Poem introduction

I remember when I wrote this poem it seemed to me I was having a hard time loving completely and accepting the love of others. And I was trying to think about that. And the first line comes from something my father always said to me when I was young and I said it once to my son. And of course my father, he experienced political imprisonment and torture - he worked with Mao Tse-tung and he was very close to him and they had a falling out and Mao tried to kill him and my father's father even tried to kill him and so my father escaped from prison and we fled to Indonesia and we came to this country when I was very young. And this country at the time was at war with an Asian country - this was, you know, in the Sixties - so a lot of the animosity and the hostility and aggression that the war inspired was being perpetrated on us. And so my experience initially of coming to this country was having a lot of violence directed at my physical being.

Immigrant Blues

Immigrant Blues

People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
a man tells his son, trying to explain
the wisdom of learning a second tongue.

It's an old story from the previous century
about my father and me.

The same old story from yesterday morning
about me and my son.

It's called "Survival Strategies
and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation."

It's called "Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons,"

called, "The Child Who'd Rather Play than Study."

Practice until you feel
the language inside you, says the man.

But what does he know about inside and outside,
my father who was spared nothing
in spite of the languages he used?

And me, confused about the flesh and the soul,
who asked once into a telephone,
Am I inside you?

You're always inside me, a woman answered,
at peace with the body's finitude,
at peace with the soul's disregard
of space and time.

Am I inside you? I asked once
lying between her legs, confused
about the body and the heart.

If you don't believe you're inside me, you're not,
she answered, at peace with the body's greed,
at peace with the heart's bewilderment.

It's an ancient story from yesterday evening

called "Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora",

called "Loss of the Homeplace
and the Defilement of the Beloved,"

called "I Want to Sing but I Don't Know Any Songs."


from Behind My Eyes (W W Norton, 2008), copyright © 2008 by Li-Young Lee, used by permission of W W Norton & Company, Inc.

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