Review by Arthur McMasterThe Winged Seed by Li-Young Lee

by Li-Young Lee

BOA Editions
250 N. Goodman St., Suite 306
Rochester, NY 14607
ISBN-13: 978-1938160042
2013. 191 pp., $16.00

Posit that by the time any of us reach adulthood we all have a unique past, some of which no doubt pleases us, much of which perhaps scares, dismays, or concerns us. Few will write a book length poem about it. Li-Young Lee has done just that. But hold on: Is a memoir retelling a man’s family’s troubled past with a revered but much distracted father really a poem? Semantics aside, it can be. I think this one is. The narration sings to us. The telling is consistently lyrical. Metaphors involving seeds populate the book, and the various and numinous seeds which preoccupied Lee’s father, a Christian bible scholar, offer unforeseen insights into the human condition.  Cross-genre writing has seldom had such rich material to be cast and built upon. Consider:

My love, why can’t you sleep? Why does each night lead into a sister night? Is there nothing one can say about tonight or any other night the night won’t unravel, every effort undermined by night itself? What were those seeds doing in my father’s pocket? What is a seed?

The analogy of seeds, as men’s lives, and perhaps as to what they may yet be, continues:

I never asked my father in remembrance of what he kept those seeds. I knew better than to press him when I was a boy. Now I am a man and he is dead and I feel a strange shame that I don’t know what happened to those seeds. Did we bury them with him? Is morning glory breaking his pewter casket’s tight lip this second? Is morning glory blooming on a cemetery hill in Pennsylvania?

The imagery is enchanting. The questions are both rhetorical and universal. “…  halfway to my father’s grave,” the poet continues, “[I] hold my wrist to an icy cataract and see the shriveled vine …”

The award winning poet-come-memoirist was born in Jakarta to Chinese parents. But most of his early life was defined by his father’s troubles, including a lengthy prison term in Indonesia. The family moved frequently, insecure, unsafe, and uncertain of their next shelter and meal. Lee writes:

… we were casting off as we looked ahead. We were jettisoning luggage, names, and bodies. There was Tai, my brother, then there wasn’t. There was Chung, another brother, then there wasn’t. Brothers swallowed up in some murk we called conventionality. The past, as though it were a place we could return to, as though we weren’t leaving them behind with the passports we  left behind, the jewelry and the books come finally undone.

Lee’s adolescence, the writer recalls, was marked by charitable and spiritual visits to invalids, the prostitutes, and the hungry shut-ins. He recalls his father’s quirky sermons: the several metaphors of the seed, the house on sand, the sermon on the shoes. “One after another,” he writes, “these were the lives we visited.” Such moments existed apart from any sense of time.” Later, he observes:

… there must be a clock somewhere outside the ken of my memory, and there must be a calendar, though I can’t say for sure … What should I do with my father’s brushes and pens and pencils and sketch boards and dictionaries and books I can’t read?

He is recollecting, but not in tranquility. I find the following particularly stunning and a satisfying way to conclude our examination of the writer’s long, extraordinary prose poem:

I wasn’t born dark. I grew darker by amassing shadows and seeds. Each memory I own is like a photo being eaten away from the edges toward the center, so that first to disappear are any details of place, clues to where someone is standing or sitting, and along with those details goes the reason I should even posses them or that memory at all … and it turns out that these pieces are infinitely heavier than any memory I could fabricate.

Li-young Lee is eternally caught up in and with the ineffable, with what he knows to be the winged seed. BOA Editions also offer After-Images: Autobiographical Sketches, by W.D. Snodgrass, and Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry, by Stephen Dunn. Li-Young Lee’s memoir puts him in fine company, indeed.


Arthur McMaster‘s volumes of poetry include Awkwardness (South Carolina Poetry Initiative), and The Spy Who Came Down with a Cold. He teaches at Converse College and is Contributing Editor for Poets’ Quarterly.

Rattle Logo