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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 to be?

Lee is nothing if not intense. He has been mainlining adrenalin, I think. His emotional presence makes him seem larger than his taut five feet, eleven inches. He inclines his tightly wound body forward as he talks. And his sentences fracture under the weight of his meaning as he blunders forward, trying and discarding phrases until he finds one that works, speaks for him. Even then, one senses his frustration with language.

Actually, Lee doesn't want to make language work for him. He wants to work for language-or Language. The Logos, the Divine Word, must speak, and he must let it use his voice.

I have a problem with using language to convey information. Something in me finds that repulsive because I feel as if that's using . . .

Lee falls silent for a moment, and tries again:

I happen to think that language was given to us. I don't think God gave us language in order to convey information only. That's a secondary thing. I feel as if language was given to us in order to uncover the face of this Greater Consciousness.

There he goes again, I think. I had asked him why he hadn't more fully told the story of his family's harrowing escape from the Indonesian dictator Sukarno and of their cinematically rich rescue at sea. And he turned the conversation toward language as a gift of God and as a tool to uncover the Greater Consciousness.

So I surrender to this agenda. I, whose job description demands I labor in the swap meet of American religion, searching for the substance among the schlock; I, who would love to talk about the utterly profane commonplace, surrender to this poet's sacred agenda. So, we'll talk about the spirituality of language and the mysticism of writing.

Writing faster than he can think I want to know about the writing of The Winged Seed, Lee's memoir of a beloved father resisted, of an overwhelming father held at bay. It is an obscure book: a patchwork of family tales, fragmentary childhood impressions, dreams, fantasies, and free-associative writing about seeds, corpses, and excrement. There is no plot, no story line. It is hard at times to know of whom Lee writes-his father, his grandfather, his God, his wife. Narrative sequences dissolve into poetic ruminations. I have heard rumors of this unorthodox book's rather unorthodox birth.

Some writers have tried drugs to alter their perspectives, I tell Lee. Some have worked in a perpetual alcoholic haze. Some get high in other ways. But, I say, I have heard you tried to write The Winged Seed in a state of exhaustion.

I did think that if I could sit and write the thing in one night, write at great speed so that I could get past my own thinking . . .

Lee stops, backs up, and tries again:

My own rational thinking is an obstacle to this [mystical] union I want to achieve. I think union is not rational. It's something greater. So one of the ways for me to outwit myself was to write, to write faster than I could think.

Lee says he tried writing the book in one night and could not do it. But he managed to get up to about 200 pages in three nights.

So every week, he says, I would have a new book, because I'd sit down and write the thing and sit down and write the thing. And eventually the editor picked a version-the one with the most narrative and the one that's most sellable.

Mystical union is what writing is all about for Lee. He wants "to achieve union with God in the word, in the sentence." Sometimes he does that by writing all night, writing himself into a state of exhaustion; sometimes by writing faster than he can think; but always by getting out of the way of the Word.

Much of the intent, for me, of writing is to extinguish the personal will and let some greater, Impersonal Will, and not me, inhabit the sentence.

That was a difficulty in writing an autobiography. It's about me, but there is no me. How does one step out of the way in order to let this greater Impersonal Will step down and write those sentences?

I just read a review the other day. And they said it was a lovely book. But there were sentences in it that didn't make sense to them, . . . sentences I thought were the best in the book. They were the instances in which I stepped out of the way. And I really do feel that it wasn't me writing those sentences.

This thirst for mystical union means Lee is impatient with organized religion-impatient with both the rational Presbyterianism of his minister father's later formal church ties and the more emotional Pentecostalism of his father's early revivalist years.

It's like Emerson's idea that language is fossilized poetry. I feel as if religion is a fossilized state of something else: the desire for union. That's the only thing there is, to my mind: to achieve union.

And in writing this book, I thought, if I don't achieve union in a sentence, then I'm not a writer.

Writing deep to deep

But Lee is a writer-listed as one of Chicago's top authors in a recent issue of Chicago magazine. Actually paid a decent advance by Simon & Schuster and sent on a publicity tour. That, however, is not what makes Lee a real writer in his own eyes.

