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The City in Which I Love You (Li-Young Lee)

February 9, 2010

This collection has an interesting structure. The book is divided into five parts, and it’s a palindrome (Parts I and V have 1 poem, Parts II and IV have 6 poems, and Part III has 2 poems). Parts I and V seem to be “bookends” in that they both appear to be narrated from “the present” and kind of ease the reader into and out of the collection. Part III is a kind of turning point, shifting away from the boyhood of Part II by focusing on loss and being lost, separation from family, the confusion of a new place. This section sets up Part IV nicely because the move from those issues to adult relationships in Part IV is made smoother by the title poem.

Structure aside, form is heavily influenced by the Bible (as is content, to a certain extent). This is somewhat obvious if you just skim the contents, as many of the titles are fairly explicit references…but it’s also done in a subtle way. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not on familiar terms with the Bible. What little I’ve read comes from undergrad courses, but I think its influence in Lee’s poems is strong enough that you can catch on without being intimately acquainted with the Bible. For example, the title poem begins with Song of Songs 3:2 (other parts of Song of Songs are referenced in “Furious Versions”…something I just discovered when I looked up Song of Songs 3:2 to make sure it was a real part of the Bible) and from there, Lee’s poem is a continuation of this premise. In other words, the Biblical passage is not simply an epigraph, it’s the beginning of the poem. Many of the poems feel like they have a cadence that matches/imitates the rhythm of Biblical verses. Of course, I feel unable to take this line of reasoning any further since I really can’t base it on concrete knowledge of the Bible.

Moving on, one of the most prominent motifs in the collection is the father-son relationship. Even in Part IV, when the narrator is typically an adult male, this relationship continues to be present (whether it’s central or on the peripheries). More specific than simply a parent-child relationship, Lee explores the father-son relationship from every angle. His poems get at the strength of this bond, as well as the important role it plays throughout a boy’s/man’s life. While Marilyn Chin’s poetry focuses on the mother at the grave expense of the father, Lee’s poetry manages to focus on the father without compromising the mother/wife. She’s not portrayed negatively, she’s just not in the spotlight. He’s much more generous with his women than Chin is with her men, but he’s significantly less interested in them as well.

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