was that seabirds are “defined by the gravity they defy / they’re the radiant shadows of what they resist.” Can you discuss how, if at all, the human tendency to deny our inevitable death both impacts and drives these poems?
Yeah. It’s just a constant, for me, struggle with death. I’ve said this before in another context—I think all poetry is a score for the human years. The truth of the matter is, if we study human voice and speech, human speech can only be made with the outgoing breath. But the outgoing breath is the dying breath. When we inhale, our body is filled with life. Our blood gets filled with oxygen and all kinds of nutrients. We feel very happy breathing in. When we start to breath out, those nutrients tend to leave our system, and if we breathe out to capacity, fully, we actually feel uncomfortable. In fact, most studies show that inhalation is a little longer than exhalation, almost as if we’re resistant. We want to take in more life.
What’s interesting is that all speech is done on the dying breath, the outgoing breath. For me to create verbal meaning, I have to use the dying breath. The more I say, the more meaning there is, so meaning increases in opposite ratio to vitality. So the poem is not only a score for our dying breath; in fact, it’s a score for our dying all together. As we die, meaning gets made. A poem is a small paradigm for our dying.
I think that’s what Robert Frost meant when he said when you write a poem, if it’s well spent, it’s kept. So if you spent well in writing the poem, you get to keep the poem, the poem is worthy to remember. And maybe that’s true about our lives. If you spend it well, in a strange way, it gets kept. So this idea of the best and hierarchies and counting and what counts and canon making; I think it’s all connected and I think it all has to do with the logos.
In “Love Succeeding” you describe your father as a refugee: “In transit, undocumented, unverified, illegal. . . Only he and God know / he’s changed his name again to flee / yet another country.” And you go on to say “My memories are precious / to no one but myself.” Does writing about your family’s experiences as refugees help you combat the fear that these family memories won’t be preserved?
I think there is a part of me that hopes they’re preserved, but that’s not the deepest part of me. I think the deepest part of me wants to remind myself of my own experience as a refugee and my father’s experience as a torture victim who was undocumented. Somehow that experience opened me to 90 percent of the world. For me, it’s important that the poet doesn’t write from a special case. I think the poet writes from being one with every suffering on the planet. And just reminding myself of that keeps me connected in that way.
And that particular poem, that instance in the poem, came from something I was reading about physics. A brilliant physicist told me that you can locate an atom, and give it a name, a place, and a time, but in fact we don’t know the real conditions of that atom. But when the atom can’t be located—it’s in movement, in flux—when it’s in that state, it is its real self.
So in that part of the poem “Love Succeeding,” I’m concerned in the name “Father.” But I don’t know if he’s actually saved. The atom in movement is actually true to its own nature when an atom is unverified, undocumented, unnamed, I was kind of wondering is that true about people? The minute we name somebody we identify that person. In a way we’ve left out a lot. When I say you’re a young woman named Meredith, in a way I’ve left out the most important things about you. Your 20,000 years of evolution, your dreams, your desires, what you think about in secret, what your favorite color is, what your favorite food is, if you’re longing for children or no children. I’ve left everything out. By identifying you I’ve misidentified you. So I was just wondering about that when I wrote that poem. Especially that instance in that poem.
Within lines like “The world / is a story that keeps beginning” you seem to be commenting on war, life, and death as being cyclical and inevitable. But you also write that “Bodies have circled bodies / from the beginning. . . but the voices of lovers / are Creation’s most recent flowers.” I’m curious if you think love can transcend suffering and our tendency to repeat our mistakes?
I hope so. Yeah, I say I hope so because I want to jump in and say yes, but I’ll hedge my bets and say I hope so. I think as we live, we learn true love. I think true love is so full of wisdom. Maybe love is logos, ultimately. And I don’t mean only romantic love. I mean a higher love than even romantic love, although we need to have romantic love. I don’t mean just love for our children, although that brings it to an even higher plane. Each of these experiences, these forms of love—I think if we pay attention as we experience them, it brings us to a higher plane of love. And the highest love, which I personally believe is divine love, is just so full of wisdom and so full of compassion.
I get the feeling when I look at my family, especially the things that my parents have gone through, and my oldest siblings, and some of the things I’ve gone through, that suffering isn’t bad if it’s meaningful. It’s the meaningless suffering that is really the sterile suffering, that is kind of mind boggling and just makes you want to give up. But maybe divine love imbues suffering with meaning and then we can handle it. There’s a lot of suffering out there that just comes out of somebody’s whim, somebody’s malevolence, like some fourteen-year-old young man wielding a machete saying to my whole family, ‘I have to drink your blood today or I’m going to go crazy.’ If he would’ve hurt any of us, it would have been so senseless and meaningless.
Somehow that experience made my parents more loving people. I don’t know how that works. It didn’t make them more bitter, although there’s a little bitterness in them. But not a lot, given what they went through. I’m amazed they’re not more bitter or angry. My parents were just so loving ,and they kept wanting to forgive the world and forgive these people. I don’t know. I’m not sure I know.
For you, is it always clear which poems belong together in a collection, and what’s that vetting process like when you’re getting down to the end?
I would say about forty percent of the time I’m conscious. A lot of it is just being in meditation and contemplation and trying to see from my peripheral vision that maybe these poems belong together in terms of tone or soul content, . Because sometimes ostensibly on the surface it looks like, well these are all these kinds of poems and these belong together. But the soul texture says no, these belong together. So I’m trying to function at some subliminal place. I’m trying to let some subliminal identity make the decisions because I do believe there’s something like a divine intelligence in us. And I do think that writing poems is a way to find access to that divine intelligence, even in composing the book. That practice of relenting and releasing and surrendering to that divine, subliminal intelligence.
What are you working on now?
I’m just trying to write a poem. I’ve been here all morning trying to work on a poem. And the same story of, you know, surrendering to a deeper power. I keep finding my ego in there, saying hurry up and finish so I can say I’ve had a good day’s work.
The Undressing by Li-Young Lee
W.W. Norton & Company
Published February 20, 2018
Li-Young Lee has won a Lannan Literary Award, a Paterson Poetry Prize, and an American Book Award. Lee lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons.
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