Dec 17 2012

Li-Young Lee – Nativity

Published by at 9:20 am under Poetry

by Li-Young Lee

In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.

How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?

Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,

this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,

just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,

each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

— from Book of My Nights, by Li-Young Lee

/ Photo by giovanni_giusti /

How about another poem for the Christmas season today?

Maybe we should first ask, just what does this poem have to do with the Nativity anyway? What does it have to do with the traditional scene of the Christ child lying in a manger?

The poem starts with a question asked in the dark by a child: What is the world? The responses he gets are beautiful and soothing, but also fleeting. There is something haunting about asking such a question in the darkness.

So, back to the Nativity. In the Nativity, we discover the pure spark of light that is the Christ child, surrounded by the vast emptiness of the night. The Nativity is an image of light in the darkness. A small child, vulnerable, humble, poor, a tiny point of existence, surrounded by the immensity of the night… but with the promise that the light will increase until it floods the world with its light. (It’s no accident that Christmas occurs near the Winter Solstice, when the world is plunged in darkness and awaits the rebirth of the sun.)

Li-Young Lee, asking his question into the night, feels that smallness. The boy first asking the question is small, the man grown feels small too. Even the question itself seems ready to be swallowed up in the dark. But it isn’t. The question persists. It persists and grows and shines.

The question is alchemical. It causes the child to become aware of existence. As he grows, he notices the process of coagula et solve of existence, the way life both gathers together and then dissolves. He discovers “earth and duration,” but also the “immense good-bye.” Though they seem opposites, one flows into the other. And from their living, dynamic tension, the mind is stretched open. And the heart, broken and warmed, broken and warmed, it too opens.

That question — What is the world? — haunting the nights and the years, working its quiet alchemy, becomes an invitation and a challenge in the awareness, coaxing us to make of the heart the true manger:

each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

Li-Young Lee, Li-Young Lee poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Li-Young Lee

US (1957 – )
Secular or Eclectic

Li-Young Lee has a fascinating family history. Lee’s maternal grandfather was the first president of the Republic of China. His father, however, came from a family of businessmen and gangsters. During the Chinese Civil War, Lee’s father was attached to a nationalist general who switched sides, which resulted in Dr. Lee becoming the personal physician to Mao Tse-tung for a brief time.

Li-Young Lee was born after the war when his family had moved to Indonesia. While Lee was still a toddler, his father was jailed for political reasons for nearly two years. When he was eventually released, the family moved about for a while. In Hong Kong Lee’s father became a hugely successful evangelical preacher and businessman.

Lee’s father was an emotional man and, after an argument, he dropped everything and left with his family, finally settling in the United States, where Dr. Lee became the minister of a small church in Pennsylvania.

Li-Young Lee grew up in the US and studied at the University of Pittsburgh. He currently lives in Chicago.

More poetry by Li-Young Lee

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Li-Young Lee – Nativity”

  1. jim carlinon 17 Dec 2012 at 2:41 pm

    flower in the crannied wall-tennison
    the first poem my dad read to me as he
    emerged from a 2 1/2 yr psychotic break
    started the real questioning

  2. bharation 17 Dec 2012 at 11:24 pm

    Poems give the reader as much as the read-er is read-y for.
    What a poem pours into me depends on how much I as the reader open up.
    We ‘poetry chaikhanis’ love, and wait for, and are inspired by Ivan’s deep meditative musings so lucidly and generously shared with us.

  3. rena navonon 17 Dec 2012 at 11:25 pm

    I will follow Jim’s startling remark with another than begins in the ducts rather than the head. Reading this poem brought a tear to my eye and a shiver in the arms working these cold, morning computer buttons. I am in awe of the simple and in love with childhood that precedes our unprotected lives we have to live each of us alone.

    A lovely way to begin a lonely day. Rena

  4. rena navonon 17 Dec 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Returning to Ivan’s message, I learned the author, as did I, lived in Pennsylvania and studied at the U. of Pittsburgh. What I did because of geography, he did out of choice and verifies my fortunate beginnings.

  5. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 18 Dec 2012 at 6:38 am

    Your thoughts confirmed my glimpse of this beautiful poem–Nativity- which deepens on each reading… thank you.
    I am happy to be on this mailing list.
    Blessings as we grow to know the world within the World.