Lee feels his calling to be a writer is to capture the mythic voice that undergirds the world's fundamental stories. In The Winged Seed, he commented on the difference between the way the Javanese servants his family had when he was a child repeated the local gossip and the way they told the foundational myths of their culture. I asked him about that difference:

It wasn't what the stories were about that I found captivating. It was the quality of the voice one uses in talking about those things.

The telling voice, I keep thinking, precedes the story. There is a great telling going on; there's a great story unfolding, and it involves trees and stars and the Milky Way and us and [here he gestures at our deli lunch] sandwiches. It involves everything. It's a great, great telling. And it's that kind of mythic voice that I found so compelling.

I remember when the servants talked about local gossip there was a kind of familiarity to the voice. But when they talked about these other things, we knew we were in the presence of Something Else; that we weren't listening to the servants talk about it. It was Something Else we were hearing.

When I'm reading the Bible I feel the same, that there's a Greater Voice there. To my mind, the Old Testament stories-although beautiful and compelling and deep-are there so that we can hear the Other Voice.

And it is that voice he tries to imitate. In The Winged Seed, Lee employs biblical metaphors: Sukarno as Pharaoh; his family's escape, the Exodus. His father's deliverance from prison as Peter's miraculous deliverance. And, more deeply, the seed as a symbol of sacrifice and death as path to new life and resurrection. ("Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit," John 12:24.)

But Lee's ambition is to do more than employ biblical metaphors. He wants to write a Bible-kind-of-book.

I know this sounds crazy, Lee says, but the injunction I felt from reading the Bible was not to write a book that alluded to it, but to do what the Bible was doing. There's a quality to the Bible in which Christ speaks to us, deep to deep-not rationally, but deep to deep.

When I read about Christ, I don't feel it's enough to say, I know it now. No, I have to don Christ.

So, I thought, you don the Bible: do it, live in that tradition, write through that tradition. The Bible becomes more a living thing if I write something which is a kind of grandson of it as opposed to a book that merely alludes to it.

And despite Lee's stubborn resistance to his preacher father (as a child, for example, he remained mute and chose not to speak despite his father's persistent prayers for Lee's "healing"), he recognizes the deep way in which his father lives on through him. His writing is thus both a cathartic exploration of their relationship and a tribute.

When I talk to my children, it suddenly dawns on me: those words came right out of my father's mouth. I feel as if I'm him. Even this desire to write something in the manner of the Bible is an affirmation of what my father believed, while at the same time, it's a revision of what he believed, taking what he believed and making it mine.

Yet the struggle continues. As part of their spiritual maturing, all Christians have to sort out how their earthly fathers influence their perception of the heavenly Father and either block access to or clear the way to him. For Lee, the earthly father is a priest, and as a priest-mediator, he stands between, alternately opening and obscuring.

If I can get beyond my personal father, then I can get to the heavenly Father. But my personal father has made himself such a figure that I both have to love him and overthrow him to get to a personal relationship with the heavenly Father, because he seems forever a kind of priest to me-sometimes a terrifying priest and sometimes a loving priest. But he's in between me and the heavenly Father. Writing for me is a way to get through him and beyond him.

Writing toward unknowing

As we talked about his use of dream material in The Winged Seed, Lee revealed a cultural clue to his metaphysic, which may explain why this conversation was dominated by the spiritual:

There's something backward about me: I assume the spirit; I question the material. Whereas, with most people, it is the other way around.

This might be because I'm Chinese. When the Chinese say yesterday, they say the day before. And tomorrow is the day behind us. To an American, yesterday is behind you, but to the Chinese it's before you.

We Chinese are backing up into the future because the past is in front of us and the future is behind us. We are backing up into the unknown. We're going into the future blind. This means that everything we see here and now is the past. Well, if this is all past, can we say this table, for example, has any materiality?

The reason I practice meditation is because I believe consciousness may have an even greater materiality than this table. So if we're trying to achieve union through contemplation/meditation, the consciousness that we create through meditation is a very important material. It impacts our lives in ways that are as important as this table or food.

The popularity of Lee's new book is perhaps one more small piece of evidence that the supernatural has returned to our society. Not just in the popular circles that buy angel books and divine their fortunes using angel cards, but in the literary circles that shape high culture.

For a long time, the psychological has been a writer's best material. As we back into the future we may discover that the spiritual is the best material.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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