For all of the delicate crafting of his work, Li Young Lee absolutely fails the title to his latest collection of poetry, Behind My Eyes. I mean, really? Behind my Eyes? Why doesn't he just call it My Imagination? Is this Jill Bialosky's fault or his? What editor could let a ridiculous title like this go to print without some objection, some kind of innate scrutiny? Where were all the little red flags? Where were the voices and champions of this work?
Title: existing only in name, titulus
Title: a door into some unseen realm
Title: a wind through the darkness one can feel but not see
Title: what I call myself in a dream, curseword or ambition
Title: the question asked over again by the sea,
asked over again by heartbeat,
by fleeting absence, by flickering heat
Title: thirst without need
What I'm trying to say, Friends and Strangers, is that from a title what I want most is:
a provocative, compelling statement, that does the job of naming the true spirit of the book in all its repetitions, its ambitions, its direct and abstract mirrors.
I love this book by Li Young Lee, but I really have an aversion to its signpost. So much that re-reading it I felt compelled to do what I don't think either Lee or his editor at Norton bothered to do: ask the book for its name.
The phrase itself comes from the final poem of the book, "Station", a wonderful songlike piece that invents the names of places we might begin or end, a poem that demonstrates the kind of care, and even one strategy of Lee's book, that of poetic naming:
"Your attention please.
Train number 9, The Northern Zephyr,
destined for River's End, is now boarding.
All ticketed passengers,
please proceed to the gate marked Evening.
Your attention please. Train number 7,
Leaves Blown By, bound for The Color of Thinking
and Renovated Time, is now departing.
All ticketed passengers may board
behind my eyes."
You can see how playful is this lullaby of a poem. The imaginary and poetic titles of gates and trains and places offer us a human metaphor for distance, memory in time, death and love. Ultimately, it is a great satisfaction that the poem takes its game seriously:
"Please leave your baggage with the attendant
at the window marked: Your Name Sprung from Hiding.
An intrepid perfume is waging our rescue.
You may board at either end of Childhood."
But what works in the context of a ballad, fails as the title of a collection. As a title, this playful phrase reads obliquely, banal, and worse, it is completely forgettable.
Title: a gate upon the heart, a name upon the gate,
a street, a country, a number, a year
When I look at the cover of this book I have no intuition toward the collection, no way to read even the first poem. The book is doing all the work on its own to be itself, to be it's own naming, and it's frustrating. We are immediately displaced. As readers we feel as though we have not been welcomed. It's so unfortunate to be so unnamed.
Here are some titles of poems that at least sound like better names for this collection:
Self-Help for Fellow Refugees
My Favorite Kingdom
Changing Places in the Fire
The Lives of a Voice
Standard Checklist for Amateur Mystics
Some of them are better than others, some feel immediately more marketable, though some feel quaint, not right, but none of them are as bad as what's been printed.
On my own copy of this book I have scratched out Behind My Eyes
and pasted the letters of the poem I think best speaks to the book as a book:
gate: question: ambition: mirror:
My Clothes Lie Folded for the Journey by Li Young Lee
I have done this so that I can love the book more completely, and so that it can belong to me. I have done this because the poem seems to answer the many reflections in the book--it is the book's compliment:
1. Lee's poetic obsession with childhood as a source of delight and mystery
2. Lee's ability to make an epistle of metaphor, the poetry between language and meaning
3. Lee's ability to make the question of childhood the question of culture
4. Lee's ability to write love as one poem, a metaphorical palimpsest that layers the difficult attractions between husband and wife, child and parent, refugee and adopted country, immigrant and home, human memory and nature, God and humankind, waking and dreaming.
In other words, we are each of us a refugee from heaven,
child of Time, an apple fallen from the arms of a dream, mother or father,
we are in this place of waiting, of naming, of praying,
of bewilderment and sadness and joy. Childhood:
Death and love.
We are refugees of heaven. We are home.
In this way, his political poems are love poems are religious poems are poems of memory and song.
The new title, the true title of his book: My Clothes Lie Folded for the Journey, relays the humility of his work, his ability to speak to us quietly and directly, domestically, about the spiritual life, that is, the life of feeling in time. As in the journey that we make as immigrants from one country to another, from Childhood to Death, from time to memory, from love to history, from making the bed in the morning to talking in bed until we fall asleep talking. As in the poet's prayerful readiness to depart, all the while staying with us in his metaphor:
"My Clothes Lie Folded for the Journey"
Dreamed some rain so I could sleep.
Dreamed the wind left-handed
so I could part its mane and enter
the dance that carries the living, the dead, and the unborn
in one momentum through the trillion gates.
Dreamed a man and a woman
in different attitudes of meeting and parting
so I could tell the time,
the periods of the sun,
and which face my heart showed,
and which it displayed to a hidden fold.
Dreamed the world an open book of traces
anyone could read who know the language of traces.
Dreamed the world is a book. And any page
you pause at find you
where you breathe now,
and you can read the open
secret of who you are. As you read,
the other pages go on turning, falling
through the page before you, the sound of them the waves
of the waters you walk beside
in your other dreams of the world
as story, world as song, world
you dreamed you were not dreaming.
Dreamed my father reading out loud to me,
my mother sewing beside me, singing
a counting song,
so I wouldn't be afraid to turn
from known lights toward the ancestor of the light.
It isn't the best poem of the book, and it doesn't have the best lines of the book. But it does act as a well from which the book's refracted purposes can be drawn. And just listen to what a fabulous, dramatic effect the new name has in relationship to the book's poems. One has only to consider the first poem of the book, My Clothes Lie Folded for the Journey, in which a figure is literally caught in a posture between light and dark, considering his own existence, a kind of ars poetica in which the speaker must translate one darkness from another: mind from world: poetry from experience:
"In His Own Shadow"
He is seated in the first darkness
of his body sitting in the lighter dark
of the room,
the greater light of day behind him,
beyond the windows, where
Time is the country.
His body throws two shadows:
One onto the table
and the piece of paper before him,
and one onto his mind.
ONe makes it difficult for him to see
the words he's written and crossed out
on the paper. The other
keeps him from recognizing
another master than Death. He squints.
He reads, Does the first light hide
inside the first dark?
He reads: While all bodies share
the same fate, all voices do not.
What I'm saying, Friends and Strangers, is that I can't recommend this book enough.
Steal it if you can, but scratch out that terrible title (shame to his editor!)
and write in for him its true name.
. . . . . . . .