Poem introduction

When I was growing up as a child my father would ask me every morning - I would come downstairs - and he would ask all his children, 'Have you prayed?', you know, in Chinese of course. Most of the time I hadn't, but I'd say yes, you know, and I lied to him and I never felt guilty about it. But about twenty years after he died I was sitting in a hotel room by myself and there was a nice breeze coming through the window and I heard my father's voice, you know, as though he were standing right beside me, 'Have you prayed?'. And I was so overwhelmed with guilt, I thought, "Man, all those years I lied to him and never felt guilty about it." So I wrote this poem.

Have You Prayed?

Have You Prayed

When the wind
turns and asks, in my father's voice,
Have you prayed?

I know three things. One:
I'm never finished answering to the dead.

Two: A man is four winds and three fires.
And the four winds are his father's voice,
his mother's voice...

Or maybe he's seven winds and ten fires.
And the fires are seeing, hearing, touching,
dreaming, thinking...
Or is he the breath of God?

When the wind turns traveler
and asks, in my father's voice, Have you prayed?
I remember three things.
One: A father's love

is milk and sugar,
two-thirds worry, two-thirds grief, and what's left over

is trimmed and leavened to make the bread
the dead and the living share.

And patience? That's to endure
the terrible leavening and kneading.

And wisdom? That's my father's face in sleep.

When the wind
asks, Have you prayed?
I know it's only me

reminding myself
a flower is one station between
earth's wish and earth's rapture, and blood

was fire, salt, and breath long before
it quickened any wand or branch, any limb
that woke speaking. It's just me

in the gowns of the wind,
or my father through me, asking,
Have you found your refuge yet?
asking, Are you happy?

Strange. A troubled father. A happy son.
The wind with a voice. And me talking to no one.

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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