Several years ago, I taught dual-enrollment English Composition to seniors at three high schools scattered across Southwest Louisiana. I drove to the high schools three days a week, met with the students who were advanced enough to take a university course, and diligently taught them how to write college-level essays. At Welsh High School, I met with the students in a computer lab. This worked out quite well, because I needed them – for assessment purposes – to type all of their essays. As they typed, I’d loop the room, reading over shoulders, giving advice, making corrections to form or structure or word usage. In between, I’d prop up against the desk at the front of the room and leaf through the Literature books and anthologies stacked in one corner of the room. That’s where I first encountered Li-Young Lee.
In one of those thick anthologies, I found Lee’s poem “Persimmons.” I was blown away by the poem’s voice, tone, control. It’s a poem that echoes the concerns of much of Lee’s work. It’s about fathers and sons, the mutability of language, the way that memories disappear, the way that memories linger. Consider the opening of the poem:
In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmon and precision.
How to choose
persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
all of it, to the heart.
Lee opens with a memory, but that memory shifts rapidly to a meditation. He establishes there images, ideas, and words that he’ll cycle back to again and again through the course of the poem. By the final stanza, Lee has moved to the here and now, to a scene with the speaker’s father, who has lost his sight. The son gives the father some old paintings, found in the basement. He describes them to his father, who replies:
Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.
That swirl of images echoes the swirl of memory that plays out with the speaker and his father. Its escalation is beautifully done, and Lee handles the repetition without ever forcing it.
Reading “Persimmons” led, eventually, to reading the book where it originally appeared, Rose. It’s a stunning collection. The poems are ordered thoughtfully. Lee uses a layering effect to build a narrative from traditionally non-narrative devices. As in “Persimmons,” words, images, and ideas repeat themselves, assert themselves in new contexts, cycle back into the reader’s mind. There is movement to this collection. There is trajectory. The book is divided into three sections. The last poem of the first section, “Eating Alone,” transitions nicely into the first poem of the last section, “Eating Together.” Both poems concern themselves with the physical task of cooking. Both are also about grief, loss, and loneliness. In the first, the speaker uses the act of cooking and eating as a response to seeing a flickering image of his dead father. In the second, he creates a meal for his whole family, just weeks after his father’s death. The two poems each stand alone, each resonates individually, but in tandem, as anchors in the collection, they really thrum.
At Welsh High School, my students writing their essays, I flipped through the pages of the anthology and landed on “Persimmons.” I’d already moved past other poems without reading them. I’d move past still more after I read this one. But I didn’t move past Lee’s poem. I don’t know why. Maybe I’d heard some graduate school friend talk about Lee. Maybe I was just tired of flipping. Maybe it was dictated by memory. There was a persimmon tree in my grandparents’ backyard. As a child, I picked them, felt their ripe weight in my palm.
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