People have been trying to kill me since I was born,
a man tells his son, trying to explain
the wisdom of learning a second tongue.
It’s an old story from the previous century
about my father and me.
The same old story from yesterday morning
about me and my son.
It’s called “Survival Strategies
and the Melancholy of Racial Assimilation.”
It’s called “Psychological Paradigms of Displaced Persons,”
called “The Child Who’d Rather Play than Study.”
Practice until you feel
the language inside you, says the man.
But what does he know about inside and outside,
my father who was spared nothing
in spite of the languages he used?
And me, confused about the flesh and the soul,
who asked once into a telephone,
Am I inside you?
You’re always inside me, a woman answered,
at peace with the body’s finitude,
at peace with the soul’s disregard
of space and time.
Am I inside you? I asked once
lying between her legs, confused
about the body and the heart.
If you don’t believe you’re inside me, you’re not,
she answered, at peace with the body’s greed,
at peace with the heart’s bewilderment.
It’s an ancient story from yesterday evening
called “Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora,”
called “Loss of the Homeplace
and the Defilement of the Beloved,”
called “I want to Sing but I Don’t Know Any Songs.”
— Li-Young Lee
Li-Young Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents who had been exiled from China after a falling out with Mao Tse-tsung. Lee’s father was arrested in Indonesia and spent 18 months in prison. After his release, the family fled, traveling through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan to reach the United States. Lee was 7 years old when his family settled in Pennsylvania in 1964. The first line of this poem comes from something his father said to him when he was young.