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DAVID NEFF


Backing Up into the Future

In his 1988 review of Li-Young Lee's Rose (BOA Editions, 1986), David Neff wrote in Christianity Today: "Lee's poetry is a vision of sadness, but it is not an oppressive weight." That volume of poetry, his first, was concerned with sorting out his ambiguous relationship with his father (whose colorful career included being at various times physician to Mao, vice president of an Indonesian medical college, philosopher, linguist, and Presbyterian preacher).

Lee's poetic contributions continued in 1991 with The City in Which I Love You (BOA Editions). But in 1995 he has attracted attention with his first prose offering, The Winged Seed (Simon & Schuster, 205 pp.; $20), which returned to the exploration of his relationship with his father. David Neff and b&c managing editor John Wilson had lunch with Lee and explored what prose writing means to this poet.

As I review the transcript of our interview, I am amazed at the way Li-Young Lee keeps steering our conversation toward matters spiritual.

It goes like this: I ask about the public attention he has gotten for his memoir The Winged Seed, and he talks about the way success can interfere with the spiritual quest. I ask about his living arrangements, recreating a traditional Chinese extended family in his three-floor house on Chicago's north side, and he talks about insulating himself from our spiritually shallow culture. I ask about his father, and he talks about the confusion (or connection) in his mind between his earthly father and the Greater Father. I ask about the eros-charged passages addressed to his wife, and he talks about the way Saint John of the Cross and his favorite Sufi poets addressed God as the Beloved. I even ask about the way excrement seems to be a recurring motif in The Winged Seed, and he talks about wanting to sanctify everything in the world.

Is he courting me, an editor of a religious magazine, with all this talk of spirituality, I wonder. Or is this writer's spiritual quest the intense passion it seems ...

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