Li-Young Lee’s Compelling Tenderness

“…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”

What struck me most about both The City In Which I Love You and Rose was Lee’s tenderness. It is not softness per se or looking only on the gentler side of things–far from it, his poetry encompasses, contains and holds moments of profound suffering and injustice sharply in its lens. Yet there is a quality of seeking to understand the human side of everything this poetry looks upon. This is a compelling kind of tenderness–not the tidy, maudlin tenderness of Hallmark greeting cards, but a profound ability to look lovingly and longingly at the deeper themes of life, which are necessarily complex and unresolved.

I find satisfaction in Lee’s poetry through its sensitive details. He seems to let me in unflinchingly to his most intimate moments. Yet despite such vulnerability, he never steers the experience toward any overt manipulation of what I should feel or think–the dignity of that burden is left solely with me. By focusing on detail in a spare and careful way, and resisting any urge to tie things up too neatly, Lee’s poems ring with an incredible veracity, and leave me feeling as though I have experienced, briefly, another’s life.

For example, this is part of the final section of “My Sleeping Loved Ones” from Rose:

More than the cheekbones I inherited from my mother,
more than my left hand, the spear,
or my right hand, the hammer, more
than humility, like my father’s heavy hand
on the back of my neck,
it is my love
for the sleeping ones
which recommends me.

Here multiple complex layers of experience are compressed and held together by this unifying maternal instinct of tenderness toward sleeping loved ones. Lee describes the hammer and spear of his hands, a motif of Tae Kwon Do and a nod to the warlike elements of his ancestry. Then the hand motif shifts to this incredible moment of describing humility as his father’s heavy hand on the back of his neck–a perfect symbol of a kind of enforced humility from a father who we know, from other poems, suffered so greatly as to overshadow Lee’s experience oppressively. So mother, father, culture–and loved ones present and past–collide in a few short lines of plainspoken verse.

Such deceptively simple lines rarely come from calculation. Instead, Lee’s work has a feeling of deep contemplation, and whether these poems were written in one sitting or many, it seems clear he has been meditating upon these themes as specifically related to his experience for quite some time. This is the kind of poetry you just can’t fake. I am sure there are flaws aplenty, and that my eyes simply do not see them–because they are clouded with respect for the unbridled sincerity, capacious negative capability and compelling, forceful tenderness of these poems.