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Li-Young Lee’s The Undressing Explores Life’s Paradoxes

Releasing this month, the poet’s new work tackles themes of family, love, violence and more.

Photo: Donna L. Lee

It took Li-Young Lee more than a decade to write the sprawling existential love poem that opens his new collection, The Undressing. And though the piece is done and on the page, he doesn’t see it as complete. “I still don’t possess the knowledge to finish it—about myself, about the world, about the nature of writing and perception and politics,” says the 60-year-old. “But I had to meet a deadline.”

Li-Young Lee as a baby in a family photo
“Poetry brings a deeper clarity,” says Lee (pictured here as a baby with his family in Jakarta). Photo: Courtesy of Li-Young Lee

That territory, where philosophical inquiry bumps up against mundanities like scheduling, is one the acclaimed poet knows well. Since publishing his widely praised first collection, Rose, in 1986, Lee has produced a body of work that’s rife with paradoxes, grounding the mysteries of existence in the plain imagery of the everyday. In his fifth volume (February 20, W.W. Norton), Lee explores themes of family, memory, spirituality, love, and even violence. He’s been influenced by the hostility his family fled from as refugees during his childhood and the kind he’s witnessed in the Chicago neighborhood of Uptown, where he and his wife raised their two sons. “It’s a vibrant place,” he says of the gentrifying community, “but the violence there is up close and personal.” In one instance, vandals destroyed the meditation gardens he and his wife had helped build in two vacant lots. In another, he watched a man drive a screwdriver through a pit bull’s head to pry its jaws off another dog. (After that, Lee started carrying a screwdriver himself while pushing his kids in the stroller.) “It disturbs me that I’ve never dreamed of moving away,” he says. “But that aggression informs my work. The violence I meet the minute I step out the front door forces me to think, What’s that about? Why are human beings violent?”

The idea of home has always been a complicated one for Lee. He was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1957, a child of Chinese political exiles. His father had been Mao Zedong’s personal secretary before falling out of favor and immigrating to Indonesia, where he was arrested and held for more than a year as a political prisoner. When Lee was a toddler, his family managed to escape, first to Hong Kong, then to Macau and Japan. “It’s crazy to think that while we were doing all this running around, my parents were having babies,” he says. “They’re escaping on a boat, they’re looking out the portholes, they’re running from country to country, but my father is also playing the accordion to entertain the children.” Lee was 7 when his family moved to the United States, arriving in Seattle and eventually settling in rural Pennsylvania, where Lee grew up without a real sense of belonging. He and his wife followed his sister to Chicago in 1981. Though Lee says he’d like to live “out in nature,” he hasn’t found such places to be welcoming to “people who look like me,” as he puts it. “So we picked a big city.”

'The Undressing' by Li-Young Lee

Chicago has proved a livable option, where Lee can pursue the work that’s garnered him numerous honors, including a Lannan Literary Award, for collections like The City in Which I Love You (1990) and Behind My Eyes (2008). Between books, he’s made a living from readings, teaching jobs, and occasional work at a West Side book warehouse. “I’ve even turned down teaching gigs to work there,” he says. “College campuses make me uneasy. Maybe everything makes me uneasy.”

If Lee’s searching poems still reflect a sense of alienation, they also allow him to connect to the world around him. Poetry, as Lee sees it, is a stethoscope: You want to hear the heartbeat of the one you love, he explains, so you place your ear as close as you can—but all that comes through is a muffled thump. You need an intervening instrument, and you need some space: “Poetry is that perfect distance. It brings a deeper clarity.”

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