December 20, 2008

Review by Kristina Marie Darling

BEHIND MY EYES
by Li-Young Lee

W.W. Norton and Company
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10110
ISBN: 978-0-393-06542-8
144 pp., $24.95
www.wwnorton.com

In Li-Young Lee’s Behind My Eyes, hieroglyphs collide head-on with parables, burning books, and “breath to fan the fire’s nest,” setting the stage for an elegant collection of poems (89). A highly anticipated follow-up to the author’s previous four books, Lee’s newest work examines the many contradictions inherent in the immigrant experience, depicting them in spare, lyrical narratives throughout. Often juxtaposing thoughtful observations on identity and family with Western attempts to commercialize and quantify, Lee’s poems convey the difficulty of negotiating one’s heritage with American cultural values, proving at once philosophical and grounded in everyday life.

Pairing consumer culture with the intensely personal, Lee often parodies the commercial when conveying the experiences of immigrants and refugees, suggesting that popular solutions like self-help and checklists prove frivolous in truly critical situations. His poem “Self-Help for Fellow Refugees” exemplifies this trend, skillfully using form to illuminate content. He writes, for example:

Don’t ask her what she thought she was doing
Turning a child’s eyes
Away from history
And toward that place all human aching starts.

And if you meet someone
in your adopted country,
and think you see in the other’s face
an open sky, some promise of a new beginning,
it probably means you’re standing too far. (16)

Mimicking the tone of a self-help book through his use of imperative sentences and extended lists, the content of the poem forms a sharp contrast with the form the author appropriates. By creating such incongruities, Lee suggests that “history” and “human aching” remain fundamentally incompatible with commercialized solutions—a theme conveyed with elegance and refinement throughout the collection.

Also impressive in his use of domestic imagery when depicting the transcendent, Lee’s poems find otherworldly significance in the everyday, a phenomenon that his speakers attempt without success to categorize. Suggesting that truly meaningful experiences prove mismatched with this American desire for definitive cataloging, the works in Behind My Eyes explore such contradictions with wit and grace. Lee’s poem “Have You Prayed” exemplifies this trend. He writes, for example:

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. (23)

This passage being part of a persistently incomplete list, Lee narrates an attempt to divide a father’s affection as one would “milk and sugar,” a theme that surfaces throughout the book. Implying through this metaphor that just as in the simple, tangible process of baking, the narrator’s efforts will never be precise, “Have You Prayed,” like many of the poems in Behind My Eyes, imbues ordinary experience with philosophical significance, proving both lyrical and image-rich throughout.

Lee’s use of avian imagery to convey similar thematic elements is also impressive. Often using birds as emblems for immaterial ideas like love, death, and the afterlife, Lee implies through this motif that such experiences remain both enigmatic and ultimately inaccessible. The elegiac “The Shortcut Home” exemplifies this trend. He writes:

In my brother’s story,
our death sings to us from the highest branch
of the oldest tree the birds remember
in song, and we wander our father’s house
in search of the origin of the hours. (88)

In this excerpt, Lee represents the idea of death subtly through personification, the “tree the birds remember in song” being the speaker’s father’s final resting place. Using hyperbole to convey the inaccessibility of both the creature itself and his narrator’s lost loved one, Lee describes the birds as inhabiting the “highest branch/of the oldest tree,” suggesting, as do many poems in the collection, that some experiences prove beyond the reach of human song.

All points considered, Li-Young Lee’s Behind My Eyes is a thought-provoking and finely crafted collection. Ideal for readers who enjoy spare yet expressive poems, this book is a must-read.

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Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate student at Washington University. She is the author of Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006), The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006), and, most recently, Night Music (BlazeVOX Books, 2008). Her reviews have appeared or will appear in The Boston Review, New Letters, The Mid-American Review, The Warwick Review, Third Coast, and other journals. Recent awards include residencies from Rockmirth and the Centrum Foundation.