STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Poet Li-Young Lee has a new collection, his first in seven years. Mr. Lee is the acclaimed author of four books of poetry and a memoir, "The Winged Seed," which won an American Book Award. His new book of poems is called "Behind My Eyes," and in it he reflects on his extraordinary family history in meditations and suffering, prayer, death, and love.
From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.
TOM VITALE: Li-Young Lee writes poems that suggest historical events without ever coming out and giving you the whole story. One of the 22 poems in "Behind My Eyes" is called "Self-Help for Fellow Refugees."
VITALE: (Reading) If you happened to have watched armed men beat and drag your father out the front door of your house and into the back of an idling truck before your mother jerked you from the threshold and buried your face in her skirt folds, try not to judge your mother too harshly. 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.
VITALE: Li-Young Lee was born into history and suffering, to Chinese parents in Indonesia in 1957. Lee says in China, his father Lee Kuo Yuan, had been Mao Zedong's personal physician.
VITALE: He worked with Mao. They had a falling out and because of that his life was in danger. He fled to Indonesia and because of his being Chinese and his political and spiritual influences, he was thrown into jail and tortured and he spent 19 months in a leper colony and he nearly died and he escaped. And when I was born, there was a lot of xenophobia in Indonesia and they killed like half a million Chinese.
VITALE: When he was 2 years old, Li-Young Lee's family fled from Indonesia in a boat. As political fugitives, they wondered for seven years from country to country, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and finally to the United States. In 1964 they settled in a small town in Western Pennsylvania, but the suffering didn't stop there.
VITALE: And at that time I think this country was a little backwards and couldn't tell the difference between Vietnamese and Chinese, and so there was a lot of violence directed toward us because this country was at war with an Asian country and so the whole feeling of the me being threatened, being undermined, you know, even mortally threatened, informs a lot of these poems I think.
VITALE: Another poem in Li-Young Lee's new book is called a "Hymn to Childhood."
VITALE: (Reading) Childhood, which childhood, the one that didn't last, the one in which you learned to be afraid of the boarded-up well in the backyard and the ladder to the attic? The one presided over by armed men in ill-fitting uniforms strolling the streets and alleys while loudspeakers declared a new era.
VITALE: You are aware that this is the son or grandson of someone who's had a tremendous connection with culture, and it's rare that you find that in American poetry.
VITALE: Poet Robert Bly speaking from his home in Minnesota says we're lucky to have the work of Li-Young Lee, who has transformed his extraordinary experiences into what Bly calls the wonderful sweet breath of his poetry.
VITALE: In Li-Young, you see a family that's lived with a - the very deep Chinese culture for years and years. And he has absorbed that into his body so that he almost never says anything that's trivial or light. And yet being very thoughtful, he doesn't make you feel a lot of grief for him whether you have a sense of the grief of life itself.
VITALE: (Reading) Which childhood? The one that never ends? Oh you, still a child and slow to grow, still talking to God and thinking the snow falling is the sound of God listening.
VITALE: Today, Li-Young Lee lives on the north side of Chicago in a building he owns with his mother, his sister, and two brothers. He's 50 years old now with a wife and two grown sons of his own, but he says he feels committed in his poetry to make sense out of his family's suffering in another time and place.
VITALE: It's not a happy role. I don't embrace it entirely 'cause I - it's a tough struggle for me to become because part of me wants to become individuated and part of me - I mean in the unconscious life of my family, has been kind of selected to try to put these things into language and to memorialize them and to give the family some sort of context in which to understand the things that happened to us.
VITALE: Li-Young Lee says he hopes his poetry offers more than the details of his personal experience, that it describes universal suffering and salvation. After arriving in the United States, Lee's father became a Presbyterian minister and remained one until he died in the 1980s. Lee was baptized and studied the scriptures. Now he doesn't go to church anymore, but he sees his poetry as a form of prayer.
VITALE: For me, I'm trying to get to a condition in the poems and in even in my life of love and compassion and even divine love, you know, that somehow we can look at all of creation and human endeavor and even in spite of all the atrocities and all the stuff we perpetrate on each other that somehow we can come to the conclusion that being alive is good and speaking in poems is good and that it's valuable.
VITALE: Li-Young Lee says as a poet, his real medium is silence, the space between the words where he hopes he can create a sense of mystery and awe of a spiritual experience.
VITALE: Why are you crying, my father asked, in my dream in which we faced each other, knees touching, seated in a moving train. He had recently died and I was wondering if my life would ever begin. Looking out the window, one of us witnessed what kept vanishing while the other watched what continually emerged.
VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
SIMON: And you can hear Li-Young Lee read several of his poems at npr.org/books.
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