  6. Pegon 18 Dec 2012 at 9:13 am

    This poem is so appropriate for me. I am asking myself if I have entered my heart far enough, deep enough.

    each must make a safe place of his heart,
    before so strange and wild a guest
    as God approaches

    This section resonated with me instantly, mostly because I could understand it first. The poem is such a sad and somber tone to it. It doesn’t feel like this young man feels God’s presence very often or that God comes and goes, or maybe its that this young man feels like he is the one doing the reaching for God

    every reaching-out-to overreaches,

    just to remind himself
    out of what little earth and duration,
    out of what immense good-bye

    that God gets to sit back and watch his struggles without God reaching out toward the young man.

    Going deeper into my own process, I believe that the lines where God as visiter is an errant longing of nostalgia to the past untruth we’ve been told by some world religions. It is sometimes easy for my mind to fall back into the untruth because it has endlessly looped in my mind from years and years of entrenchment. It removes me from responsibility and a slave to someone or something else, disempowering me into a helpless child of my past who was taught by those who did not know and by priests who did not tell the Truth. Once the truth is known, then being a helpless child at the mercy of the powers of earth is no longer an issue. One is always connected to the earth and can know when there is an earthquake coming or tornado. One can move to a safer place or work with the earth or weather to lessen the effects so no one is harmed.

    I understand now that God is always with me and I in God. We are never separated by my movements or the planet’s. Whether Jesus was born in an actual manger, I do not know. I do know that the Christ light is within my heart always. It was dimmed for awhile, because of all the false light structures, false myths. The movement from slave to sovereign is the alchemical process to reach the full power of the Christ light. I did not have to go to an intermediary to speak to God, sister, brother or priest. I did have to allow the tension of duality, light and dark, to bring to my awareness to all the things like fear, hatred, pain, hurt, jealousy, pride, guilt, etc. in order for them to all be healed through spiritual alchemy.

    Have I gone into my heart far enough, deep enough? Maybe the better question is: Do I feel safe enough to enter my own heart? Have I built a manger that is soft, safe, and warm enough for my soul?

    Thank you Ivan for your courage in sharing your thoughts. I hope my thoughts are equally as benefitial to you as yours are to me.

    Love and light, Peg

    PS In my comments, Ivan, I do try to be mindful of the reader and how he/she will respond, be hurt by what I say. At times though, I do feel like something has to be said no matter if it will challenge another’s belief system. As much as I may hold another’s feet to the fire, I am holding my feet to the fire and probably longer than I do others. I used to love language more than anything. I feel differently now though. Language is a poor form of communication and one that is now, I believe for me, is in its proper place. Love/light, for which there is no word for, love is an aspect of light, is the best form of communication but has limited connection to language. There is much more going on with language than what I was taught in English class. For instance, is my response coming from love or from a place of wanting to cause someone else pain. I would never purposefully cause someone hurt and pain. However, if by accident (not intentioned) I do, I would want to know so I could apologize and/or explain further what I meant by my writings as language alone cannot fully capture at times the energy behind the physical manifestation of language.

    For example, the feminine has been so repressed within our culture and language that in order for all of us to break out of the stagnant energy of that sometimes more direct language needs to be used to wake folks up to word choice. Our apathy to engage our minds to overcome this is a hindrance. I am reminded occassionally of this in my speaking with others.

    I appreciate your insistance on the spiritual alchemical process throughout your writings and is to be commended. This helps my mind to remain out of its spiritual stagnation. Maybe this is selfish by all the work I have done, kundalini I endured, the subsequent illness as my body had to adapt to the higher light flooding my body and brain, I do not desire to fall back now to a lower brain functioning.

    Again, thank you. I do read through all of your work and allow it to strike up an interal conversation. Although I do believe that in the future we will know that our inner conversations we have with others is actually happening within our consciousness field. I also bought your book and am currently enjoying your poetry.

  7. ebrahimon 19 Dec 2012 at 2:07 am

    dear peg, in the spirit of truth, which is after all in being frank an honest, i implore you to to meditate on these words said by a saint, “your existence is a great wrong that cannot be measured.” this includes positive as well as negative existence. perhaps if you forego dimensions you might find of yourself greater than what is inexpressible. i only say this out of care and concern as we each are guardians over the other and perhaps are able to shed a light on an affair looking from outside of it. it is said that words are the expressions of the soul without which expressions, states would remain hidden and so possible cure not revealed. the whole body of a person is an ‘i’, and i is an expression of the truth even when falsely expressed by the tongue of man.

    love sincerely

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