There are times when, if I deeply admired a poet, I will memorize one of his or her poems as a way to understand how the poet uses words to build remarkable art. This practice started in the late 1980s when I came across Li-Young Lee’s first collection, Rose. Poet Gerald Stern, Lee’s teacher at the University of Pittsburgh, noted in his introduction to the book the combination of the poems’ humility and plain language packaged in a kind of desperate search for meaning. All of this, I think, is present in his moving poem “Eating Together.” I’m not sure if I set out to memorize “Eating Together” as much as I kept rereading it in an effort to understand why it drew me in so easily and why it wouldn’t let me go.
The mind being the mind, I had forgotten about “Eating Together,” or that I had memorized it once, until recently, when I listened to a podcast by the folks at the Poetry Foundation that includes a reading of Li-Young Lee’s poem “Changing Places in the Fire” followed by the editorial staff’s conversation about the poem — why they find it so compelling.
“Changing Places in the Fire,” as much as anything, reveals how far Lee has traveled as a poet. I don’t mean to imply that it is better or more sophisticated or valuable that the poems in his first collection. It’s not. But it does embody the life of a poet — experiences that only come with time. From a stylistic perspective, it also moves the searching that is quietly embedded in a poem like “Eating Together” more toward the center of things. Its louder, more insistent. In fact, in “Changes Places in the Fire,” Lee invents a character — a “sparrow with a woman’s face” — that enables Lee to literally talk about his ongoing search for meaning, for the soul of humanity. As I read it again, I also feel a not-so-quiet desperation for the poem itself — maybe for all poetry — to have value.
The sparrow with the face of a woman taunts the speaker in the poem. “You call yourself a poet? You/ tame high finisher of paltry blots!/ You publish doubt and call it knowledge!” The taunt goes on for a while — jab after jab — which seems to be about the shortcomings of poetry to address all the destruction in the world, but which feels equally like the inner voice of the poet telling himself, “You can do better. You must do better.”
Maybe I’m projecting here because of the inner voice in my own head, which is almost always dissatisfied with the results of my poetic efforts. You can do better. Even after publication, I find myself revising poems. But I sense this same concern from most poets I know, too. We want our work to have greater collective impact — especially now, in a time when humanity has painted itself into a particularly difficult corner. Lee’s sparrow is like one of those hard-ass coaches chiding us, cajoling us, trying to embarrass us, to be better, to raise our collective game. There’s a sense that the world depends on us — even if the world doesn’t think it does.
For me, “Changing Places in the Fire” is one of those deeply engaging poems about the mind wrestling with life — about how we live. I’m a sucker for all such poetic journeys. And Li-Young Lee makes the journey all the better with his strikingly beautiful, surprising, moving, and challenging language. How can one not pause over his description of the body: “a mortal occasion of timeless law”?
OK. I can see that, once again, I got myself twisted up in my wish to both thank Li-Young Lee for his dedication to poetry and to acknowledge his influence on me. I love where he goes with “Changing Places in the Fire” — even if I don’t think can’t explain it well. But here I mostly want to say that I admire Lee’s collective work. I’m glad he’s still wrestling with this art form. I also want to acknowledge the staying power in his early work. One of the poetry lessons embedded in “Eating Together” is how a simple observation of eating a meal together — with no one saying a word — can, with a turn of phrase, open up an entire life. I had forgotten about the poem until I went back to reread his first collection. But the poem has not forgotten me.
I often try to structure poems in a similar manner to “Eating Together” — convey some seemingly straightforward observation (of family or nature or relations or experience) and then find a way to open the underlying feelings connected to the observation, the heart of the matter, so to speak. Why, for instance, do I marvel at the flocks of starlings in winter, when they gather together and live through the cold, dark months as a massive group? It’s crazy beautiful and seemingly impossible how they fly in such massive flocks like dancing clouds of musical notes.
Here’s my poem about starlings in winter, “The River Is Everywhere” — from my collection, The Sovereignty of the Accidental. I can see now how Lee’s “Eating Together” has stayed with me all these years:
The River Is Everywhere
Out of the marsh, an immense
flock of starlings erupts
and careens wildly north, swept up
in its own invisible river of sky,
so many birds, night-speckled,
by one small wing-beat,
And you, watching all this,
thought you had lost your way.