Divine presence in poetry

Poet Li-Young Lee explores the human experience, miniscule and monumental.

Fifty of us huddled into the back room of the voluminous Uptown bookstore, Magers & Quinn. We weren’t there as refugees from the teethed wind or to hunt for a used copy of “East of Eden.” We sat in the small metal seats and gathered close to the wobbly wooden podium to hear Li-Young Lee read from his new book of poetry, “Behind My Eyes.”

Readings from “Behind My Eyes”

Author: Li-Young Lee
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company
PAGES: 155
PRICE: $24.95

He holds his book close to his body; it is riddled with annotations and sticky tabs. With his first words, an immediate calm fell over the room, but Lee did not seem to notice. As he finished the first poem, there was no noise. The entrance to Magers and Quinn opens, but the attached bells do not ring. Lee smiles and manipulates the last few lines of his poem to comment on spooning. The well-placed irony drew silent laughter without disrupting the tranquility of the surroundings.

His poetry is massive because of its applicability to all of human nature. It deals with moments in human life that may be monumental or miniscule, erotic or divine. Lee believes that all events and experiences exist in a paradigm that Lee captures in his work. The paradigm exists between the subject and the environment.

Speaking between each poem, it is very clear that Lee is a master of language. He doesn’t write poetry, it flows from him in the very modest way that he speaks and pauses. It falls from his fingertips as he turns the pages or pulls his hair behind his ears.

He says that the most important figures in the “public eye” are “Jesus, Buddha, Emily Dickinson, Carl Jung, Fador Emelianenko Ö all of those voices who advocate the evolution of human consciousness.” Lee described this progression as an interaction with the divinity in the world around us. He spoke at length of recognizing this “presence” as it exists in the natural world. He was hesitant, though, to attach a name to the beliefs he holds.

Since religion is convoluted in its structure and meaning, Lee shies from defining what he means by “divine.”

“I’m not interested so much in concepts as I am in the experience,” he says. From a young age, Lee often felt the “world around me haunted by this other (divine) presence.” It is this existence and encounter that Lee attempts to capture through his rolling works.

Time and again, his poetic voice is the type that seems to echo in your head. His lines are riddled with complex run-on visual personifications and metaphors. “Praise Them” hums “See how three birds in a winter tree make the tree bearer. Two fly away and new rooms open in December.”

At the end of the reading we all lined up for a short signing. As we filed in a line toward meeting him, there is a moment that I could feel the tranquility and clarity radiating from him. The clear awareness evoked by his work is the fresh element that is already elevating him to the status of a legendary poet.