Responding to Li Young Lee

Li Young Lee’s poetry is sometimes called “straightforward” or “unassuming.” I suppose you need signifiers like these in today’s poetry world; nevertheless, I found the poems in The Lives of Voices chapbook, from the forthcoming Poetry International 12 to be, well, straightforward and unassuming. While plain spoken, Li Young Lee offers heavy doses of lyrical brilliance; he provides us (the amateur mystics) a checklist so fantastic it unhinges the brain and lets it take a clean breath. How did he know what we needed was inspiration and a means of getting there, a checklist, a guide, a to-do? What frustrates me about contemporary poetry is the leftover modernist exclusiveness, the members-only club mentality. I worry poetry has strayed from giving readers a shared experience, but Lee’s helps us keep lyrical poetry vibrant and relevant without being incomprehensible.

Let’s take his advice. Get out your notes. You’ll need “a hand to cross out your name” and “a donkey to carry your shit.” Maybe “a monkey to filch change and food.” This could be important in light of the economy.

Amongst the cerebral musings that define contemporary poetry, Lee reminds us, you must have “feet to dance,” “eyes to see,” “hands to cross out your name.” You can’t close your self off to any of the basic sensory perceptions.

I’m going to post this poem up on the wall (of my cubicle, sadly), so I’m reminded of how much I still have to accomplish. Maybe when I get “a crown to keep underfoot,” I can cross that off. And when I have every item checked off, I can accomplish something as unassumingly profound as Lee’s chapbook—as long as I don’t fall asleep on my own opus (likely).

-Gabrielle Stephens

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