Review: The Undressing by Li-Young Lee / by Peter LaBerge

By Jason Myers, Guest Reviewer.

 Li-Young Lee,  The Undressing  (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).

Li-Young Lee, The Undressing (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018).

Listen is the first word in Li-Young Lee’s rapturous fifth collection of poems, The Undressing. It is both invitation and invocation, a question and a command. Every word in Lee’s verse has this charged quality, a way of being many things at once. The book is “For The Lovers/And The Manifold Beloved,” and the love that Lee inhabits in these poems ranges from the close to the cosmic, as he addresses—and undresses—partner and Creator. “Beloved” is what God calls Jesus following his baptism, and God instructs those present to “listen to” Jesus. In Christian theology, Jesus is saturated in all being—he is manifold. Manifold is an operative word throughout these poems: many and folded. “Five in one body, begotten, not made,” he writes in a later poem called “Folding a Five-Cornered Star So the Corners Meet.” In the collection's first long poem, which shares its title, he declares, “A word has many lives.” Listen conditions both the reader and the speaker of the poem, as the speaker is engaged in foreplay, while the beloved is more interested in conversation than coitus.

There are the stories we tell ourselves, she says.

There are stories we tell others.

Then there’s the sum

of our hours

death will render legible.

Dialogue, in Lee’s hands, serves as both seduction and sacrament, a means of communication and a means of communion. “The Undressing” is about being naked both physically and spiritually. Dressing means putting on clothing as well as tending a wound, so the undressing Lee performs has erotic, psychoanalytic, and medicinal qualities. The voice of the beloved is sometimes playful, sometimes corrective: “I want you to touch me / as if you want to know me, not arouse me.” Still elsewhere it comes from that place where the psalmist said deep calls to deep: “One and one is one, she says. / Bare shineth in bare.”

Born to Chinese parents in Indonesia before his family fled from persecution to the U.S., Lee’s work has been imbued from the beginning with the compressed, ideogrammatic lucidity of classical Asian poetry, as well as the oracular expansiveness of prophets ranging from Isaiah to Whitman. “The Undressing” is his most mesmerizing long poem since “The Cleaving,” the final poem in his second collection, The City in Which I Love You.

As in “The Cleaving,” Lee finds pleasure and pain in close proximity, sometimes inseparable; he recognizes that those who wound us are often those who heal us. His poetry is haunted by family and world history, and also demonstrates tremendous tenderness for both. “Nothing saves him who’s never loved,” he writes, leaving ambiguous whether salvation is denied one who doesn’t give love or doesn’t receive it. It could be that love and salvation are symbiotic. In the next line Lee declares, “No world is safe in that one’s keeping.” He could be speaking of Trump, and/or he could be speaking of Mao, as he upholds Pound’s criterion of poetry being “news that stays news.” At the end of his long poem Lee writes, “For 20,000 years, human groups have thrived / by subtle and not so subtle mechanisms / of expulsion, exclusion, rejection, elimination, and murder.”

This tone is a rare lapse from the supple, enigmatic one that sustains most of the poem. No longer engaged in lovemaking, the speaker has put on his professorial robe and spectacles—though he does return to his original impulse. “If love doesn’t prevail,” he asks after descrying the decadence of our American moment (“One nation under the weapon”), “who wants to live in this world?” He then predicts the effort that will be required for love to prevail, “Ratifying ancient covenants. Establishing new cities.” In lines like this Lee makes clear that, like D. H. Lawrence before him, he composes under the spell of the Book of Revelation, with its visions of a new heaven and a new earth.

The incantatory nature of Lee’s work also owes something to St. Francis (“He is / my sister, this / beautiful Bedouin, this Shulamite, / keeper of Sabbaths”) and to Sylvia Plath (“Seraphic herald of the ninth echelon, / pleromatic eon demanding a founding gnosis, her voice electric tekhelet, Septuagint, a two-leaved door”), yet his tendencies toward combining the intimate and the vatic, the personal and the political, have forged a new vernacular. Only Lee can conjure lines like “The menace of the abyss will be subdued,” “your body is the Lord’s pure geometry,” and “It was even before there were numbers, / those fearsome first angels.”

As Rilke, one of Lee’s acknowledged inspirations, once wrote, “Every angel is terrifying.” Yet Lee, fearless and devout, goes in search of dialogue with angels. The long, penultimate poem of The Undressing is a report of one such dialogue. Lee writes,

What’s The Word! she cries

from her purchase on the iron

finial of the front gate to my heart.

These are the opening lines of “Changing Places in the Fire,” an apocalypse in which a “sparrow with a woman’s face / roars in the burdened air.” The Word is, of course, one of the figures applied to Jesus in the Gospel of John. Surely the sparrow-woman knows this, yet she is intent on getting Lee to confess or testify.

I tell her, I sang

in a church choir during one war

North American TV made famous.

Such songs make The Undressing a psalmody, a prayer book of uncommon wit and beauty. “Say what’s The Word or we both die!” the sparrow-woman demands later, echoing Auden’s line at the end of “September 1, 1939.” For Lee, the work of a poet is to summon, say, wrestle with, dress and undress the divine. “An exile from the first word, / and a refugee / of an illegible past,” he continues to produce from the materials of his life love songs for the body and the soul. Listen to him.

 

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Jason Myers is the poetry editor of The EcoTheo Review. A National Poetry Series finalist, his work has appeared in The Paris Review, West Branch, and numerous other journals. He received an MFA from NYU and an MDiv from Emory University in Atlanta, where he was licensed to the ministry at Ebenezer Baptist Church. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he works in hospice.